Standing in the test kitchen at Manna Culinary Arts, McKenzie Miller pauses and looks around. The room is brightly lit and well-equipped; gleaming metal prep tables, a pair of giant ovens and hundreds of cooking utensils are all carefully sorted and arranged.
In the middle are two giant cooking textbooks.
The kitchen is also a classroom. Each day, eight students plan and prepare a full meal as part of a program that seeks to train them for work in the culinary industry and teach life skills.
Miller runs Manna’s culinary program, started in 2014 in partnership with Southwest Community College. Manna took over the program as a means to help their clients get back on their feet and teach in-depth cooking methods.
This mission aligns perfectly with Miller’s passions.
“I love to cook and I love to help people,” she said. “The two of them go together quite nicely.”
Manna’s 16-week program is a reflection of her own training in classic French cooking.
“We start in knife skills, then we go to stocks, learn all the mother sauces, soups, then to all the cooking methods,” she said. Plate composition, baking and regional cuisine are taught along the way.
To graduate, students devise their own recipes and a restaurant-style game plan, which allows them to discover their own cooking style and adapt to the pressure of cranking out dishes on deadline.
They’re also taught life skills like resume writing and job interviewing. It’s part of Manna’s mission to give them both career skills and a means to gain independence. Upon graduation, they receive a certificate and a state-recognized Food Handlers Certificate.
Under Miller’s tutelage, the program has graduated more than 100 students, some of whom are still working in Durango kitchens. Several have gone on to culinary schools.
Miller spoke with obvious pride at this accomplishment. For her, it’s the culmination of a nearly lifelong interest.
“I started being interested in cooking when I was about 4 years old,” Miller said. “I watched cooking shows, not cartoons.”
Miller is a 2008 graduate of the Culinary Institute. Before coming to Manna, she worked at Lost Dog, Kennebec Cafe and Sky Ute Casino.
McKenzie Miller, like most professionally-trained chefs, is proud of her accomplishments. But what does she like to cook at home? First, she’d like you to know that she doesn’t use recipes. But she did profess a particular love for wild game, Italian cuisine, and braises and sauces.
“I like to be creative and play with different flavors that I think would go well together. I make a really good shrimp scampi. And a rolled flank steak with a thyme demi-glace stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and goat cheese.
“My friends and family love my creativity and they’re excited to see what I come up with.”
Miller admitted that she wants to allow for more experimentation in her home cooking. Particularly, she wants to try more Middle Eastern cooking, including using a tagine, an earthenware pot used in North Africa and the Middle East. Also on the list is charcuterie and fermenting and pickling.
“I’d like to get out of my comfort zone. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut of things that taste good.”
As for seasonings and spices, she insisted that she couldn’t live without any of them.
“My spice cabinet is full of things ranging from Chinese five-spice powder all the way down to Tony’s Cajun Seasoning.”
Other must-haves are garam masala, saffron and juniper berries. But there’s two, in particular, she can’t do without.
“A lot of people don’t realize that salt and pepper help enhance the flavor of anything that you’re making.”
Miller gathers inspiration from a number of sources, citing Paul Bucose, Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child as primary influences, along with Durango chefs Sean Clark at El Moro and Steamworks, Neil Drysdale at Mahogany Grille and Ryan Lowe from Ore House.
“I like talking with them and seeing what they come up with. And I love going to their restaurants.”
She added, “I think everybody has their strengths and I feel that, as a chef, we can all learn from each other.”
Miller is quick to redirect the focus of the interview back to the Manna Culinary Arts Program.
“My goal is to have the restaurant community here in Durango know that the students that come out of my program are reliable, that they have skills, and that they can depend on them.”
Miller looks around the test kitchen with a smile.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had.”