Katey Sopko graduated from Joliet Junior College’s culinary arts program in 2008, but she didn’t want to leave JJC.
On graduation day, Sopko said she told her cooking instructor, Kyle Richardson, “I want to come back. I want to get involved in some way. … I want to teach.” And Richardson encouraged her to get the experience she needed, she said.
Fourteen years later, when Richardson retired in late May, Sopko followed in his footsteps. She is the first full-time female culinary instructor at JJC and Richardson couldn’t be prouder of her.
“She’s come on for me many times over the years, and I just knew she was going to be a great teacher,” Richardson said. “She’s so caring, and [the students] are so comfortable around them. “I met her professionally when she worked for the[Autobahn)CountryClubWe’vebecomereallygoodfriends”[Autobahn)CountryClubWe’vebecomereallygoodfriends”[Autobahn-)CountryClubgearbeitethatWirsindwirklichguteFreundegeworden“[Autobahn)CountryClubWe’vebecomereallygoodfriends”
Richardson said that just over half of the student body in JJC’s culinary arts program is female and that Sopko will be a “great role model” for them. Michael McGreal, chair of the culinary arts department, agreed, but said Sopko’s role was beneficial to the male students as well.
An industry in transition
Culinary is no longer “just a man’s industry” and the days of “yelling and shouting and being disrespectful in the kitchen” are not the industry today, McGreal said. Male and female students alike will look up to her, respect her knowledge and say “yes, chef,” he said.
McGreal said JJC’s culinary program is one of the best in the United States. In fact, all of the cooking instructors — except for Ken Thompson, but including McGreal and Richardson, who recently retired — are JJC grads, he said. But the program has taken a huge step forward.
“For me, her being a role model for students, both male and female, is a game changer for our industry,” McGreal said. “Katey is making us even better now. She brings a whole different component to the program that we didn’t have the day before she launched.”
Sopko deserves a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Lewis University in Romeoville. Sopko is a certified Chef, Culinary Instructor, and Culinary Administrator by the American Culinary Federation and a Hospitality Educator by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute.
From job to passion
When Sopko started working at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet at age 18, she didn’t think of a culinary career, though she loved her grandmother’s elaborate Sunday meals and marveled at how powerful food brought people together, Sopko said.
In fact, working at the Autobahn Country Club is a popular summer job for teens and young adults, according to Peggy Gerdes, a JJC graduate and Country Club Executive Chef. Sopko said she knew nothing about cooking when she first started working at Autobahn. She just needed a job.
But Sopko said Gerdes encouraged and guided her, even recommending JJC’s culinary arts program, for which Sopko is grateful.
“I’ve finally found something I’m good at, something I enjoy,” Sopko said. “Learning how to do things the right way was like finally being in my element.”
Gerdes and Sopko worked together for 14 years. Gerdes said they explored restaurants and attended trade shows together, growing the “teen kitchen” at the country club into a “major operation.”
“I knew teaching was her ultimate goal,” Gerdes said. “She’s incredibly talented and I’m so glad JJC has her.”
Sopko said she taught as an assistant at JJC from 2016 to 2019, where she thrived under Thompson’s mentorship. As of 2019, Sopko taught the advanced cooking classes at Elgin High School for three years, Sopko said.
She praised her husband Gregory Sopko for encouraging her to keep pursuing her dream no matter what. Sopko is also the mother of Evelyn Sing, 10, and twins Jake and Luke, 3.
Sopko said, “Every step was so rewarding,” and she can’t wait to tell her students, “I was there. I was you once.” She wants to give back to JJC by mentoring her students and making their culinary career dreams come true, she said.
“I won the lottery when I was hired at JJC,” Sopko said.