Friday, February 26, 2010

Online extras for Spring CET

Wrap-up of the 12th Annual FENI Educators Summit

Despite bitter winter temperatures, nearly 200 chef-educators flocked to Chicago Feb. 12 to 15 for the 12th Annual Foodservice Educators Network International (FENI) Educators Summit, hosted at the Hotel Allegro and Kendall College. Between the Master Classes, special guest speakers, networking sessions and sponsored events, the FENI Summit provided opportunities for educators to share with their peers and gather new ideas to bring back to their schools. Be sure to check out our Web site at for event images, sponsor and partner links, as well as information on FENI award winners and the Poster Board Presentations.

(l to r) Chef Charlie Trotter receives an honorary medallion from FENI executive director Daniel von Rabenau

Among this year's FENI Summit highlights, on Sunday, Feb. 14, guest speaker and famed chef/restaurateur Charlie Trotter discussed leadership in the kitchen and beyond, as well as the responsibilities and merits of opting for a career in customer service before a roomful of attendees. Below are some notable quotes from his 45-minute speech.
"Leadership is not about leading other people. It's about leading yourself."

"We must be able to articulate these ideas and move these things forward. We are always students."

"Food is not the most important part of the experience. Service is more important than food."

"You'll either serve people or be served for the rest of your life. I'd rather serve people because it's much more interesting to be on the giving end."

During the conference, FENI also recognized several culinary educators for their tireless efforts toward bettering the field of culinary education.

FENI executive director Daniel von Rabenau with Excellence in Culinary Education award winner Chef Christopher Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Chicago (photo credit: Eric Futran)

FENI presented its inaugural award for Excellence in Culinary Education to Christopher Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. Following an exhaustive evaluation by judges representing various facets of the foodservice industry, this award, which will become annual beginning this year, honors extraordinary accomplishment and leadership within the foodservice-educator community, as well as overall impact on the field of culinary education. Chef Koetke's influence extends beyond the classroom to serve the foodservice industry as a whole. In addition to unparalleled commitment to helping other educators reach their fullest potential, he is an inspiration to students and has demonstrated true leadership in positioning Kendall College in Chicago as one of the premier culinary-arts programs in the nation. Koetke has taught at The School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College since January 1998. He was named associate dean of the culinary school in 2002 and dean in 2005. Certified by the ACF as an executive chef and culinary educator, Koetke is a board member of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Foundation Accrediting Commission, the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, Slow Food Chicago and the International Foodservice Editorial Council, as well as a founding board member of the Greater Midwestern Foodways Alliance. He is also the host of the Midwest Emmy-nominated cooking show, "Let's Dish," on the Live Well HD television network. Last year with his co-author, he released The Culinary Professional, a comprehensive introductory high-school culinary-arts textbook. In 2009, he was named Cooking Teacher of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). Chef Koetke also presented a speech on the future of culinary education to FENI attendees Feb. 15.

FENI executive director Daniel von Rabenau with Secondary Educator of the Year award winner Chef Ana Plana, culinary arts teacher, Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy, Key Biscayne, Fla. (photo credit: Eric Futran)

The 2010 FENI Secondary Educator of the Year is Ana Plana. Chef Plana is a culinary arts teacher at Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy in Key Biscayne, Fla., and has taught 9th through 12th graders at MAST Academy since 2007. As the school's only food-production and event-planning instructor, she not only teaches during class time, but also heads up a variety of school and student events to offer students real front- and back-of-house experience and the chance to showcase their work. As a former board member of Les Dames d'Escoffier International, Plana uses her experience and contacts from the catering and event planning industry to arrange internship opportunities, guest speakers and financial support for her students and for the school. A sponsor of Women of Tomorrow for the past two years, Plana acts as a mentor to the young women at MAST, ensuring they have strong female role models when they begin their careers. Last year, she received a grant from Slow Food to plant an edible garden at the school, which will be used to teach students to appreciate and understand organic gardening.

FENI executive director Daniel von Rabenau with Postsecondary Educator of the Year Chef Rolando Robledo, assistant professor of culinary arts, Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I. (photo credit: Eric Futran)

The 2010 FENI Postsecondary Educator of the Year is Rolando Robledo. Chef Robledo has been assistant professor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., for the past six years and uses prior foodservice industry experience at restaurants such as The French Laundry, Rain and Aquavit to inspire and motivate students. While at Johnson & Wales, he earned a master of arts in teaching and received certification as an executive chef from the ACF. In 2007, Robledo won the Faculty Recognition Award for best educator in the college of culinary arts--the only award voted on by Johnson & Wales students. An advocate for sustainability, Robledo has led the Green Collaborative at Johnson & Wales as faculty adviser, helping students incorporate environmentalism and sustainability into their lives and work.

FENI executive director Daniel von Rabenau with FENI medallion honoree Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, French Pastry School, Chicago (photo credit: Eric Futran)

Also honored at this year's FENI Educators Summit for his continued dedication to FENI over the years was Jacquy Pfeiffer of the French Pastry School. Chef Pfeiffer was presented a medallion that symbolizes his creative and continuous efforts to enhance the quality of culinary education. Pfeiffer founded the French Pastry School with Sébastien Canonne, MOF, to fill the need for a premier international institution of pastry arts education, based on superb instruction, superior equipment and top-quality ingredients. The French Pastry School's team of award-winning instructors has grown to a faculty of eleven, including a Master Baker, Master Cake Artists and Pastry World Champions--several of whom also taught baking and pastry Master Classes at this Year's FENI Summit.

For more information about the FENI Summit, visit And be sure to mark your calendars: The 13th annual FENI Summit for professional culinary development will be held Feb. 19 to 21, 2011, in Chicago. Visit and read upcoming issues of Chef Educator Today magazine for updates as we continue to develop next year's program.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

LCB California student wins Christopher Ranch Garlic Gridiron Challenge

At the inaugural Christopher Ranch Garlic Gridiron Challenge, Jo Anne Washburn, culinary student at Le Cordon Bleu (LCB) California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, won first place and a $500 scholarship with her Roasted Garlic and Blue Cheese Crab Dip (pictured, below).

