Ray Marsh Elementary teacher chronicles late son’s culinary work, military journey in cookbook

Heather Sommer, a Ray Marsh Elementary teacher and mother of Francis Sommer, published a book of her late son’s recipes taken from his training logbook.

Her son was just a few classes away from completing a culinary arts degree at Johnson County Community College. Francis Sommer was going to be a chef. When he passed away in a car accident, Heather Sommer decided to carry on his legacy of good cooking.

Sommer, a special education teacher at Ray Marsh Elementary School, treasured her son Francis’s training logbook from his cooking classes. It was a tome of recipes Francis had prepared as part of his culinary studies. She took nearly every single recipe from the training logbook, resized them from restaurant-size portions to serving sizes for a home-cooked meal, and created a cookbook.

Two months ago, Sommer released the cookbook, “Cooking with Francis: Gourmet Home Cooking,” which is now available for purchase through Lulu Press.

The process took more than seven years. With the help of her two other adult children, Erin Good and Alex Sommer, she spent countless hours preparing and testing more than 100 of Francis’s recipes. She even took a few cooking classes — including a personal lesson from her son’s instructor, Felix Sturmer — to make sure that each recipe turned out as her son had intended.

A cookbook for food, family stories and the military experience

Francis Sommer on duty in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy Sommer family.

A 2001 graduate of Olathe East High School, Francis was a U.S. Army veteran who served as a combat infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan; After he returned home, he entered the JCCC culinary program in 2007. He was also an apprentice chef at The Classic Cup Cafe in the Country Club Plaza.

Sommer tested her first recipe — sauteed halibut — from the training log in April 2011, two months after Francis passed away. It was the same day he would have prepared his graduation dinner, a final exam that must go well in order to complete the culinary program.

Meanwhile, she began journaling about her son as a way to process her grief. She wrote essays, jotted down memories and slowly pieced together her son’s 27-year-old life.

Noting her son’s life experiences from his childhood to his military service, Heather Sommer said the cookbook isn’t just an ordinary cookbook. Intermingled between the pages of recipes are a collection of stories, anecdotes and essays following many of the Sommer family’s memories as well as the military family experience and grief.

“Little by little the project, I realized, could maybe reach a larger audience,” she said. “I love reading family stories; it doesn’t matter that it’s not my child. I really connect with that and I thought that other people would, too — (it’s) also for people who are grieving.”

Heather Sommer and her son shared a lifelong passion for cooking. So, in honor of their family traditions, she also included in the cookbook a handful of his favorite home-cooked meals he enjoyed in his childhood. The cookbook includes photos of meals that Francis took when he was in school.

Her husband, Robert, also wrote and published a book about his son and their family experiences surrounding war and grief.

Proceeds from the cookbook, when purchased through the Lulu Press website, benefit the Francis D. Sommer Memorial Fund, administered through the Kansas City VA, which so far has collected more than $28,000 to support homeless veterans or veterans in need. Proceeds also benefit Heifer International, a charity organization working to end world hunger and poverty.