On a recent Friday, by 8 a.m., the Lassen Community College cafeteria was already busy. Besides cranking out breakfasts for students, Brennan Temol and his colleague Cathy Ritola, were also cooking for an event they’d be catering on campus later that day.
“We're making some tri-tip and some baked chicken, mashed potatoes, asparagus,” said Temol.
Lassen Community College sits in the high desert town of Susanville, population 16,000. About half of that number comes from people incarcerated at the two state prisons in town. Like a lot of towns of its size, Susanville doesn't boast a ton of restaurants.
Some of the finest cuisine can be found in the college cafeteria’s kitchen. Temol and Ritola were prepping for a catered lunch, making some time-intensive desserts like homemade brownie bites with cream cheese filling, a parfait of toasted angel food cake, whipped cream, and a berry sauce Temol made the night before.
Ritola said Temol always adds a little flash to things like desserts. “I mean, he makes them really fancy. And he's the only one here that makes fried ice cream.”
Temol is a guy who seemingly never takes his apron off. He spends all week cooking at the cafeteria, and all weekend making dishes with family and friends. In both kitchens, he draws on his culinary school training, and the flavors of his childhood in the Pacific Island nation of Palau.
He went to culinary school and worked in restaurants in Reno. Before going into food, he thought he’d study design, and you can tell. He has a real personal style: a bright Hawaiian shirt under a charcoal gray sweater, earrings in both ears, his hair braided and tied in a knot. In the kitchen, he specializes in beautiful presentations, and experimenting beyond a stereotypical cafeteria menu.
One other thing that’s Temol’s domain in the cafeteria: seafood. On this day, he prepared an elaborate seafood platter for the lunch special.
“We have calamari, some shrimp, cod fish. And I'm going to make a poke, a Hawaiian dish,” he said.
Temol learned how to cook seafood growing up in Palau.
“Where I grew up, it's always fish, fish, fish,” said Temol. “Every day we would have uncles come in with the fresh catch of the day.”
His dad prepared sashimi and taught Temol to sear tuna and make soup. His mom preferred making biscuits and gravy. She helped Temol with the first thing he cooked — cupcakes for his kindergarten graduation.
Temol said that, as a teenager, if he was going to the beach with friends and they weren’t eating chicken wings, they’d grab bento boxes instead.
“Rice and short ribs, or rice and fish and a side of kimchi,” he recalled with a smile.
That mix of culinary traditions is a reflection of Palau, explained Motare “Mo” Ngiratmab, a Palauan community elder, and a student advisor at Lassen Community College.
Moving to Susanville
Palau is an island group, close to the Philippines and Guam.
“We have people from Bangladesh, we have people from the Philippines, we have people from Indonesia, China,” Motare said.
For hundreds of years, Palau was colonized by Spain, Germany and Japan, eventually becoming a U.S. territory after World War II. It gained independence nearly 30 years ago, but Palauans can live and work in the U.S., which still maintains a military presence on the island.
In the mid-1970s, when Motare was in middle school on the island, the United States began to influence the Palauan food system. He said they dropped USDA food boxes filled with sugary hams to islanders. Stores started carrying Spam, bread, and chocolate.
“People don't snack papaya, don't snack mango anymore,” he recalled. “It's like Tootsie Roll, you know?”
Around that same time, Motare said, the first Palauans came to Susanville, on the recommendation of a Peace Corps volunteer. A few years later, in 1981, Mo arrived to join a cousin.
“Imagine this skinny island boy landing in San Francisco, getting on a Greyhound bus,” he said. It took him more than two days to get to Susanville, and he was unprepared for the January weather.
“I’d never seen snow before! I was wearing sports shoes, Levis and a T-shirt,” Motare recalled. “There was five feet of snow here. And I thought I came to the wrong place.”
He was out of his element, failing all of his classes the first semester. But he survived, and then thrived. After graduating, Motare got hired as an academic advisor supporting international students at Lassen Community College.
Motare explained that some Palauan students stayed in Susanville, got jobs in fields like forestry and brought other relatives over from the islands.
Temol, the cafeteria cook, came to Susanville more than 10 years ago, to be closer to his wife’s family. Now, the community is big enough that local grocery stores stock island foods. Temol heads to Reno when he needs specialty items, but even in Susanville he can get cassava root and taro to boil, squid to grill, tuna to sear, and clams to cook with coconut milk.
After long weekdays in the cafeteria, Temol gathers with his family most weekends. Sometimes, they prepare a Palauan-inspired meal, like they did on a recent weekend.
His kitchen can often feel like organized chaos, with taro boiling on the stove, pork tenderizing in a pot, raw fish ready to be sliced into sashimi, as he peels cassava root —diokang in Palauan — and fries whole, small fish that have been lightly marinated.
“We like to eat it with the bones, because we like to suck the eyeballs,” Temol explained as he seared tuna medium rare, with furikake, a Japanese rice seasoning.
Temol puts his dishes in beautiful bowls, or restaurant-quality platters lined with lettuce leaves, garnished and plated professionally.
Even his wife Valyne wiped a platter before taking it to the table.
“I learned from him,” she said with a laugh.
As the family gathered to serve themselves and eat around a glass table, Temol put out hot sauce that came straight from Palau, and also mayonnaise.
“If we didn't have mayonnaise, nobody would eat. We're going to send somebody to the store to buy mayonnaise (when we run out), that's how crazy mayonnaise is to us,” Temol laughed.
Brennan’s cousin Alik Frank made the pork dish. When asked about the major ingredient, he smiled and said “love.”
He was joking, but that was the feeling at Temol’s house: love, and pride.
“We (Palauans) are happy to show what we do,” said Temol.
On the surface, a tropical island like Palau and a land-locked, high desert town with snowy mountains and a mostly white population like Susanville can seem like totally different worlds; but they aren’t that different in the ways that matter most to Temol.
“Everyone knows each other,” he explained. “That made me happy to raise my kids here.”
He can walk to the store, to work, or to meet up with friends. He sees colleagues all around town. He cooks and eats with family every weekend.
“I feel like this is Palau to me,” he said.
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