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Joliet Junior College chef Vonhoff to retire after 30 years

Chef Keith Vonhoff demonstrates how to prepare a French baguette for students at Joliet Junior College on Tuesday. Vonhoff is retiring in May after 30 years at the college.
Chef Keith Vonhoff demonstrates how to prepare a French baguette for students at Joliet Junior College on Tuesday. Vonhoff is retiring in May after 30 years at the college.

JOLIET – Joliet Junior College chef Keith Vonhoff chose a culinary career partly to avoid math, or so he thought.

“I found out later how wrong I was,” said Vonhoff, who is retiring after 30 years of teaching and attending the April 25 Spring Gala as a guest. “You need math skills to process recipes, set menu prices and know whether or not you’re making a profit.”

Chef Michael McGreal, culinary arts/hospitality management department chair at JJC, said he will miss Vonhoff – and not because Vonhoff often leaves surprise gourmet lunches in McGreal’s office, such as homemade bratwurst, with every component also homemade from the pastry roll to the sauerkraut and mustard toppings.

“I’ve been to Greece, the Greek islands and downtown Chicago, and no one makes better gyros than Chef Vonhoff,” McGreal said. “I’ll lose 10 pounds when he leaves and my office will no longer smell like a hot dog stand or a rib joint.”

McGreal also enjoyed the daily interaction with Vonhoff, who was instrumental in hiring McGreal, as well as encouraging McGreal to run for department chair. McGreal objected. He had been teaching less than three years and, at 33, was 10 to 30 years younger than the other chefs.

“All of a sudden,” McGreal said, “I was my boss’s boss.”

Vonhoff had been chair of the search committee when McGreal had applied for a JJC instructor position. McGreal recalled a letter from Vonhoff stating that McGreal was one of the finalists for the position and to prepare a one-hour demonstration on fabricating poultry and a one-hour lecture on “the energy nutrients.”

Because “poultry fabrication” ranged from butchering a chicken to preparing a fryer to deboning chicken breasts, McGreal contacted Vonhoff for specifics. Vonhoff, McGreal said, only replied, “Do whatever you want.”

So, McGreal “did a couple fabrication methods” and prepared a meal, complete with extra plates and forks for sampling. Vonhoff, McGreal said, instructed his assistant to throw away the food and then turned to McGreal and told him to begin the lecture.

“There was no break, not even to grab my notes or a sip of water,” McGreal said.

McGreal didn’t know at the time that, because Vonhoff had carefully observed McGreal as he worked – noting any under or overseasoning, mixing or cooking – he didn’t have to waste time by tasting the food.

During McGreal’s 90-minute interview, Vonhoff did not ask McGreal about his teaching methods. Instead, he checked McGreal’s qualifications by quizzing him on the different grades of poultry and how to make pate a choux.

Once hired, McGreal co-taught with Vonhoff, who “didn’t even let me talk.” McGreal now knows Vonhoff was demonstrating his class expectations and how to create “dedicated, committed and focused chefs.” And McGreal often tells that story to students that say, “Chef Vonhoff is being mean to me.”

In 1985, Vonhoff, of Batavia, was just 25 and a divorced parent desiring more time with his 5-year-old son when former JJC president J.D. Ross, then a dean, hired Vonhoff to teach a full-time weekend program. This program allowed culinary arts students to get their associate degree by attending school only on Saturdays and Sundays, Vonhoff said.

During the next five or six years, Vonhoff taught it all, from meat fabrication to pastry, he said. Previously, Vonhoff had worked for various hotels and restaurants. These “either burned down or went out of business ... and that includes a hospital.”

Vonhoff started his culinary career as a dishwasher who loved to eat, so he figured by learning to cook, he could prepare food the way he liked it. Vonhoff’s father had a friend in the catering business who had sent both his sons to the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Since his 1978 graduation, Vonhoff has become certified in the following areas: executive pastry chef, culinary educator, hospitality educator, hotel administration and culinary professional. McGreal said Vonhoff is the only JJC chef with certifications in both culinary and pastry.

Because Vonhoff teaches the first semester courses, as well as sanitation, Vonhoff has influenced 100 percent of JJC’s culinary arts students of the last 30 years, McGreal said.


What: Spring Gala

When: 6 to 10 p.m. April 25

Where: Cafeteria at Joliet Junior College, 1215 Houbolt Road, Joliet

Tickets: $95 per person

Menu: Hors d’oeuvres, sautéed salmon with a bacon thyme crust (first course), cream of asparagus royale (second course), mixed field greens with champagne Dijon vinaigrette (third course), mango lime popsicle (fourth course), beef tenderloin with an onion ash and mushroom farce and Madeira jus (fifth course) and raspberry white chocolate Bavarian with lemon curd and almond cake (sixth course)

Etc: Celebrates scholarship recipients, supports culinary arts faculty and staff. Sponsor a culinary arts graduate to speak by purchasing a separate $95 ticket.

Reserve: Call 815-280-2255

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