The contest invited culinary students in California to create original, garlic-infused Super Bowl party dishes. The winners were announced on Feb. 7, during halftime of the Super Bowl. Annette Turek received second place and $200 with her Spicy Garlic Bacon-wrapped Mushrooms, and Shanda Cool won third and $100 with her Game Day Garlic Pigskin Peanuts. Turek and Cool are also students at LCB California Culinary Academy.

For more information, visit

Monroe College takes second at ACF
Junior State Championship

In its first appearance at the 2010 American Culinary Federation (ACF) Junior State Championship, the hot food team from Monroe College, New Rochelle, N.Y., took second place behind the team from Delhi State University New York (Dehli SUNY). The Feb. 13 competition was hosted by Schenectady County Community College.

Front row (l to r): Lourdes Mejia and team captain Daisy Santiago; Back row (l to r): Kareem David, team coach chef Eric Pellizzari, James Daversa and Jesus Alvarez of the Dominican Republic

Led by team captain Daisy Santiago, a senior in Monroe College's Hospitality Management program, the team competed in a compulsory skills round, in which they fabricated chicken and fish, demonstrated knife skills with vegetables and prepared a tart shell and pastry cream. The second round of competition included preparing a four-course meal of poached sole, salad with roasted golden beets and toasted spiced hazelnuts, duck breast in an herb crepe with a gratin of parsnip and St. Andre cheese and a slow-roasted Pear Williams frozen mousse. For more information, visit

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Farm-to-plate, part three

Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series following a group of Kendall College chef-instructors and students on a trip to Southern Illinois University's (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contributed by Dana Cox, Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago

Slaughterhouse tour
Groggy from our busy night of cowboy cooking, our last day of touring begins at 7 a.m. with a road trip to Fruitland, Mo., to a slaughterhouse with Dr. Karen Jones, an animal researcher from SIU. This would be a difficult morning for most of us. As we arrive at the facility, we notice a fountain behind the plant. What was odd about the sight of it was that the water spraying from it was distinctly red. We would later learn that this was part of the system of disposing of the blood from the cattle and pigs that are processed there.

The day we tour the plant, cattle are being lined up outside that had been "retired" from their function as gestation or dairy cows. Most cattle being raised for meat is less than 36 months old, as this is a pivotal age when steer become less tender. We are told the animals there that day could potentially be 8 to 10 years old. When we asked the veterinarian what the market is for meat from old animals, she responds that McDonald's is the biggest buyer. A licensed vet--employed by the USDA, not the slaughterhouse--must be present at each facility. She explains that her role there is largely to ensure that the animals being slaughtered were "ambulatory," or that they could walk on their own into the plant. A couple of cows we observe walk in only with considerable motivation in the form of a large paddle at the end of pole. This is more humane that the old-fashioned electrified cattle prod, we're told.

The USDA vet describes her role at the facility

One creature that stood out among the bovine senior citizens was an obviously young calf, which was missing a foot and had a profusely runny nose. The vet said that this was an animal infected with indo-toxins produced by a fungus that can invade fescue, a tall foraging grass commonly sown in pastures. The toxins are produced by the fungus and cause vaso-constriction in the limbs of cattle, which eventually can cut off circulation to the extremities and result in loss of the limb.

Once the animal has arrived at the head of the line, it enters a chamber of sorts. The door on the opposite side opens to reveal the employee with a captive bolt pistol, which is applied to a specific point between the eyes of the cow to stun it. The pressure ideally renders the animal unconscious, at which point it is inverted, hung by an ankle and suspended midair. The cow's throat is then slit, to let the blood drain from the animal's body. The idea is that the animal's heart needs to continue to beat in order to churn all of its blood out of the carcass, which is technically the cause of its death, not the blow to the forehead.

The next step is to eviscerate the animal, as contact between waste and meat creates an opportunity for contamination such as E. coli if not done properly. The skin is removed and hooves are cut off while the animal moves across the facility, assembly-line style. The vet explains that in larger plants, the animal stays stationary and the butchers move, standing on conveyor belts that whiz past the carcasses. Some workers sit low on stools, or stand and work, reaching above their heads.
Freshly cut sides of beef

Animals are broken down into primal cuts, then subprimals; there are waist-high barrels along the walls labeled "hooves," "inedible" and "edible." There is even a room with racks for the heads. Heavy metal music blares throughout the facility, making the experience all the more surreal. The butchers move quickly and manage to separate the subprimals like loose puzzle pieces, sometimes slinging cuts of beef that appear to be as large as they are.

HAACP is an important consideration at a slaughterhouse. The government has developed a sanitation program that must be followed, with each product monitored at various stages of handling and processing. This facility also produces sausages and jerky products. Customers supply the recipes and ratios, and the slaughterhouse makes the products and can even package them for shipping. During our visit, we see some grass-fed beef products en route to the St. Louis Whole Foods.

Foraging for wild mushrooms
That afternoon, we would travel to Giant City State Park to meet Joe McFarland, a writer for Outdoor Illinois, a magazine published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. McFarland has recently released his field-to-kitchen guide for foraging and selecting mushrooms in the area, "The Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois." McFarland gives us an overview of the mushroom kingdom in his office filled with fresh, dried, drawn and sculpted fungi of all sorts. Mushrooms that are cultivated as opposed to found are generally grown in pasteurized manure. McFarland says that the mushroom itself is actually the fruiting body of a fungus that contains spores. Anatomically, some have gills and others have pores. Some cooks prefer to peel away the pores, as they don't cook up well, he says. Mushroom fans can make "prints" of mushroom gills by placing only the mushroom cap on a piece of paper and pressing gently. We get the great privilege of going on a mushroom hunt with McFarland. Wild mushrooms are the focus of his book.

