- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Saipan is just about as far away from Wyoming as you can get. Yet that is nearly the exact route that Chef Shawn Sweeney took to land in the state.

Even before Sweeney stepped into the kitchen at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon, where she was trained, she knew she wanted to travel.

“Since day one I used it as an opportunity to travel around the world. I wanted to find an internship overseas and ended up in Saipan,” she said.

Saipan is a U.S. territory and is the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean.

It is probably most well-known for the World War II battle fought there. The Battle of Saipan in summer 1944 was one of the major campaigns of World War II. The U.S. Marines and U.S. Army landed on the beaches of the island and spent more than three weeks in heavy fighting to secure it from the Japanese.



The heavy military presence started to be replaced by tourism in the 1990s, and plays an important role in the local economy today.

Sweeney worked in a “fancy hotel” in a resort on the island with chefs and staff from all over the world. She was hired for her experience in baking and Patisserie, which is the type of French or Belgian way of making pastries and sweets.

“The French influence of desserts is pretty across the board,” she said. “It’s much of the same ingredients and the presentation is exact and beautiful.”

But with a heavy Asian tourism influence, ingredients were slightly different. For example, she learned to add tea or black sesame paste to her cakes, truffles, custards and ice cream. She often spent hours kneading and pounding rice dough to make Yakshik, which are rice flour desserts rolled into balls mixed with honey, dates and chestnuts.

French desserts like cream puffs, mousse and Opera cake - a cake made with layers of almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup, layered with ganache and buttercream - can be seen as a dessert in a similar but different way than most other areas of the world.

“You can connect the dots to French territories. Food spreads directly related to the world and taking over countries. You see the same food done in different ways but they all lead back to France,” Sweeney said.

A start from gingerbread houses

Sweeney hopes to bring some of that French influence and her experience overseas to the Gillette community through Gillette College.

While in Saipan, Sweeney met her husband, Blake Carothers, who was an executive soux chef and originally from Rock Springs. Eventually as their relationship grew, her work in the kitchens came to an end.

“I had to stop working to date and marry my best friend,” she said.

She put her focus onto creating a culinary program for a school on the island and worked for a workforce education program to school more people for employment in Saipan.

But the couple eventually found their way back to Wyoming, landing in Rock Springs in the beginning of 2015. They jumped into the community education system.

“They were so excited to have papered chefs with our experience and knowledge of different cultures,” she said.

They moved to Gillette in June and hope to continue the same at Gillette College, where her husband works as the executive chef.

Sweeney got started teaching in December with a series of gingerbread house classes over a two-week period. The classes consisted of just about everything needed to know for building the structure, including the making of the candy for decorations, the characters and stonework, and even how to make a gingerbread sleigh.

She had a lot to bring to the table, too. She has won awards for her gingerbread house designs, which helped pay for a large portion of her culinary schooling.

“A gingerbread house does all the things I enjoy. I like doing extremely fine decorating work. It’s like bringing something to life. I like being an adult kid. Plus, I love old traditions and want to bring those back to communities,” she said.

The artistic nature of cooking and especially of making gingerbread houses is a large reason why she got into cooking.

“I like teaching classes because I like teaching what you wouldn’t learn on the Internet,” she said.

Thinking outside the box

But moving to Wyoming has been a learning curve for her, too, especially the elevation.

“I’m learning to update my baking and recipes for the elevation,” she said. “That’s been the biggest thing is having to acclimate recipes.”

Elevation and finding ingredients. Ironically, she feels that she had more access on the tiny island of Saipan than Wyoming.

“Living overseas taught me to be malleable. Moving to Wyoming opened us up to think outside the box and having a toolbox of knowing how to make things from scratch and not rely on grocery stores,” she said.

But that is also the type of stuff that she enjoys teaching: How to think outside the box.

“I like teaching people that you can pull items from the kitchen to make fun, new and special things. You do not need expensive, specialty items,” she said.

For example, melting down Jolly Ranchers left over from Halloween can make a really interesting strawberry (or any flavor) icing for a cake. Or you can steep tea in cream to flavor a truffle. Toasted cereal like Froot Loops can make a fun coating for a truffle.

“The possibilities are endless but just a matter of breaking molds,” she said.

Sweeney hopes to teach a class on European cakes and truffles, along with some classes focusing on cultural food from all over the world, at Gillette College sometime this year.

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Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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