Ten years ago, Ervin and Debbie Uhrig of Platte City spent a portion of their spring break, as many people do, enjoying the shows and activities in Branson.
With their 7-year-old son, Phillip, in tow, a day at Silver Dollar City was a must, but Debbie had an ulterior motive.
The K-5 vocal music teacher in the Platte County R-III School District was also a passionate cook and had just published her first cookbook, “The Covered Dish.” She was hoping Silver Dollar City might sell it in some of their gift shops.
The ensuing conversations and connections changed her life.
In spring 2008, Silver Dollar City was in the midst of building its Culinary & Craft School, the first and only cooking school in a theme park in the U.S. The park needed a director, someone who could easily carry the title of Master Craftsman of Culinary Arts.
“I really credit my husband for encouraging me to apply and for us, as a family, to make this move,” said Uhrig, 60, who ran for county commissioner in 2007. “We were so established in Platte County and our son involved in so many youth activities that I never imagined we would change that.”
As it turns out, 25-plus years as an elementary vocal music teacher is perfect training for cooking school director in a theme park.
“Being a good teacher is all about time management and assessing people’s needs and listening,” Uhrig said. “I have to assess people very quickly and teach to all types of learning styles at once.”
Multiple times throughout the hourlong class that accommodates 34 students at a time, Uhrig will ask if she needs to repeat the instructions or if anyone has any questions.
“When Silver Dollar City envisioned this position, they did not want a professional chef with a big white hat and coat,” she said. “They wanted someone more approachable, so I just wear an apron.”
As a result, many class participants ask questions and often challenge her approach or technique in some recipes.
“And that’s OK,” she said. “There are lots of ways to achieve the same effect. I never assume mine is the only way to cook.”
Because of Silver Dollar City’s old-time, Southern theme, Uhrig often focuses on Southern dishes but with a slightly new twist. She has begun using Thai noodles as a gluten-free substitute for pasta, for example. In so doing, she introduces students to an unexpected ingredient while meeting modern dietary demands.
But her biggest challenge is grocery shopping, a task she could assign to an assistant but embraces for the learning opportunities it provides.
“You’re never too old to learn something new, and I’ve learned to ask questions of the produce specialists and the people in the meat department,” she said.
As an example, Uhrig has always freshened slightly wilted lettuce and other aging but still edible produce by soaking it in ice water. It’s what she learned as a child and how her family has always done it.
However, a worker in the produce department of a Branson grocery store told her that tepid water gets better lasting results.
“And by gosh, he was right,” she said.
The best part of her new career as a Master Craftsman of Culinary Arts is when former students, friends and family from Platte County and all across Missouri join her for a class.
“I’m always so pleased when a student I haven’t seen in 25 years comes in to say hello,” she said. “It takes me a while to remember sometimes, but I’m always touched that they remember me.”
In 10 years at Silver Dollar City, Uhrig has developed a regular following of visitors who return to the park year after year and often multiple times in a season. Some bring her recipes, but others bring her goodies from across the country.
“I just got an email from some regulars from Minnesota, and they asked if they could bring me some wild rice,” she said.
So be looking for recipes featuring Minnesota wild rice some time this season at Silver Dollar City’s Culinary & Craft School.