A tasty sweet potato hash recipe from DCSD’s Executive Chef, plus Thanksgiving Tips!
CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County School District’s new executive chef, Ryan Repplinger, says that he looks forward to whipping up a Thanksgiving feast every year.
“In the past, I used to do a massive Thanksgiving dinner. I would have 20 people over to the house. I kind of went a little nuts,” Repplinger admitted.
Before moving to Colorado five years ago, he would begin preparations for the feast at the beginning of November.
“My wife would be like, ‘do we really need 10 different desserts?’” Repplinger recalled with a laugh.
After moving to Colorado, he channeled much of that energy to helping others. While he still makes a few dishes for Thanksgiving dinner with friends, afterwards the group heads downtown to serve the homeless.
“My friends and I make about 75 to 100 box lunches. It’s a full Thanksgiving meal that I make from scratch, including turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce. We do pumpkin pie and everything,” Repplinger said. “We take them out to Denver and hand them out to those who do not go to the shelters for dinner.”
Chef Ryan’s Sweet Potato Hash
4 medium sweet potatoes, diced and peeled
½ pound of bacon, diced
2 granny smith apples, diced (no need to peel)
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme
1 small onion, diced
½ stick of butter (2 ounces)
½ cup of toasted and ground hazel nuts
On medium heat, cook bacon in pan until crispy
Pull bacon out
Put onions in leftover bacon fat, sauté until translucent
Add sweet potatoes, cook until soft
Add in apples and butter and thyme and stir
Cook for about 5 minutes
Add toasted hazel nuts and crispy bacon on top for garnish
As you might be able to tell, Repplinger is in his element when he’s cooking for the masses, something that comes from years of experience.
“I’ve worked in kitchens since I was 16 years old,” Repplinger said. “I’ve been a sous chef or an executive chef for the past 18 years.”
This is his fourth year at DCSD. Before becoming the executive chef he served as the kitchen manager at Soaring Hawk Elementary School and Castle Rock Middle School, where he learned about the persnickety tastes of students.
“In a restaurant you are more worried about having this ingredient or that ingredient. Kids don’t have palates like that. As a general rule, they like pizza and chicken nuggets. There is really not a lot we can do about that,” Repplinger said. “We are going to introduce other things and see if we can get them to try different things, but we are not going to change their complete view on food. That is really going to come from home.”
Before, in Chicago, he worked for Levy Restaurants, serving the fans in the club section and luxury suites at U.S. Cellular Field, as well as the Chicago White Sox and their opponents.
Thanksgiving Cooking Tips
We asked Chef Ryan to help provide us some advice for the DCSD community as we prepare our Thanksgiving feasts.
1. Thaw your turkey early
2. Make a list, check it twice
3. Do what you can ahead of time
4. Cook legs & thighs separately
“The players are just as picky [as our kids] and most of them just want chicken tenders too,” Repplinger said with a laugh.
One of his pickiest clients? The Queen of England, during her visit to the Kentucky Derby in 2007.
“She wanted classic English high tea, so we were making cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches with the crust cut off,” Repplinger said.
During the derby, Repplinger and his colleagues served approximately 400,000 people in the matter of two days, giving him a lot of insight into preparing for the challenges faced by DCSD Nutrition Services staff.
“[In order to have the freshest food], we want them to batch cook just before the kids come in, but they have to plan to serve over seven lunches,” Repplinger explained. “They need to be able to space out their stuff, so they don’t have hamburgers and pizzas sitting in a warmer for two hours. We do not want that.”
As executive chef, he works to take as much of the guess work out of the process as he can, by ensuring that kitchen staff have meals that can be easily scaled to match the number of students they serve, in directions that are easy to read. Then he works to train and assist them wherever he can.
He recognizes while in his past life he could rely on line cooks with years of experience, many Nutrition Services employees are moms who have never been trained in the culinary arts.
“Many of them do not have a lot of experience. They need assistance in understanding how to cook for a large number of kids on a daily basis and over a time frame,” Repplinger said. “I try to be in the schools, with the managers, to help them to be more efficient and to improve their practices.”
What they may not have in culinary experience, Repplinger says they make up with heart.
“They love kids,” Repplinger said. “In the end, it’s far more important that we are taking care of the kids and caring about what their experience is when they come into the cafeteria.”