"How can you tell if mushrooms are poisonous?" one student asks. The answer, says McFarland, is that there is no one universal method or rule with mushrooms. They have their own personalities, grow during certain seasons and prefer particular kinds of soil and trees. Chanterelles, a wild mushroom loved by chefs, is partial to the base of the oak tree. Each mushroom must be evaluated on an individual basis, as toxicity is a serious issue if one's intention is to consume what's found. McFarland's guide includes pictures, names, ideal spots for each variety and even how they're used in the kitchen. McFarland takes a small knife to cut any discovered mushrooms at their base. He travels with a basket or paper bag for collecting. Plastic bags or containers are not recommended, as moisture is the enemy in storing mushrooms once they're harvested.

Joe McFarland examines a mushroom find

We head up a stone-lined hill, paying focused attention to tree trunks, fallen limbs or any natural material that might have provided the right environment for a mushroom. I discover some small, thin mushrooms with beautiful coral red tops--not poisonous, but also not very tasty, according to McFarland. One student groans at an unpleasant smell and holds up her discovery with a stick causing everyone to cover our faces. Nature has created this mushroom to give off the smell of rotten meat, which will attract animals to it in the forest and insure its propagation, says McFarland. We won't be inquiring about this one with our suppliers any time soon.

This is certainly prime ground for fungal growth; we saw mushrooms of all shapes and varieties. Of the plethora that exists in nature, only a few are both safe to eat and desirable for their flavor and texture. McFarland finds a small, skinny, white mushroom that looks much like cultivated enoki mushrooms (commonly used to raw as a garnish for Asian dishes). It is barely as big around as a pencil, with a tiny white cap. He says that although it appears harmless, the Amanita is the most toxic mushroom in the Illinois forests, adding that this small specimen alone is enough to kill an average-sized person. The toxicity impacts the victim in two stages: If the forager who eats an Amanita is able to get to medical help, hospitals generally pump their stomachs, they feel better and are sent home. A couple days later, however, the second wave of toxicity hits and causes the digestive system to shut down. It is quite an awful death, and he says the mushroom is even known by the name Destroying Angel. McFarland was effective in scaring me; I don't know that I'd be capable of discerning the delicious from the deadly on my own, even with his book. When I asked him what attracted him to the study of mushrooms, he answered, "It's free food!"

McFarland displays Illinois' most toxic mushroom, the Amanita

Dyempur Farm
Our final adventure is a visit to a farm that truly embodies the local agriculture movement, as it is a part of a community of Sufi Muslims. The Sufis are a mystical sect of Islam, who believe a direct experience of God is possible for the mortal being. Our tour guide is Greg Wendt, staff videographer at SIU, and founding member of this community. He and seven other devotees from New York moved to the rural Shawnee area 14 years ago to construct an idyllic model of healthy, sustainable living. It is surprising to hear Brooklyn-esque accents in Southern Illinois. The original goal behind their farm was to grow produce for the members of the church, but with their impressive productivity, feeding the community at large may be within reach. The modest acre they nurture yielded 8,500 pounds of vegetation between spring and summer growth, and they estimate they will harvest another 4,000 pounds this fall and even winter using covered beds. At present, 80 to 100 people are fed twice each week at spiritual functions, and their produce is sold at farmer's markets and the local food co-op. The diversity of flora is astounding in this small plot; we see amaranth, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, okra and squash as we walk the rows.

Okra blossom at Dyempur Farm

The Sufis here plant their seeds or bulbs in elevated rows. The shallow valleys in between will trap rainfall, lessening the need to water the crops. There is a charming orchard as well with apples, pears and black walnuts, which look somewhat like a fruit of the pomme family and have a distinct citronella smell. A student picks one and attempts to cut it open with a pocket knife. Our tour guide snickers and warns him that his hands will soon show the signs of walnut handling. Sure enough, the juice stains his hands a purplish-black that will remain for days.

Under the black walnut tree

The Sufis also have a gorgeous chicken coop. A miniature barn provides shelter for the chickens with a door flap on either side to allow the birds to go in and out as they please. The inside is immaculate and lined with hay and straw to provide some warmth and comfort to the birds. No unpleasant odor here--just plump, healthy chickens. The Sufis' respect for the animals is obvious in the beautiful home they've created for them. Periodically, they open the area around the coop and allow the chickens to roam in the grass and look for bugs and worms. They will return to the coop without being coaxed, knowing that is where they are fed.

A chicken leaves the coop for a bit of sunshine

The birds are the epitome of health: sizeable with fluffy brown feathers and red combs and very social with one another and us. They provide eggs for the community, as well as occasional meat. Our guide laughs and says that he wouldn't want to be a hen in the group, as they are outnumbered by the roosters. Time for rooster stew, he says. We recommend coq au vin, the French country solution to make an old rooster palatable by braising him in red wine. These are the only animals the Sufis raise on the farm; the other animal protein in their diets sometimes comes from hunting and fishing.

The Sufis have a few solar panels mounted to the roof of their workshop, which fuel a lot of the shop's activity: building and fixing things. They also contribute to the lighting and heating of the spiritual leader's home on the property. The panels are tremendously productive, says our guide, even through Illinois winter months.

We are all exhausted as we head back to our cabins at the Green Retreat that evening for one last peaceful sleep at the farm. We've seen so much in a week's time, and our newfound knowledge has sparked debates at dinner each night about our food systems. My take on our experience is that price has become king in American food production. I'm not sure when this happened, but we spend less on our diets (about 9 cents per dollar earned) than any other developed nation in the world. Some of the professors we spoke to this week view that as a triumph of industrial agriculture, but I'm not sure I agree. Quality rarely follows quantity in my experience. But, at some point in our history, volume and cost overtook the caliber of the foodstuff being produced. I know our population has grown tremendously in the past century, and individuals no longer have the traditional knowledge base required to raise their own meals, but I feel the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of cheap abundance.

Our students are thrilled to see heirloom vegetation from our local City Farm or Green City Market during the growing season. Unfortunately, that represents a drop in the bucket of all the food consumed by diners in Chicago. We have such power as chefs in educating and influencing consumers. It's easier to justify paying more for organic, local or heirloom once you've tasted them. In order to make this sort of authentic diet more feasible, we have to shift our priorities as consumers and voice these values to our government. I'm not aware of any subsidies to small farmers who've returned to the traditional methods of farming. In the meantime, we certainly can support our farmer's markets or buy a share of a community supported agriculture (CSA) that yields a weekly basket of fresh produce, eggs and even meat to its shareholders. At Kendall, we have a small farm next to the Chicago River that supplies our dining room. Growing Power, the Milwaukee farmers' cooperative that manages our little plot, sells the overflow of product to local consumers. Some chefs have even taken to planting rooftop gardens to have greater control over their product, like our own Rick Bayless of Topolobampo/Frontera Grill/Xoco fame. The food industry has a monumental impact on our health, environment and economy, and our choices have consequences well beyond our stoves.

