Friday, May 22, 2009

CET talks with a chef-instructor about teaching Bahamian cuisine and eco-tourism

Editor's note: A portion of the following Q&A with Gerald M. Brinkman was featured in the "Caribbean Kitchen" article (page 22) that appeared in the Spotlight department of the May 2009 issue of Chef Educator Today. Brinkman and a few of his students were also featured on the cover of that issue.

This past January, Gerald M. Brinkman and Michelle Bartell (pictured), both chef-instructors at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, N.Y., led 11 of their students to the Bahamian island of San Salvador for a two-week-long culinary field placement. The group was charged with the task of preparing nutritious meals for the 135 to 185 daily visitors to the island's Gerace Research Centre (GRC), a former U.S. Naval base that's been converted into an ecological research outpost for the College of the Bahamas.

Brinkman recently talked with Chef Educator Today (CET) about the challenges and rewards of this unique experience.

CET: How did you end up leading a group of students to the GRC?
Brinkman: In January of 2008, I had the good fortune to travel there as part of a marine biology class taught by my old friend and colleague, Professor Ernie Mellas, of MCC's biology department faculty. While there with the biology class, I saw the potential for bringing a group of hospitality students to the field station to get experience in the operation of a foodservice facility in a far-away place; the field station staff prepares three meals a day for upwards of 180 people. As I began to flesh out the idea and make plans for the actual course work, I felt that a tie-in to eco-tourism, a very current hospitality topic, would be a natural fit with cooking in a far-away place. The official name for the course is: eco-tourism and remote location food service.

I enlisted the help of my hospitality department colleague Michelle Bartell, a culinary arts teacher and a registered dietician, to develop appropriate course material to cover eco-tourism, food production and sound nutrition. We spent 10 weeks in class during the [2008] fall semester exploring these topics, testing recipes ["GRC Jambalaya" recipe follows] and planning for our excursion to the Bahamas in January.

CET: Describe a typical day for you and your students at GRC. What goals did you hope for your students to achieve by participating in this excursion?
Brinkman: The nature of the location of the field station makes it difficult to prepare for a "typical day." I would say, in general, that what we expected would happen during our fall preparation sessions and what actually happened at the field station were very different, and that was a good thing.

General objectives [were to]: participate in all aspects of foodservice production in a place dependent on the outside world for its food supply; work with the GRC inventory and cycle menu to improve nutrition, especially vegetarian offerings; gain a better understanding of the difficulties of remote-location foodservice; experience the natural history attractions that draw people to far away places where hospitality infrastructure is limited; [and] work together as a team of foodservice professionals in a real-world situation.

We broke our group into two crews of roughly six students and one instructor and divided our time between working in the kitchen and exploring the natural history attractions of the island. There were two shifts: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., breakfast and lunch service; and 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., dinner service. Each crew spent about eight shifts working with the GRC kitchen staff during our time there. While not assigned to kitchen service, the students spent time doing eco-tourism activities: snorkeling, hiking and exploring historic sites. Additionally, we arranged for authentic Bahamian cuisine dinners at two local restaurants and a guided tour of the local Club Med facility.

The goal was to participate in the foodservice production by working with the local staff, not replacing them. At first, I believe, they were truly skeptical about our involvement in their kitchen, but we brought with us a very positive attitude and a genuine respect for what they were doing. It wasn't very long before we were accepted and even welcomed by the kitchen staff. We worked hand in hand with the crew in all aspects of the operation--from warewashing to food prep to unloading deliveries from the much-anticipated mail boat, the lifeblood of the GRC larder. Both weeks we were there, the mail boat came a few days late making for lots of improvisation opportunities for everyone.CET: What challenges did you face during those two weeks?
Brinkman: The situation was not without challenges, but the challenges were what enriched the experience and brought it to a new level we had not anticipated. First, there was the reality factor. We spend much time as culinary arts instructors in lab settings where we attempt to simulate a real work environment for our students. This was a situation that could not be simulated. These students were immediately immersed in an atmosphere charged with accomplishment. At 7:30 a.m., 180-plus people would line up for breakfast, and it needed to be served. Period. No matter that the mail boat [that brought our food] was three days late, and the stores were seriously depleted. Better figure it out.

