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Spotlight Iowa City: Cooking up a splendid table

BY NICOLE KARLIS | OCTOBER 06, 2009 7:20 AM

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Add, mix, and wait.

They are instructions Regina Miller follows daily.

She started cooking when she was a kid. However, after adding two cups of baking soda to her cupcake mixture by accident, it seemed her culinary future, well, blew up.

“Those exploded all over the place,” she said and laughed.

The 42-year-old has been cooking professionally for 17 years. But she hasn’t spent the last eight years in a bakery or restaurant.

She’s passed the time in the stainless-steel kitchen of a house filled with 40 sorority women.

Miller is the full-time chef at the Alpha Phi house. That means each day brings her in at 8:30 a.m. and keeps her there until around 5 p.m. She is responsible for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I love 95 percent of my job,” she said, wearing a stark white apron and chopping chicken breasts to go with veggies and chili powder and cumin seasoning for Monday’s lunch. “The best part is the certain amount of flexibility and creativity I can use.”

The chef recalled a Mediterranean-style lunch she invented last year, complete with lemon chicken on a pita as the centerpiece.

Miller didn’t go to culinary school. She graduated from the UI with majors in communication studies and English in 1992. Cooking, then, was merely a career that gradually became her love affair.

After a series of jobs involving food — being an au pair in London cooking for international students staying at the house she lived in — she gained hands-on experience in the kitchen. Working as the chef in a sorority house just happened by chance, something a friend suggested to her.

Now, continuously orchestrating an interesting menu at the Alpha Phi house means reinventing chicken in as many ways possible. It’s the biggest crowd-pleaser for the women, she said.

“The biggest challenge is getting stuck in a rut and making the same stuff over and over again,” she said. When that happens, she said, she stops by the library to read over new recipes for ideas.

Regardless, the women at Alpha Phi seem satisfied, and they can even request favorites. UI junior Jessica Lindeen favors Miller’s homemade pizza.

“Her meals vary every month,” said UI junior Natalie Ryther. “And her desserts are amazing.”

And one of those Miller considers her signature sweet is the brown-sugar cookie, which, she says, can be topped with just about anything.

She takes pride in the freshness of her food. At her house in Lone Tree, approximately 20 miles south of Iowa City, she grows her own herbs — including oregano and chives — along with tomatoes in her garden. She also sells her own bread and pastries at the Farmers’ Market in the summer.

“I use very little premade stuff, and I make all my soups from scratch,” she said, noting she uses her own home-grown tomatoes.

“I’ve converted many girls who say they hated tomato soup,” she joked.

Those who Miller impresses with her polished skills in the kitchen appreciate her unprocessed concoctions.

“She cooks healthy, and I look forward to that,” said Alpha Phi housekeeper Deb Graham, and she admits she’s been spoiled after working with Miller.


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