Part one | Part two

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Farm-to-plate, part two

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series following a group of Kendall College chef-instructors and students on a trip to Southern Illinois University's (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contributed by Dana Cox, Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago


This dewy Wednesday morning begins with a trip to the grapevine plots of Dr. Brad Taylor, who holds his doctorate in pommology, the study of fruit selection and husbandry. I am drawn in immediately when he asks us to consider the larger meaning of our time in Carbondale. He mentions the first great civilization of Mesopotamia, reminding us that cities could not exist without agriculture; transversely, farmers need cities of people to consume their products. It's thought that man, grapes and yeast came together in Mesopotamia. Wine, Taylor says, is man's version of eternal life.

Taylor grows 40 varieties of grapes on the 2 acres he manages, 30 of which are French hybrids. The need for hybridization of American and European varieties exists because Continental grapes cannot always survive our winters, but grapes native to the Americas aren't known for producing notable wines. One such wild American grape common to the area is the Norton (pictured, below), a small, deep purplish red and tightly clustered grape that is virtually devoid of tannins, the element in wine that gives it structure.

Hybrids can produce the quality desired of Vitis vinifera grapes (think Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance), with the sturdiness to thrive in our climate. We have these hybrids, Taylor tells us, because the French were trying to create a plant to withstand phylloxera, a disastrous pest unwittingly exported to Europe in the 1860s that destroyed many of the great European wine crops. What makes interesting wine, says Taylor, is warm days (providing maximum photosynthesis, flavor molecules and sugar production) and cooler nights (causing a preservation of acids). When grapes are grown in regions that have warmth nearly round the clock, like Southern Illinois, the acids are "respired," meaning they are metabolized and lost. The acids are what produce crispness on the palate, for example in a steely Sauvignon Blanc.

Taylor explains that organic grape growing is nearly impossible in this region, as they have continuous moisture. Fungal growth on grape leaves and vines needs only 6 to 8 hours of raindrops clinging to plants to begin an invasion. All the grower needs to do is go to sleep to create opportunity for rot, infection or a spore population to settle in. Fungicides used sparingly, sometimes called "soft chemistry," can protect the plants. The drier the summer and the more mature the vines, the less fungicide is needed.

Grapes are planted on hills, Taylor explains, to maximize sun exposure--needed on both the leaves and the fruit to produce good juice--and because colder air will drift into the lower spots, avoiding spring frost on plants. Twelve to 15 leaves are necessary per bunch of grapes to provide adequate photosynthesis.

Taylor uses a two-tiered system of canopy
management, or grape leaf coverage, which means grapes hang from about knee height and also just above eye level. The more rain in a season, the more cutting back of the canopy is required so that the fruit gets some sun exposure. Student Tiffany Nelson asks what the difference is between noble rot--which produces an intensely sweet, raisin-like flavor in dessert wines--and bad rot. Taylor responds that the simple difference is moisture. Noble rot requires some shriveling of the grape right on the vine, which needs some degree of dryness.

Dr. Brad Taylor displays his grapes beneath the leaf canopy

The issue of terroir arises, which is the idea that each geographic area produces a different grape; the soil's mineral profile, the slope of the hill, the angle of the sun as it strikes the plant and the number of hours of sun exposure all impact multiple dimensions of that region's grapes. Taylor bristles when he hears the wine community refer to "Midwestern wines," as there are many microclimates even within Illinois, he says. Apple trees bloom and grape vines bud three weeks earlier in Southern Illinois than Northern Illinois, for instance. We can attest to that difference. When our sweater-clad group arrived from Chicago we were met with balmy heat, dramatically different than Labor Day weather in Chicagoland.

Despite Southern Illinois' challenges of warm nights and overabundant precipitation, we would soon discover they are more than able to produce wines of distinction. The federal government has even recognized the region's winemaking prowess by designating the Shawnee Wine territory as an American Viticultural Area, similar to France's D.O.C. system of classification.

Wine tasting at Owl Creek Vineyards, Cobden, Ill.
Having seen the grapes in their natural environs, we set out for two vineyards along the Shawnee Wine Trail along with Taylor: Owl Creek Vineyards and StarView Vineyards. Owl Creek Vineyards' founder Ted Wichmann was influential in drawing the government's attention to the uniqueness of its wines. Owl Creek Vineyards owner and winemaker Brad Genung has arranged a tasting of his wines for us in their inviting, sun-filled tasting room. We try a hybrid unique to Southern Illinois, the Vignole grape, known for its tropical notes and hint of residual sweetness. My tasting notes read "pineapple Jolly Rancher" and "like Viognier on steroids." Vignole is a low-yielding grape--they harvest about 2 tons per acre, which is vastly less than mass-market wines. We decide this will be a lovely choice to serve at Thursday night's dinner with Chef Heidi's tarte tatin.

Owl Creek's Chardonel, thought to be a hybrid of Chardonnay and Cheval Blanc, is aged on its lees, the dead yeast cells that remain once the yeast has consumed all of the juice's sugar, creating the wine's alcohol. Aging on a wine's lees can create notes of butter and roundness on the palate. This one's not overdone, as it still has a nice acidic finish. Genung tells us that 30 percent of the wine's aging takes place in American oak and 70 percent in stainless steel, thus explaining the crispness.

The 2004 Chambourcin--a red hybrid produced by most of the vineyards in the region--is blended with 10 percent Norton grapes and could be equated to a Shiraz. It spent 12 months in new oak barrels and is also low yield, about 3 tons of fruit per acre. Genung says this wine could be credited for building the vineyard's reputation. It was served at President Obama's inauguration to represent his Midwestern roots. The 2005 Chambourcin Reserve is my favorite red here, and it reminds me of Bordeaux with more tannins than the 2004 and notes of blackberry. It's aged in older barrels for 2 years, again blended with Norton (1/3 the total volume).

