Campus chef offers hands-on cooking experience, recipe for pumpkin soup

Pumpkin was the dish du jour in October as Penn State New Kensington students got a taste of chef Mike Tokarek’s pumpkin recipes in Café 780.

Tokarek, head chef and resident director of campus food services, hosted “Cooking with Chef Mike,” a cooking workshop that provide tips to campus students for making a variety of food favorites. Nearly 30 students watched Tokarek demonstrate his culinary skills with a special feature called “All Things Pumpkin.” He showed the students how to make his pumpkin apple soup, and the ever popular double layer pumpkin cheesecake. Assisted by student volunteers from the audience, Tokarek’s “hands-on” demonstrations included cutting apples and onions.

“There was a lot of interaction with the students,” Tokarek said. “They did the prep work for the soup.”

Marissa Russo, a junior in the Information Sciences and Technology program, was a return participant. Last semester, the Plum High School graduate attended the cooking series that celebrated the culture of Ireland.

“We had Guinness stew last time,” said Russo, who serves as vice president of the Student Government Association. “It was so good.”

The monthly cooking series was developed by Tokarek and Lauren Blum, coordinator of student life, as a way to get students interested in cooking. The chef bases his menu on the time of the season. A “Thanksgiving in 30 Minutes” session was held Nov. 20. The Thanksgiving series was geared to the campus international students as a way to familiarize them with the American holiday.

“I did a basic menu of turkey, mash potatoes, sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce as a way to involve the students in a typical Thanksgiving dinner,” Tokarek said.

A health and physical education major at Slippery Rock University, Tokarek transitioned to cooking after working for AVI Food Systems while an undergraduate. AVI is an independent company that provides food services to industry, school systems , health care facilities and universities, including the New Kensington campus. Tokarek has been with AVI for 10 years and came to the campus two years ago. He replaced his twin brother, Dan, who was promoted to another position with AVI at Slippery Rock.

At the New Kensington campus, Tokarek is responsible for supervising Café 780, the primary food service venue for the campus, and the Junction, a breakfast and lunch coffee bar. Café 780, located on the upper level of the Student Union building, features several food stations serving hand-tossed pizzas, subs, wraps, paninis, hamburgers, soups and salads. Cafe 780 is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Catering is available. Alumni and friends are encouraged to stop by the campus to enjoy lunch or to take home a dinner.

The Junction complements Cafe 780 as a destination for the campus and local business community. Located in the main lobby of the Administrative Building, the Junction serves coffee, latte and cappuccino, hot and iced, as well as flavored smoothies. Featured items include bagels, sandwiches, muffins, cookies, pasties, yogurt, fruit salads and fresh fruit. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

For catering services, contact Mike Tokarek at 724-334-6175 or

Chef Mike’s Recipe for Pumpkin Apple Soup
5 cups pumpkin puree
8 cups apple cider of juice
1 small apple
½ yellow onion
1 medium onion
1 medium carrot
1 celery stalk
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 tblsp butter
Directions: Over medium heat, sweat diced onions, diced celery, diced apple and diced carrots. Slowly melt in butter. Add pinch of cinnamon to pan for taste. After vegetables become translucent, add the pumpkin puree and the apple cider to the pan. Whisk until soup becomes a smooth texture.

Double Layer Pumpkin Cheesecake Recipe

(Chelsea Markle, a senior communications major and intern in the Alumni and Public Relations office, conducted the interviews and contributed to the story.)

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Last Updated November 21, 2013