[The students] were also put into the position of being outsiders [among a kitchen staff] that was tight-knit for a variety of reasons. The local crew has been working there together for many years. They, for the most part, were considerably older than our students. Foodservice kitchens are by nature insular. To break into this tight-knit community was one of the biggest challenges and also one of the biggest successes of the whole trip. We presented the attitude that we were interested in working with them, seeing how we could help them, and that is what made the difference. We quickly became part of their community, and that is not something that can be simulated.

CET: What did you and your students learn from this experience?
Brinkman: Aside from the practical lessons learned--like how to cook 30 pounds of bacon in two cast iron skillets, or how to feed 185 people with 104 pieces of tilapia, or how to turn box mix into tasty carrot cake muffins--the interpersonal lessons were the most important. The students and instructors learned key lessons in diplomacy and mutual respect. They learned lessons in flexibility and adaptability. Life lessons on how to handle yourself as a professional and as a visitor were central to the experience. All of these things made it so much more than a cooking lab experience that I believe it was life-changing for many of the participants. I know it was for me.

CET: Do you have plans to return to the island?
Brinkman: We have already begun enrollment for this fall semester and plan to return to San Salvador in January [2010]. We would like to expand on some of our experiences from last time. We plan to spend an additional day in Nassau so that the students might tour some of the more conventional tourism establishments there. We made an inroad with the local high school culinary class on San Sal and would like to expand that relationship. And we would like to spend even more time working side by side with our friends in the GRC kitchen.
GRC Jambalaya
Hospitality students, Monroe Community College, Rochester, N.Y.

Yield: 20 servings

1 1/4 lbs. andouille or smoked sausage, medium dice
10 oz. tasso ham (optional), medium dice
4 oz. butter
4 oz. flour
2 oz. garlic, chopped
10 oz. onion, medium dice
6 oz. green bell pepper, medium dice
2 oz. red bell pepper, medium dice
6 oz. celery, medium dice
1/2 bunch green onions, chopped
Olive oil, as needed
Cajun spice mix, to taste
2 qt. stock
3 1/2 c.
diced canned tomatoes
1 1/4 lbs. shrimp, peeled and deveined

Salt and pepper, to taste

Method (1) In large rondeau, sauté andouille and tasso to render their fat. Remove meat; reserve. (2) Make fairly dark roux with butter and flour. Add garlic, onions, bell peppers, celery and green onions, and sauté in oil until vegetables begin to get tender. As vegetables soften, season with a little Cajun spice mix. (3) Add tomatoes (with liquid); stir to combine. Add stock, and simmer to desired thickness. Add shrimp, reserved andouille and tasso, and bring to a simmer. (4) Cook at low simmer until shrimp are done, approximately 5 minutes, checking seasoning periodically. Add more Cajun spice mix, salt and pepper as necessary. (5) Serve with steamed rice and hot sauce.

Per serving: 110 cal.; 5 g. fat (42.8 percent cal. from fat); 7 g. protein; 9 g. carbohydrate; 1 g. dietary fiber; 56 mg. cholesterol; 99 mg. sodium
Exchanges: 1/2 grain (starch); 1 lean meat; 1 vegetable; 1 fat

Have you checked out the new BCA Web site yet?

Alex Askew, president of BCA and a member of the American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) certification commission, announced the relaunching of the BCA Web site,, in January.

" goals are to introduce a higher level of cultural understanding not present in the foodservice industry today with a clear focus on increasing awareness of the commonality and contributions of industry professionals of color. Emphasizing increased development in the skill sets of a team-building mentality, leadership and communication to our students is also critical to the industry professionals of tomorrow. If we can effectively bridge students and mentors, culinarians and industry, then we will come one step closer to helping advance diversity in the hospitality and culinary industries," Askew said in a recent ACF press release. is dedicated to reaching more high school and college-age students and more industry professionals, while encouraging collaborative efforts behind understanding diversity in the culinary and hospitality industry. The Web site includes a career corner with a job search feature as well as a two-way communication vehicle for BCA members to seek career advice from top individuals in foodservice today. Eventually, it also will include a student networking section; offer training Webinars and videos; and online registration for local, regional and National events.

The objective of is to provide and promote information to students of color and to introduce, develop and advance diversity in the culinary and hospitality industry. Visit the new and improved today.