Brad Genung pours raspberry dessert wine at Owl Creek Vineyards

Owl Creek's raspberry dessert wine is like a fond summer memory, so intense and fruity. Genung tells us that they use berries from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, known for their tremendous sugar and acid content. The high brix rating produces a wine with 15 percent alcohol while preserving the fresh raspberry pucker. A sip fills the room with oohs and sighs from the tasters.

Wine tasting at StarView Vineyards
, Cobden, Ill.
Down the road is StarView Vineyards, which has been newly revamped and is owned and operated by a SIU graduate who grew up in the area. Here we meet Scott Sensemeier, who purchased the vineyard in recent years and renamed it. After a brief tour of some of the grapes preharvest, Sensemeier gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the wine is made. White grapes are often harvested by moonlight or in the very early hours of the morning, as they should not be picked hot. Any heat remaining in the fruit must be removed quickly, as it can produce problems in storage.

Scott Sensemeier describes the terroir of Southern Illinois at Starview Vineyards

Whites do better with cold fermentation, which requires a huge investment on the part of the winemaker. Sensemeier takes us inside that investment--a walk-in cooler the size of which I've never seen in a professional kitchen or hotel. White grapes must be crushed and pressed the same day; juice time on the skins and seeds is not necessary for whites as it is with red wines. Sensemeier says he likes malolactic fermentation in moderation because it rounds out the acids in the wine, but the trade-off is that some of the fruit is lost. The ideal pH of wine is 3.6 to 3.8; 7.0 is neutral, so this is a pretty acidic rating. Malolactic fermentation increases pH and can produce a funky wine if not monitored.

Sensemeier show us some of the tools key to his process such as a hydrometer, a small handheld device that measures brix, or sugar concentration, in juice. The sugar content will determine how alcoholic the wine will be in the end, an important consideration for the winemaker. Sensemeier shows us his rocket tanks, tall plastic tanks that allow for some oxygen contact with the juice. He also utilizes variable capacity tanks, which have a lid that can be adjusted to sit directly on top of the wine and avoid oxidation. It all seems very modern in such a pastoral setting.

For red wines, juice must sit on skins and seeds for about 5 days to develop deep color and sufficient tannins. A cap of the solids and carbon dioxide produced by fermentation forms on top of the juice and must be pushed down every few hours to maintain the juice's contact with the skins. If not pushed down regularly, the cap can also form detrimental bacteria. Extended maceration can be done to mellow the tannins of red wine, but it is difficult to manage, as eventually the cap falls to the bottom of the tank.
Sensemeier opens a few tanks and invites us to inhale. The yeast and newly born alcohol is potent. These tanks are undoubtedly alive with activity.

Organic vegetable farming at Farmer Brown Productions
Exciting produce is always inspiring to a chef, especially of the caliber produced by Farmer Brown in Pomona, Ill. The person behind the label is Josh Brown, who farms organically and sells his greens, peppers and garlic to local restaurants, the food co-op and Whole Foods Market in St. Louis. The farm is an island clearing surrounded by 20-foot-tall evergreen trees in every direction. He and his capable friend Devin Brown (no relation) organize the farm into eight 50- by 100-foot plots. They place plants in a diamond-patterned grid, called triangulation, which allows them to set more plants than a square grid. They plant about 30 percent more plants than the quantity ordered, to account for the unpredictable. Greens are packed the day before they're shipped, and hydrocooled (dunked in cool water) prior to going into the boxes to remove any field heat. Restaurants, says Brown, can be difficult customers for the small farmer, as they demand consistency and regular delivery, which nature can't always oblige.

Farmer Brown Productions Tuscan kale

Brown grows Tuscan kale, or laccianato kale, also referred to as dinosaur kale because of its almost prehistoric appearance. It is a gorgeous blueish green and has a nubby texture. I can attest from the chef's perspective that it is a lovely addition to menus with unique texture and flavor. It also doesn't lose quite as much volume as a wimpier green like spinach.

Picking peppers with farmer Josh Brown

Brown's peppers and chiles seem to spark the most interest among students. Some are the garden-variety bell peppers, but he also has interesting heirloom specimens like a tiny, deep-purple Peruvian pepper that looks like a shiny kalamata olive. They are primarily grown as an ornamental chile, but are edible and quite hot as we discover with a taste. We would use some of his chiles the next day in a spicy a
ïoli for our BLT "bombs."

The group displays the peppers they've picked

We escape from the punishing sun for a moment and head inside Brown's barn. It's like a gallery of garlic, with varieties we've never seen, like musik and porcelain, German white varieties, as well as Lorz Italian (brought to Washington state from Italy in the early 1900s) and Inchilian Red, an international prize winner for its flavor. Varieties with larger cloves are popular among chefs, as less labor is required to peel them.

The gallery of garlic at Farmer Brown Productions

We ask Brown about the effort and expense involved in organic certification, required if a farmer makes organic claims on packaging. It's not as expensive as we'd imagined. The farmer must pay $590 annually for certification, $450 of which can be rebated from the State of Illinois. In addition to the fees, farmers must submit a field plan with maps and plant locations, records of seed purchases and logs of fertilizers, natural pesticides, or mulch used. An independent inspector is hired to evaluate the farm's compliance with these rules and test water from Brown's well. Brown says the certification process helps a farmer be more efficient, as he can return to those records and examine what was planted and how and evaluate yields of crops.

