By Josette Keelor
WOODSTOCK -- Mel Shtanko has been cooking for almost a third of his life, but unlike some 22-year-olds he isn't looking to head out into the world.
He's been there, and done that. Then he returned home to Edinburg to do what he loves best -- serve up country cooking. Now an assistant chef at Shaffer's Catering, Barbecue and Deli in Woodstock, he and owner George Shaffer plan to introduce healthier options to the daily menu and catering menus.
"My favorite style, I guess you can say, is country cooking," Shtanko said. "People put their soul into it."
"That's probably one of the main reasons I came back here is because of the cuisine."
While at Central High School in Woodstock, Shtanko trained in the culinary program at Triplett Tech for two years and cooked at Shaffer's for four years. Then, he joined the Marines.
At 18 he left for Japan, working as a food service specialist for a little more than two years.
"We got to literally learn Japanese cuisine standing right next to authentic Japanese chefs," he said. "It was very interesting, something that a lot of people don't get an opportunity to do."
"By going to Korea, The Philippines, trying all sorts of street foods, you know, seeing different cultures, the way people cook and how they live -- that really motivated me to stick with cooking because of how interesting it was," he said.
He left the Marines eight months early through the Voluntary Early Release Program, and took a job in Miami to study the effects cultural diversity can have on food.
"What I've learned throughout all cooking is simplicity," he said.
In a fine dining restaurant on Ocean Drive in South Beach, he worked alongside chefs that have trained with the best.
"Having people like that, spending 10 hours a day with them, every single day, you know, you learn a lot," Shtanko said.
"You learn how to really cook, not just big batch cooking or cooking in the Marines, you learn how to really cook from scratch."
Now back at Shaffer's, which on its website www.shafferscatering.com boasts food for all occasions, Shtanko said he mainly uses his experience when planning catering menus.
According to Shaffer, "He's very versatile."
"We're staying true to our roots, but we're also expanding our selection so we can cater to a wider audience," Shaffer said.
For the salad bar and lunch specials available Monday to Friday, Shaffer plans to stick with what's working -- what he described as comfort food -- but he plans to include healthier ingredients when he can, feature local produce from Shenandoah Farm in Mount Jackson and substitute heart-healthy oils for cheaper, over-processed ones.
The goal, he said, is "to upgrade our menus to be healthier."
Shtanko said he also prefers food close to its source.
"I like to work with a lot of wild game, wild mushrooms, you know things that come from nature," Shtanko said.
"To me that's important," he said. "The food supply these days are not exactly healthy. It's full of chemicals, to say the least."
"Cooking goes back to our roots as human beings, to how we evolved."
Contact Shaffer's Catering, Barbecue and Deli at 540-459-3744 or at www.shafferscatering.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org