"No! Leave the fat. Argentinean beef is amazing," Michelle Roetzer cries.

Students wrapping up their final semester in the Culinary Arts Program at Santa Fe Community College have grown accustomed to Chef Instructor Roetzer's reverence for rendered animal fats.

This week, the class hunkers down for its final showdown: an Iron Chef-style battle of the boards. The class is a motley crew, an International House of Hedonism, replete with a woman who named her dog Hobey (after the ubiquitous Hobart mixer of commercial kitchens) and a couple who met and fell in love during the course of the two-year program, and are soon getting married.
The class is International Cuisine and, last week, the students were all about tasting cheese.

"I wanted the students to taste the difference between a Blue Castello, which is a triple crème from Denmark, and Stilton, which is a single crème from England," Roetzer tells SFR during a class visit.

The class made paneer and mozzarella from scratch. There was goat cheese en croûte, a Caprese salad and fresh blue cheese dressing. Other cheeses included Emmenthaler from Switzerland and Taleggio from Italy.

"Hey, nobody touch this roasting pan back here; I want this beef fat," Roetzer tells her students.

"Really? You want fat?" a student asks with sarcastic incredulity.

"Yeah, go figure," Roetzer laughs, as she swiftly lifts a loaded stockpot onto a burner.

"We fry as many different fats as we can find; duck fat, turkey fat, pork fat, beef fat," she explains.

Roetzer's obsession does not fall on deaf ears; the theme of today's class is Caribbean food and, halfway through the class, someone presents a huge steel bowl full of hot fried pork bones, doused liberally with kosher salt, for snacking; the bones are what was left after the meat for jerk pork had been stripped from them. Students know better than to let anything go to waste in this kitchen. Across the room, the broth left from poached cod is strained and contemplated upon for later use.

The jerk marinade is spicy; Roetzer tastes some and then remembers that she has forgotten to bring in a few bags of homegrown jalapeño and habaneros, a dilemma that leads to a discussion about the best way to handle hot peppers and evolves into a story about foolhardy chefs, Scoville units and mishandled body parts.

All along, Roetzer is checking and tasting and testing. Indeed, it's no surprise Roetzer's students vie for her attention. She has all the hallmarks of a great teacher: warm but reserved, firm but approachable, energetic but candid. She also seems to have invisible antennae that can sense underseasoned food from at least 20 feet away.

"One question I always ask my kids is, 'How do you cook without salt and pepper?'" she says. "The answer is, you don't."

She passes around a brick of tamarind paste for everyone to taste. "Curl your fingers under," she warns a student who is chopping onions. "I can't wait for those fish fritters."

The fish fritters are being fried in small batches so that everyone can taste a few while they're hot. As they prep, students watch the fritters crisping and ponder aloud what condiment, if any, to serve alongside them. A plate of hot fritters is passed around. They are indescribably good and have to be pried out of my hands. The verdict: no condiments necessary.

Toward the end of class, Roetzer and a student are huddled near the walk-in refrigerator tasting a coconut custard base that will be churned into ice cream.

"What do you think it needs? Remember, a long finish always means it needs salt or acid," Roetzer says.

The students suggests orange juice. "That's too sweet," Roetzer says. "We'll need something sharper." She hands over a Microplane zester and the student marches off in search of a lime.

Roetzer considers food a neutral, apolitical way of developing insight into how other people live, eat and derive pleasure. She begins most classes with a lecture about the pertinent region of the day's history and anthropology, as well as its cultural and geographical landscape.

This week, students are separated into three teams of four students each for the cook-off. The wild cards are chosen from a black box; they contain the names of the three countries where the food prepared must be from (for example, Greece, Japan and Brazil). Each team is designated one country, and has three hours to prepare a four-course meal that includes a starter, a soup or salad, a main dish and a dessert. At judging, seven official judges (including me) weigh in on scorecards, considering criteria such as presentation, flavor, texture, mouthfeel and seasoning. Everyone who attends is able to taste the dishes, which are passed around as samples. Count on them going quickly.

International Cuisine Cook-Off
2-5 pm Thursday, Oct. 30

Culinary Arts Lab, Santa Fe Community College
6401 Richards Ave.