Stubbs Lamb Farm
Thursday starts with a drive to Cobden, Ill., with Dr. Rebecca Atkinson, who teaches in the beef science department of the ag school. We are on our way to meet Walter Stubbs, a Texel lamb farmer. Stubbs' place evokes Norman Rockwell's visions of America as a shepherd collie pup lopes up to the van to welcome us. A sea of green pastures surrounds Stubbs' home and barn, as grazing is an integral part of his finished product. This particular breed of sheep was originally from the island of Texel off the coast of Holland, crossed with British breeds. The sheep are known for their meaty build and leanness, as well as their ability to adapt to extreme temperatures and forage with little grain supplement. They've been bred here in the states only since 1990 and average 225 pounds for the rams and 150 pounds for ewes, according to the Texel Sheep Breeder's Society brochure. Stubbs likes to market his animals at 100 to 120 pounds, when they are approximately 4 to 5 months old.

Up close with a Texel sheep

Stubbs, like Farmer Brown, prefers natural methods of production to modern chemistry and engineering. The challenge for lamb farmers, he says, is a specific worm that invades the sheep, impacting its respiratory system. Infected sheep develop a persistent cough that can be fatal if severe. The worm, Stubbs explains, must have access to the animal for about four weeks in order to be successful. Stubbs outwits the worms by utilizing a five-pasture system. His sheep graze for two weeks on a segment of the land, then move to another plot of grass. By keeping them on a rotation, the worm is never able to complete its cycle, so the animals can be kept healthy without the use of artificial dewormers and pesticides.

About 30 animals are here at any given time; most of the lamb is sold to private buyers who commit to buying before the lamb is mature. His clients prefer the mild flavor of Texel lamb and appreciate the natural lifestyles of the animals as well as the nutrients the meat possesses resulting from a diet that includes grass and vegetation. As we observe the sheep and talk with Stubbs, the massive Pyrenees (a large guard dog) that works at the farm comes to make friends with us. He leans on us with impressive force, probably trying to herd us closer together as he might the sheep. Stubbs says these dogs are unbelievably devoted to fulfilling their purpose as guards. They sleep with the sheep each night and will fight to the death if faced with an intruding wolf or coyote. He tells us a story of a farmer friend whose Pyrenees rescued one sheep at a time from a burning barn until he perished.

During our visit, about half the sheep snack on a mixture of hay and corn, which supplements the grass diet. Stubbs also grows alfalfa, the "Cadillac of forages," he says, which is high in protein. From the looks of the other half of the flock that are sunbathing, it seems a very pleasant life there.

Bison Bluff Farms
Not far from the lamb farm
in Cobden is Bison Bluff Farms, a buffalo producer. American buffalo are not true buffalo; bison is the more correct term. They belong to the same mammal family as domesticated cattle. The owners are hobby farmers, for whom this is entertainment with an entrepreneurial bent. They have invested in a large open-air trailer that seats 20, so visitors can be driven to the center of the bison community without harm to either observer or animal.

Students observe bison in their natural habitat from the caravan

Watching them live, at different ages and sizes in their natural environment, is quite an experience. They are monumental creatures, not only because of their massive size, but their immense eyes and piles of wiry hair that cover their heads. They are very active, running, swatting at the many flies that annoy them and socializing with one another. This is the second time I've seen buffalo in the wild; the first was as a middle schooler when the science club traveled to Fermilab where they keep a few buffalo. That day, we didn't get closer than 100 feet or so. Today, we get to see bison up close, and personal.

The tour guides, parents of the owners, point out the alpha bull (pictured, above) of one group and explain that bison have a specific hierarchical social order. We inquire about how many animals are here, and they estimate approximately 250. It is feeding time when we are there, and a farm hand in a jeep sprinkles what appears to be grain and moves on as the animals charge to get a bite. They are quite obviously wild animals of extraordinary power and speed (their brochure says they can run up to 35 miles per hour). At that speed, a 2,000-pound beast is an intimidating foe.

The meat is sold on the premises in a retail facility, where customers choose the cut of meat they want from posters resembling primal cut diagrams. Most of the meat is Cryovac'ed and frozen. Customers are interested in buffalo meat because they feel it's a more natural product than feedlot-raised beef. Bison Bluff Farms bison also has less saturated fat than corn-fed beef, according to staff members, and contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids due to their primarily wild diet.

Farm-to-Table dinner at the Green Retreat
After prepping at SIU's food and nutrition program kitchens Wednesday and Thursday, we host 100 guests from the Carbondale area for dinner outside on the working farm of the Green Retreat. Among the guests are ag school professors and staff, local farmers, vintners, journalists and foodies. Much of the meat and produce we use are from local sources, and it is quite a pleasure to serve our interpretation of a grower's product to that very grower.

Chef Dina Altieri (second from right) and the students prep farm-to-plate dinner

Our menu:
  • First Course: Pit-roasted prawns, warm niçoise compote and citrus butter sauce
    The prawns were from a local aquaculture facility, some of the sweetest, freshest shrimp I've ever tasted. The green beans in the ni
    çoise we picked ourselves from Dr. Walter's organic plots. We couldn’t stop eating them raw as we cleaned them, and the flavor of a bean snapped right from the plant was amazing.
  • Salad Course: Field greens, roasted Neptune grapes, Marissa sheep's milk gouda, spiced pecans and truffle vinaigrette
    The table grapes were grown by Dr. Taylor and had a distinct floral quality. Once they were roasted, their flavor became so intense. The cheese is from the award-winning Carr Valley cheesemakers, and the truffle vinaigrette was made with a reduction of Oak Creek's Chambourcin Reserve, enhancing its earthiness.
  • Intermezzo: Fresh cucumber mint granita served in cuke towers
    The cucumbers were from local Sweitzer’s farm and were blended with citrusy Vignoles wine from StarView Vineyards. The owners of the Green Retreat provided mint from their personal garden.
  • Entrée: Chambourcin-braised sirloin tip roast, sweet corn and okra polenta and summer vegetable ragoût
    Oak Creek wine tenderized and flavored the beef from Bass Farms, and the beautiful vegetables were provided by SIU's farms for the polenta and chunky ratatouille.
  • Dessert: Jonathan apple tarte tatin with crème fraîche, buttermilk peach fritters and lavender honey drizzle
    SIU's orchards supplied the crisp apples and sublime peaches; the crème fra
    îche was from Prairie Fruits farm and was worthy of being eaten on its own with a spoon. Chef Heidi did a quick-infusion of local honey with the Green Retreat's fresh lavender. Take my word for it: The barn we cooked in that night never smelled better.
Dr. Taylor provided commentary about the wine pairings for each course, which were all from Shawnee Hills Wine Trail vineyards. At the end of the meal, Dr. Smith invited all of us out to the tent to introduce us to the group and gave each student an opportunity to explain to the diners which part of the meal they had lent their talents to. From the toasts, hugs, handshakes and invitations we received, I'd say the meal was a success. Smith said she hoped to impart to producers in the area that what they are doing is so important and worthy of attention. Our visit and the dinner would confirm how valuable their efforts are. Not only would we see the source of our foodstuffs, but the farmers would see us put those foodstuffs into action. Pretty cool.

