With metal spatulas to stir the big pan of hamburger cooking on a gas stove in the commercial kitchen of The Press, Bradley Huber and Gaven Paul were making bierocks.
“We’ve got ground beef, onions, cabbage and salt and pepper,” said Paul, an NCKTech culinary arts student from Lindsborg.
“You start with the onions and cabbage first,” Paul said, “then right when everything looks translucent and homogenized, you put in the ground beef, right when things are really fragrant.”
Monday was officially Day One of the students making bierocks, which go on sale Friday for the annual Hays Volga-German Oktoberfest in Municipal Park on south Main Street.
Each day this week, the half-dozen culinary students are making a total of 2,000 bierocks, as well as 2,000 traditional German spitzbuben cookies, bratwurst and green bean dumpling soup.
The finished product all goes on sale Friday morning, starting at 11 a.m., from the NCKTech Oktoberfest drive-thru set up across from Municipal Park, said Philip Kuhn, head chef and owner of The Press, and department chair and instructor of the culinary program.
Business management students advertised the food sale a couple weeks ago by handing out flyers around town. On Friday, those students will work the drive-thru, take orders, handle sales transactions and fill orders. Proceeds go for scholarships, program equipment and ingredients.
“Oh yes, we sell out,” Kuhn said. “We already have 700 bierocks pre-ordered, and at the park we’re sold out every year in a matter of hours.”
Culinary students at the one-year program so far this year have focused on basic knife skills, kitchen tools, safety, sanitation, flavor profiles, spices and herbs, Kuhn said.
This is NCK’s fourth year doing Oktoberfest. The first year students made 550 bierocks, and have raised that by 250 to 300 each year since.
“Whether we admit it or not, we’re all happy to be doing this event,” said Paul, stirring the cooking meat on Monday morning. “This is actually cooking, it’s fresh meat, good quality ingredients, and we put care into it because this is our life.”
Paul and Huber both gave a long pause when asked if they’ve ever eaten bierocks.
“From my school cafeteria,” answered Huber. “So not really.”
“I have once,” agreed Paul. “A friend of my mom made them, but she doesn’t put cabbage or onion in them, just meat and cheese.”
Why do some cooks use cabbage and others use sauerkraut?
“It depends on how fresh you want it,” Paul said. “With cabbage, you get more of a crunch, there’s the crispiness.”
Strolling past the stove, Kuhn added his professional opinion: “Plus you don’t get that vinegar trace either.”
The recipe the students are using is one that Kuhn formulated himself over the years. He’s taught the program for the past six years, when he relocated it from the NCKTech Beloit campus to Hays.
“There are some spices and herbs that go into it that we don’t tell,” he said, acknowledging secret ingredients. “It’s not just about the ingredients though, it’s also about the cooking process too.”
For the bun to wrap the meat, Kuhn prefers a basic yeast dough, rather than a sweet one some cooks like. And before popping them in the oven, each bierock gets an egg wash to give it a sheen.
When baked, they are brushed with butter, which the egg wash keeps from soaking in.
“My dad likes to freeze them,” Kuhn said. “The butter is a fat, so it makes it easy to reheat.”
Amy Nguyen, Hays, was one of four students chopping cabbage Monday morning. Also a senior at The Learning Center of Ellis County, a program of Hays USD 489, Nguyen is thinking she’d like to be a pastry chef and bake for a living.
“I like to just sometimes bake stuff for people,” Nguyen said. “The process is calming and I love the smell of pastries. I like to make cakes and cupcakes from scratch.”
Her favorite dish is a cheesecake cupcake with cherries on top.
“I enjoy making that with my boyfriend because it’s like a bonding thing,” she said, then laughed. “It seems like he’s enjoying it, but he’s probably just doing it to make me happy.”
A courtesy clerk at Dillon’s when she’s not in school, Nguyen said she’s interested in learning how to make icing and decorate pastries.
“I’m very excited to learn how to make cakes. I heard we get to make marble cake, even though I’m not interested so much in the cake itself, but the glaze,” she said. “It looks very shiny and pretty.”
Russel Villano, Grainfield, is a cook in the Kansas Army National Guard based in Hays, and joined the culinary program to learn more. Bierocks are new to him and last Friday was his first time cutting up cabbage.
“I had one once, but I really don’t remember what it tasted like,” Villano said. “I think I liked it; I really want to try one.”
While the others made bierocks, Hannah Dorris, Russell, rolled out dough for biscuits and gravy from scratch for the culinary crew’s Monday morning breakfast together.
“My mom and grandma have always made everything from scratch, so from garden to table,” Dorris said. “So I’ve always been into it since I was really little.”
She likes making Italian food, her favorite being caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Employed at McDonald’s now, she hopes to be a personal chef. It will help that she and the other NCKTech students last week took ServSafe, the food safety exam of the National Restaurant Association.
“I think I passed it,” she said. “I’m pretty confident I did.”
Huber grew up in Leoti and learned cooking from his mom. “Cooking’s always come really natural for me,” he said. “I want to be a personal chef in New York. I like a lot of Japanese foods and I like Italian.”
A cook at Pizza Hut, Huber said one of his Italian dishes is chicken alfredo.
As for his future, Paul says: “I just want to cook for people. Cooking’s always been an escape for me. I like the joy, the being able to sit down with family and enjoy each dish.”
He’s been cooking since he was about 10, learning from his grandma, but also from YouTube videos and TV cooking shows.
“Both of my parents are disabled, and we lived out in the country, so I had the opportunity to cook a lot,” Paul said. “We had chickens and I used fresh eggs and learned to butcher chickens.”
Students in the NCK program are a close-knit group, he said.
“One thing about the culinary students, we all care about each other,” said Paul. “We’re all a little bit weird, we’re all a little bit quirky.”
“Yeah,” agreed Huber. “We all fit in finally.”