Rebekah Weis and Jean Scharf were cubing loaves of ciabatta bread at the Fortin Culinary Center on the second floor of the Billings Food Bank on Monday.
“We just busted through those,” Scharf said to Weis as the two Passages Culinary Arts Program students stared at two huge bowls filled with a mountain of bread cubes that will be turned into about 35 gallons of stuffing.
About 20 volunteers, Passages students and Culinary Skills Training Program students were in perpetual motion as they prepared between 800 and 1,000 plates for the Thanksgiving feasts at the Montana Rescue Mission and at the Food Bank.
The event is organized by the philanthropic group Chefs and Cooks of Montana, which is composed of seasoned veterans in the Billings food service industry.
Bread will be combined with some of the 65 gallons of turkey stock. Volunteers were preparing the stock from the 72 turkeys that were being whisked in and out of a bay of ovens. The cooks at the Rescue Mission kitchen were also responsible for cranking out 150 pounds of mashed potatoes.
The pair had no idea how many loaves they had chopped through, but they said it didn’t take long.
“As long as you’ve got good knife skills,” Scharf said. “The process goes quick.”
Knife skills are one of the first units in the culinary program.
Weis ended up with three stitches in her finger when a knife she was learning to use slipped. She hasn’t had any mishaps since.
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From the back of the kitchen where Scharf and Weis were slicing bread, the rest of the kitchen appeared chaotic, but according to Tanner Vinecke, a food broker at Montana Food Service, everyone had an assigned task.
“They all kind of know their way around the kitchen,” he said, as he cleaned turkeys at a record pace.
By early afternoon most of the turkeys had been halved and cooked and an assembly line had been formed to break the birds into pieces for serving on Thanksgiving Day.
Usually the one in the middle of the action, Bill Jensen, the executive chef instructor at the Fortin Culinary Center, was on the sidelines with his students helping run support for the crew. The students’ spirits have been running high since they took home a trophy for most unique food dish — bacon apple pie — during the 2014 Billings Bacon Fest.
They prepped food the day before, replenished supplies Monday and made a hearty lunch of beef stew and potatoes for the crew.
“Beef stew and mashed potatoes is like a Billings staple,” Jensen said.
James Cowie, a chef’s helper at the Montana Rescue Mission and a student at the Fortin culinary program, said he was enjoying helping and watching the pros work.
“Oh man, you’ve got 20 chefs in there,” he said. “These fellows are in there just pouring their hearts out.”