Part one | Part three

Monday, February 22, 2010

Farm-to-plate, part one

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series following a group of Kendall College chef-instructors and students on a trip to Southern Illinois University's (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contributed by Dana Cox,
Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago

Just after Labor Day last fall, seven culinary and pastry students, and three chef-instructors (including me) hopped a train from Chicago to Carbondale, Ill., to immerse ourselves in the agricultural life for five days. Our mission? To better understand and appreciate where food comes from. What happens before we pop open a box of pork loins or bag of haricot verts? We would soon discover just that.

Monday evening we arrive in the heart of Southern Illinois University's (SIU) campus in Carbondale and are met by Dr. Sylvia Smith, our hosting professor who teaches in SIU's foods and nutrition program. We couldn't have asked for a more qualified guide. Smith earned her PhD with a thesis in culinary tourism. Piling into the van (aptly donated to SIU by Anheuser Busch), we are headed to the Green Retreat, a working farm with cabins and guest homes constructed for those weary of urban life and in search of pastoral peace and quiet.

The chefs' guesthouse would soon be filled with teachers, administrators and students from SIU anxious to greet us and give us a tour of the farm. Our first dinner there is composed of sausages and brats made from local bison, grass-fed beef and conventionally raised pork (clearly these folks spoke our language).

Dairy Research
Our first full day begins early with a trip to the research dairy run by SIU staff member Chet Stuemke. This facility houses and milks 36 cows. Stuemke explains that the "ladies" are milked twice a day, and the earlier milking produces a higher volume of milk. Cows there yield about 35 to 40 pounds of milk per day, or 9 to 10 gallons if the "pint-per-pound" expression holds true.

Kendall's Sarah Roberts learns to milk with machines at SIU research dairy

We all take a turn at using the milking machine, which greatly improves the efficiency of the process, but also requires vigilant sanitation of udders, workers' hands and the suction cups on the machine.
Stuemke allows us to put our fingers inside the cups and experience the pressure that will be applied to the cows' teats. Rumination, Stuemke tells us, creates a great deal of heat, so cows actually feel better and produce more during colder months, as the weather provides some relief. A student comments that his cows are on the skinny side, which Stuemke says is appropriate for their job as dairy cows. They should be thought of as athletes, he says, adding that the constant milking does not allow them to put on body fat. They would develop fat livers if not milked consistently, which is potentially life threatening. They give us a couple gallons of fresh (raw) milk, an amazing luxury not available to non-farm dwellers (milk in grocery stores must be pasteurized for sale to the public).

Specialty Vegetables
The next stop of the day is to see Dr. Alan Walters, specialty horticulturalist at SIU who is studying the impact of compost on organic crops. Every few feet of green bean vines have been treated with varying amounts of compost, and he urges us to notice the vibrancy of color and hardiness of the beans more generously fed with compost, produced from SIU's cafeteria waste and hard-working worms. We pick a bushel or two of beans (photo, below), to be used later in the week for a dinner under the stars we will produce for local farmers, vintners and academics.

Walters informs us that SIU is prolific in winter pumpkin and horseradish production. Collinsville, Ill., is the horseradish capital of the world, and Libby's canned pumpkin is grown down the street in Morton, Ill. Processing pumpkins, used for canning, have lots of flavorful flesh and don't resemble the crayon-orange jack-o'-lanterns in the supermarket.

Kendall chef-instructor Dina Altieri (at right) investigates a squash blossom with Dr. Alan Walters (left), specialty produce researcher

Vermiculture (Worm Composting)
Andilee Warner, SIU's resident vermiculture expert and recycling coordinator, entertains us next at the agriculture school's compost center. Warner's facility is funded by grants with the objective of putting café and farm waste to work and keeping it out of landfills. She and millions of red wiggler worms (assisted by a food pulper from Hobart Corp., which makes rice-sized morsels of the food) break down tons of agriculture and foodservice product into valuable "worm castings," which can provide nutrient to crops. It's important to keep the worms happy, says Warner, as content critters have lots of sex, which produces eggs and means more compost. One accommodation made for the worms is that waste is allowed to pre-compost and go through its "hot phase" before being fed to the worms. The worms are also stimulated by coffee grounds donated by local Starbucks outlets. They are astoundingly efficient, eating half their body weight in 24 hours' time:
1 pound of worms >>> eat 1/2 pound of waste >>>> produce 2 ounces castings
Warner says there are different ways to approach composting: bunker systems, forced air and flow-through reactors. The latter is used at SIU and involves feeding the waste from the top and harvesting the finished matter at the bottom.

Only weeks prior to our trip, says Warner, the government signed SB99 into law, an act making commercial composting less prohibitive. Warner introduces us to a new term--the "archeology of garbage"--which refers to how waste is created, transported and stored. She often visits concerts, state fairs and the like with willing workers (not easily nauseated) to sort and categorize garbage produced by such events with the hope of identifying where the lion's share of waste is created so that waste reduction and processing strategy is based in reality.

Grains /Cereals
Tuesday afternoon we return to the fields to meet with Bryan Young, "weed scientist" and agronomist. He's not investigating the habits of the dandelion here; rather he studies cereals such as corn (both edible and field corn, fed to livestock), soy and sorghum. Summer cereals are those such as corn and soy, which are planted in early spring and harvested by fall. Winter grains, such as wheat, are planted before the ground freezes and stays dormant all winter, sprouting early in the spring. Soft red winter wheat is most commonly grown in Illinois, as it's the most profitable for our climate.

