LaRue: Rising chef trucks her way to Yellowstone kitchen

larry.larue@thenewstribune.comApril 12, 2014 

Bates Technical College grad Diane Cooper, a former long-haul trucker, is building a career in the food industry.

LARRY LARUE/STAFF WRITER

It wasn’t a midlife crisis that pushed Diane Cooper toward a career change; it was a patch of ice in Iowa.

Once a school bus driver, Cooper moved to bigger vehicles and became a long-haul trucker in the mid-’90s, a career that took her through every state in the continental United States.

“I did that until 2009, when I got out of my truck in Iowa, slipped on ice and broke my left wrist,” she said. “I knew then it was time for something else.”

Though she lived in Oregon, most of her family, including her two grown children, lived in Washington. She moved in with her brother in Kent and began mapping out her future.

“I had a degree as an administrative medical assistant, but my job search wasn’t going anywhere,” she said. “And it wasn’t a career that thrilled me.”

So what, then?

“I started looking at culinary art school and checking out colleges,” Cooper said. “When I walked into Bates, everyone I spoke to was so encouraging it just felt good.”

That was Bates Technical College in Tacoma, where two chefs teach students all aspects of running a kitchen, from running a deli counter to plating fine cuisine.

Cooper flourished.

“My cooking at home had been on a Hamburger Helper level. I liked gravy, not sauces,” she said with a laugh. “My first plated meal in school was salmon with beurre blanc.”

Last summer, the chefs told the class about a summer opportunity working at one of the lodge restaurants inside Yellowstone National Park. Cooper was the only student who applied and wound up living in a cabin for months.

This year, she was asked back — to fill the role of sous chef.

For those who don’t watch any of the dozens of cooking shows on cable television, “sous” is French for “under.” A sous chef is under the executive chef in the chain of command.

It’s no minor position.

“I will have 10 cooks, 29 kitchen workers and 12 pastry cooks working under me,” Cooper said. “I’ll have spent time at Bates doing everything they will be asked to do.”

Cooper left Friday and won’t be back until late September when most of the park’s lodges and restaurants close for several months.

It isn’t the most stable job, but it has its perks.

“I’d never been to Yellowstone National Park before last summer, so I spent a lot of my free time exploring it. I saw moose, bear, elk, bison, fox, coyotes,” she said.

And learned in the kitchen how to make elk and bison stew.

The most difficult aspect of her kitchen work last summer? Remembering to say “Yes, Chef” all the time.

“I had business cards made with my name and number and, on the back, they all said ‘Yes, Chef,’” Cooper said. “In Yellowstone, my chef pinned it on the door.”

Cooper has completed her two-year degree at Bates. Eventually, she would like to have her own catering company in the Tacoma area, complete with a 28-foot mobile kitchen.

No, she doesn’t plan on cooking burgers; she’d like to cater events and have a full kitchen ready to park onsite and churn out fine food. That doesn’t mean only full meals.

“What do I do best? In English, it’s ‘little bits.’ In French, it’s amuse bouche. I used to do all these small foods for my mom’s Christmas parties,” Cooper said. “It’s an art, and preparing a lot of little bits, plating and serving them? I love that.”

Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from a long-haul trucker. But Cooper, who will turn 50 next week, has left that career behind.

“Not only did I change careers, I excelled. I have a 4.0 grade point average. I’m a much better student at this age than I was when I was younger,” she said. “I’ve opened so many doors for myself. I have far more self esteem.”

On her final exam, a four-course meal for four or five people, she scored a 92 — the second highest ever at Bates.

Any advice for other 40-somethings considering a major career switch?

“Find something you love, bring your life experience with you, and go after it.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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