As assistant professor at Paul Smith's College, Deborah Misik wears quite a few hats in the Hospitality, Resorts and Culinary Management School. Her office is more than a desk and chair; it's an extension of the baking and pastry kitchen that is next to her space. Her desk is spilling over as she uses the college's spring break to grade final papers and stand in as a judge for the BOCES Skills USA Competition.
Deborah returned to the Adirondacks after a lifetime of moving around. Her father had been stationed in the Air Force in Plattsburgh until she was 8 years old, and then the family moved to Alabama. She didn't attend high school in New York but did come back to go to college at SUNY Cobleskill, where she received her culinary degree.
"I have been working in the culinary industry since I was 15," Deborah says. "I had a passion for culinary arts since I was young. I now see the students I teach in college with that same level of passion and know that this is the industry for them.
Deborah Misik at the Paul Smith’s College retail bakery
(Photo — Diane Chase)
Before moving to Saranac Lake, she taught culinary arts to high school BOCES students in the Rochester area.
"During the summer I also did a program for sixth- to eighth-graders so they could get an introduction into culinary arts. Kids of that age group were like sponges. They just wanted to learn.
"I taught them how to do everything on a grill - grill the chicken and veggies. This was during the summer, so I wanted to show them how they could make a meal outside. We also went through some easy pastries."
Some of her students were interested because they saw something on television and thought being a chef would be exciting. Other kids came because their parents wanted them to learn about food and how to cook things different ways. By the end of the session, she had students eating food they had never tried before because they learned how to cook it properly. Part of the program was learning skills while another was about eating habits.
"I always told my students, 'There is no such thing as bad food, only bad cooks. You can make anything taste good; it all depends on how you cook it.'
"Those years at BOCES really allowed me to be a better instructor," she says.
When the opportunity to teach at Paul Smith's presented itself, she took it. She started this past August.
"When I was teaching high school, my students would come back and talk about their college experience," she says. "I found a lot of teaching in high school is a lot about the rules, and I felt I had more to offer on a different level."
She moved here with two children in high school: a senior and a sophomore.
"I thought my daughter, being in her senior year, would drag her feet about the move, but she loves it here," Deborah says. "She has made new friends and only has good things to say. My son loves the area and where we live."
Now entering the spring semester, Deborah is busy with the second-year baking and pastry studies as each student takes a week at the Paul Smith's retail bakery. Her enthusiasm for her students' work shows as she points out that the retail bakery offers real-world experience. Students have to provide certain products that they learned to bake throughout the year, such as cookies, chocolates and cakes. They also learn managerial skills, and Deborah likes to add other experiences as well.
"The current focus is on the retail store for the students, and I am also trying to put some adult-educational opportunities together such as cake decorating, or combine wine tasting with another department," Deborah says. "There is so much happening. We have a two-year baking and pastry program, and are looking to expand the program.
"There are some students that use every opportunity to better their craft. Sometimes I offer fundraisers or extra labs. We have donated product for North Country Life Flight, St. John's Church, even cakes for a cakewalk at Petrova Elementary School. During Winter Carnival there was a Chocolate Festival, so the students did a chocolate purse and chocolate cabinet with an Adirondack look.
"We usually get requests from members of the community looking for some donation. If it fits in the schedule and it is something we can do, then we do our best to help."
Deborah explains that these extra projects help the students by giving them more time to work on perfecting their trade. She admits she does get more students to show up for labs when the requested items are desserts rather than dinner rolls and breads. This is all outside of class, in a fun environment where students appreciate that additional time to decorate. For those passionate about the field, it provides a good opportunity to be visually creative.
When Deborah was at BOCES, one of her students won first place in this statewide Skills USA competition. Similar to "The Iron Chef," these competitors work on a predetermined set of tasks, compete regionally and move on to a state level and then a national level in Kansas City. People from the industry judge the students' work. Deborah had coached numerous years but for the first time she will see herself on the other end, as she will be one of the judges for the regional baking and pastry competition in Albany.
"I am honored and excited to be on this end of it," she says. "How lucky am I?
"I had two students win first place in New York, and I got to go with them while they competed in Kansas City. Now this year someone recommended me to be a judge. Amazing."
She is also part of Paul Smith's annual Cooking/Baking for Scholarships competition, in which high school students compete for scholarships from $1,000 to $7,000.
She points to a wedding invitation and says she taught that particular student in high school, and the girl came to Paul Smith's after winning one of these scholarships.
"I remember getting the phone call from my student, letting me know she won the competition, and then here I am being part of it for this year's students," Deborah says.
Not that she has much spare time, but when she does, she channels her cake-decorating skills into oil painting and gardening. To add to her wide range of skills, Deborah has a wedding cake decorating business and cuts deer meat on the side.
"Food can sometimes lose its importance as something to sustain ourselves; it can become just something to obtain. I am glad to be able to also show that it can be beautiful."
Deborah feels she's now come back full circle, moving from Plattsburgh when she was 8 and making numerous moves - to Alabama, Illinois, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., to name a few - to settle once more in the North Country.
"We spent a lot of time in Tupper Lake and Wilmington when I was little, so it is nice to be back and see how the area has changed in places and remained the same in others," Deborah says. "I am discovering so much about my community."