The art and science of it, local chef headed to Culinary Institute of America

As students are preparing for graduation this week and making summer plans, Nicholas Stogsdill will be learning the books, cooking and preparing for his next step.

Stogsdill, a soon to be graduate of CMR High School, has been accepted to the Culinary Institute of America and will head to the California campus this fall.

The 18-year-old middle child got into some trouble and for punishment, his parents forced him into their kitchen at Electric City Coffee and Bistro, which they own.

It wasn’t a fun road, getting into the kitchen, Stogsdill said.

“I was thrown into it and found out I enjoyed it,” he said.

But he hasn’t picked a favorite style of cooking or dish just yet.

“The more I’m cooking, the more I don’t know what I like,” he said, but he does make a lot of pasta.

As for getting into the Culinary Institute, the application process was a bit different for Stogsdill.

He didn’t meet the GPA requirement so “I had to really work my butt off,” he said.

His mom, Heidi Reiste, called the admissions office and they liked his application packet and his passion for food, but they needed assurance that he could do well in a college setting.

So Stogsdill took two college courses this year, math and English, through MSU Billings and MSU-GFC.

He passed both classes, but it was challenging to juggle those courses with his high school classes and working at ECC.

Once those classes were done, he had to write an essay on what he’d done to improve himself and how those classes helped in that process.

Stogsdill is graduating June 3 and will be cooking his own graduation dinner at ECC.

“He really wants to do it,” his mom Heidi Reiste said.

He isn’t one to follow recipes and instead likes to experiment and see what works.

“I strive to get people out of their comfort zone,” Stogsdill said of his cooking style.

While he’s perfecting his style, he still remembers one of his failures. It involved marinating duck breast in earl grey tea, orange juice, ginger, red wine and lavender.

The duck was interesting, he said, but the broth? Not so good.

Early on, Stogsdill did a job shadow at Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, where his mom had a friend.

During a 6-hour shift, he had to memorize about seven salads in 30 minutes and make them all.

Reiste said she knew that job shadow was make it or break it for him and by the time his parents picked him up, Stogsdill said, “I knew.”

The kitchen at ECC has been a sort of laboratory where Stogsdill has been able to experiment and gain valuable experience in a working kitchen with other trained chefs.

A Culinary Institute graduate and Great Falls native, Elea Roberts, is working at ECC now and she’s been a resource to Stogsdill.

He said they often do their own challenges in which they both pick some ingredients and then they try to make something out of them.

Though it’s fun what he enjoys doing, there’s a lot of stress in the kitchen.

There was a day when the head evening chef was out sick and Stogsdill got a text that read, “You’re cooking tonight, good luck.”

“It was so much anxiety,” Stogsdill said of that night.

Even just a few weeks ago when the head chef was out, it was chaos in the kitchen. They were out of things, realized ingredients hadn’t been prepped.

“We got our butts kicked,” he said, but valuable lessons were learned and the next day, he and Roberts came in to prep and they’ve learned to avoid repeating the mistakes from that night.

Stogsdill can now run an evening dinner service and his mom, Reiste, said that was a major accomplishment and growth from when he first started in the kitchen.

Those disastrous nights have also been helpful to the head chef in training other kitchen staff so they’re prepared in the event he’s away or out sick, Reiste said.

There’s a lot of planning in the kitchen and chefs juggle a lot of moving parts, but that’s part of the fun.

“In the muck, if you don’t have what you need, you have to improvise,” Stogsdill said. “It’s chaos, but it’s controlled and that’s what makes it interesting.”

But while they’re honing their skills in the kitchen, they still appreciate simple foods and Dairy Queen is a current favorite, Reiste said.

“Because we’re trying to get to this level, people think we don’t like a good burger,” Stogsdill said.

The program at the Culinary Institute is two years and Stogsdill said he’s not sure what he’ll do after that. He’ll be about 20 by the time he’s finished, so he’s considering taking some time off and then finding a wine/beverage course, such as an introduction sommelier class.

In between years, students are required to do externships, where they find a food job for the summer and they have to option to go abroad, but must speak the language of whatever country they chose.

Stogsdill is thinking about learning French during his first year so he can find a job in France, or might go to London.

“I think French cuisine is more of my forte, but we’ll see,” he said.

The newly minted graduate will spend much of the summer learning the business side of the operation at ECC, ordering food and visiting Groundworks Farm to learn about the farming side of their efforts toward farm to table.

While he’s away, ECC will be in the capable hands of owners Heidi and Thad Reiste, and their team.

Heidi Reiste, who grew up on a farm and has been cooking since childhood, said they’ve also hired chefs who’ve studied and Cordon Bleu and their head evening chef is similar to her in that he’s more of a homegrown chef.

“It’s almost like one big family honestly,” Stogsdill said.

Asked what he gets out of cooking, Stogsdill said he likes the art and science of it.

“I like the gratification when people look at your food and don’t want to eat it because it looks like art.”