Sampling field corn

Soy, Young explains, is desirable for its oil and protein content and can produce about 50 bushels per acre here--60 if it's planted more densely, which also makes the harvest more difficult as plants are forced to grow taller. Soy is self-pollinated, and has already done so once flowers open, making hybridization of soy impossible. Corn, we would discover, is a much more complex creature than we'd imagined. Corn silks, which the cook removes when corn is husked and cleaned, are actually tubes that connect to every kernel on the cob, as each individual kernel must be pollinated. The tassels atop the corn are its pollen. Dry, hot summers can mean the pollen dries up and cannot function properly.

Our next stop on the tour would reveal that SIU's research has impacts far beyond the cornfields. Dr. Jesse Trushenski, physiology researcher at the aquaculture facility, meets us in a seemingly remote and secure field. Expecting to see tanks and whirlpools of fish, we are surprised by this destination. Here we'd be introduced to "extensive," or outdoor aquaculture. Dr. Trushenski walks us down rows of square, manmade ponds--they have 90 here--and points out that outdoor installations such as these are low-input with relatively low control, also yielding a low output. What, then, is the advantage of this type of fish farming? The goal of their research is to develop a model that can be replicated in developing parts of the world, where the initial investment needs to be minimal. All that is manipulated within this environment is that the pond is "fed" to encourage algae growth and attract the sorts of crawlers that shrimp like to eat. Hybrid bass (a cross between striped and white) are also raised in ponds such as these. Chosen varieties must be comfortable with some degree of density, since as many as 500 animals may reside in a pond.
An outdoor aquaculture facility at SIU

Once inside, the humming tanks we anticipated were filled with freshwater prawns, trout and even a variety of rainforest fish called pacu. The pacu, relatives of the piranha, are being husbanded here to restock the species in their native waters of South America. Their impressive teeth are utilized to crush the seeds and pits of vegetation they eat, which even includes persimmons that fall in the water.

The loftier objectives of fish farming are not only economic but also to promote sustainability. Eighty percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported, which means considerable carbon expenditure as well as fishing practices that can be profit-, rather than planet-centric. Fish that are exclusively fed corn and soy don't have the Omega-3 fatty acid profile desirable to health-conscious consumers, but fish fed oil and meal from fatty fish will develop these healing fats. They have discovered at SIU that fish can be "finished" with this marine-rich diet for the last 1/2 pound of body weight, ending up with the same nutritive specs as a fish that has eaten seafood its entire life.

Swine Farm
Our day would end with Dr. Gary Apgar, who refers to himself "the pig guy," with a big smile. Before heading to the barns to see the 100 hogs raised and studied here, Apgar had prepared a presentation for us, and we couldn't have been happier to sit and absorb for a moment after an ambitious (and hot) day of agrarian sightseeing.

Apgar explains that the hog is a remarkably profitable animal, as it is headed to market in a matter of months after birth, and that virtually the whole animal is used either for food or as a component of numerous products for other industries. In the 1980s, the fat-free craze hurt the pork industry, as consumers' view of pork as a fatty food discouraged sales and considerably. The pork industry responded by engineering a meatier, leaner pig via breeding and diet. Thus, the modern-day hog achieves market weight (approximately 260 pounds, according to Apgar) more quickly, has a longer trunk (the portion of the body that pork chops, loin and bacon come from) and has less body fat than the pigs of yesteryear. Apgar tells us, too, that the nation's largest purchaser of pork products is retailer Walmart, and that the company dictates the wholesale price paid for hogs. Farmers, then, are placed into the role of "price takers," having to get their animals to market within the parameters of what the discount behemoth will pay them.

A staff member from the facility responsible for insemination of the female "gestation" animals (sows whose job it is to have one litter after the other) joins us to demonstrate the tools used for impregnation. The sex organ of the male hog is corkscrew shaped, as is the apparatus used to inseminate the females. One sperm sample from a worthy stud (based on his size, leanness and number of teats) can inseminate 12 to 14 sows, producing more than 100 offspring bearing his meaty likeness. The process is done artificially, but the females must be inspired into estrus again after they have given birth. As the animals are separated by sex and weight/age, females are "exposed" to a male that is placed in a run adjacent to theirs. Periodically, we are told, the motivating male must be replaced, as the sows tire of him and need a new romantic lead to generate the required level of porcine lust.

Next, we make our way with Apgar to the buildings where the hogs are housed. The piglets, only weeks old, are kept in a trailer and are startled at the sight of us. Apgar pulls one from the trailer and hands him over to a willing Kendall student. Pigs are more intelligent than the average dog, which is evident in the inquisitive expression of the piglet as he eyes the group. Dr. Apgar explains that each hog's ears are notched shortly after birth to indicate their birth month, lineage and future job within the system. They once used tags to record this information, but aggressive pigs will pull them out of their barn mates' ears when there is discord.

SIU's Gary Apgar (left) explains ear notching system

The larger buildings on the farm house the animals as they grow and put on weight. They are separated into sections, with each group getting larger as we get deeper into the building. Their feed is primarily corn-based, which helps to put weight on them within the desired timeframe. Live green foods, although they produce healthful properties in meat, are thought to be inefficient foods in commercial farming, as animals take much longer to achieve a desirable size on grass and the like.

Because pigs do not possess an internal body temperature regulation capacity as humans do, they will wallow in mud. Since these animals live on a concrete surface, they will roll in their own waste to achieve this surface "evaporative" cooling. The aroma of this plant is something I won't soon forget.

Adolescent pigs in the swine barn

Our final point on the swine tour is the farrowing center, where the gestation sows give birth. There are claw-like devices about the size of a large pig in each pen. These are restraints, we're told, to keep the mothers from rolling over on their babies. The pigs are so stout today that they can literally crush their newborns with a simple position change. There is a small tube hanging over each pen, which Apgar points out is a source of water to drip on the mother and provide some of that evaporative cooling. Gestation mothers have an average of eight-plus piglets per litter, and they can give birth every 4 to 5 months.

Part two | Part three