Monday, August 5, 2013

Exploring the savory side of blueberries at the Culinary Institute of America

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The front door at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California

In June 2013 the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council invited me to accompany a group of corporate chefs for a workshop on cooking with blueberries at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. Are you thinking that I might be the luckiest food blogger on the planet? Me too.

Breakfast conversation when you're eating with corporate chefs:

"Do you have your own bakery? Yeah, me neither."

"I could save them a ton of money if I had a butcher on-site, but we just don't have the physical space."

"The one thing I tell students is make sure you look people in the eye when you're interviewing. There's nothing worse than bringing in a candidate for a job in my kitchen and having him look at the floor the entire time."

"Actually, doing a barbecue for 5,000 people isn't as hard as you think. My team's pretty much got it down."

"When we did that pastry competition, we had to store all the sugar sculptures on the desk in my office - it was the only place in the kitchen with air conditioning."

The corporate chefs with CIA Greystone instructor Lars Kronmark

If the Blueberry Council had brought fine dining chefs to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to play with blueberries, maybe we would have been talking about foie gras, Michelin stars and molecular gastronomy. But the 16 corporate chefs and foodservice executives in our group talked about stuff much closer to my heart, the nuts and bolts of the food business: staffing, purchasing, margins, menu development, physical plant, corporate politics.

I found the business discussions fascinating and asked a million questions. How many people does it take to serve 4,000 meals a day (to Eric Ernest, Executive Chef at the University of Southern California)? How do you decide whether to let an entrepreneur buy into your franchise (to David Goldstein, Chief Operating Officer of Sharky's)? Do you use social media to market your new menus to students when you take over the dining halls at a new state school account (to David Aylmer, Regional Executive Chef for Chartwells)?

Our group included titles like Director, Food and Beverage; Senior Director of Training; Culinary Manager, On Site Food Service; and a few Executive Chefs or Corporate Executive Chefs. Most of them, but not all, had gone to culinary school. Many had been in the food business since puberty. While each chef had taken a different path through the world of restaurants and corporate kitchens, all landed in jobs that are a lot more management and a lot less hands-on cooking.

And yet the minute they got behind the stoves, aprons wrapped around waists, toques balanced carefully on heads, you could see the joy - and the chops. These chefs knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it with confidence, ease, care, and a whole lot of flair.

The corporate chefs in the CIA's Viking-equipped teaching kitchen

The point of the workshop: to introduce these corporate chefs to blueberries as a savory menu item. This wasn't about blueberry muffins or blueberry pie. Under the expert tutelage of CIA Chef Instructor Lars Kronmark, the corporate chefs used blueberries in salsas, salads, marinades, sauces, savory cheese puffs, and sandwiches. And not just fresh blueberries: The group also got to experiment with dried, freeze-dried, powdered, and pickled blueberries, as well as Chef Lars's homemade blueberry vinegar.

The inside of a freeze-dried blueberry

Blueberry products: dried, dehydrated, powder, concentrate, puree, and fresh

Chef Lars made an intense, savory blueberry jam (secret ingredient: saba, concentrated grape must)

Why does it make sense for the Blueberry Council to spend a boatload of money flying in corporate chefs from around the country to focus on blueberries? It's pretty simple: Supply and demand. As Mark Villata, the Blueberry Council's Executive Director told the group, the number of acres planted in highbush blueberries in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2005, to 231,000 acres as of last year. What's more, Chile has also ramped up cultivation and export of highbush blueberries. New varieties and higher yields mean more blueberries for sale all year round. The Blueberry Council's job is to create demand for all that new fruit.

On the first day, Chef Lars broke the group into four teams and assigned each team a few hand-picked recipes to execute. One was more complicated and delicious than the next: Turkish zucchini pancakes with feta and blueberries; tabbouleh with parsley, cinnamon and blueberries; Taiwanese-style baby ribs with five-spiced blueberry sauce. I have a mental block when it comes to plating, so I was awed by the artful presentation of the dishes that came out of the CIA's beautifully equipped Viking kitchen. And then - the best part - we ate their creations for lunch.

Chef Lars giving the group its marching orders
Dividing the work
USC's Eric Ernest
Steven Scaia, Executive Chef, Redmond Marriott Town Center
Jeremy Bringardner, Corporate Executive Chef, LYFE Kitchen
Kristian Forrest, Executive Chef, ARAMARK Higher Education
Dan Phalen, Corporate Executive Chef for Luby's Fuddruckers Restaurants
David Aylmer of Chartwells
Sharky's COO David Goldstein
Korean bulgogi-style beef marinating; it was served topped with pickled blueberries
Making fried wonton skins with duck leg confit and blueberries
Five-spiced blueberry sauce for baby ribs
Penny Poorman, Catalina Restaurant Group's Director of Food and Beverage, with ham and blueberry gougeres (cheese puffs)
Crispy masa boats with chorizo, topped with cheese and fresh blueberries
Blueberry gougeres (cheese puffs) with arugula
Lamb chops with blueberry glaze
Smoked chicken and blueberry tostadas with spicy red salsa
The second day's session in the Viking kitchen featured a Chopped-style competition, where each two-person team had to create two "small plates"-style dishes using a mystery protein, ingredients from Chef Lars's pantry, and blueberries. That's when the chefs' personal styles really shone through. John Byrne of US Foods, ever the Irish lad, stuck with lamb; Jeremy from LYFE Kitchen made a clean quinoa salad; Eric Ernest from USC channeled his inner Asian to make blueberry banh mi sandwiches. Each team stood up and presented its dishes. And then we ate.

Bernardo Coelho, Executive Chef at Restaurant Associates, with teammate Stefan Riemer, one of Disney's head pastry chefs
Penny Poorman slicing plantains
Steak in a blueberry marinade
Blueberry banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich)

Guacamole with blueberry-dusted tortilla chips
Beef carpaccio "lollipops" with blueberry filling
Blueberries and pork on fried masa cakes
Fritters and a French Dip-like sandwich with blueberry sauce
Blueberry-marinated ribs
Empanadas with blueberry dipping sauce
Turkey and blueberry quenelles with plantain chips
Fried quail egg and blueberry pancake breakfast stacks
Quinoa and blueberry bowl
Blueberry marinated flank steak with exquisite plating - those words were written in chocolate on the plate
Stefan Riemer and Bernardo Coelho
Andrew Edwards and Penny Poorman
Kristian Forrest and Dan Phalen
Michael Freeman, Senior Director of Training for McAlister's Deli, and David Goldstein of Sharky's
Eric Ernest and Jeremy Bringardner
US Foods' John Byrne and Deanna Day, Culinary Manager for Rich's Products Corporation
Steven Scaia and David Aylmer

And there was more. A blueberry tasting, where we tried blueberries in every form paired with savory elements like pork rinds, butter, and salt. One dinner at the CIA's restaurant, another at the Alpha Omega winery (with a barrel tasting, my very first!). A molecular gastronomy demo by Chef Lars, blueberry ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. Wine pairings with tiny blueberry appetizers. By the time the workshop was over, we were well fed, well educated, and well satisfied.

There was consensus at the end: Blueberries rock in savory dishes. Everyone left with new ideas about how to use blueberries in all their forms in their corporate menu planning. Mission accomplished.

Thanks to the Blueberry Council for including me in this wonderful workshop and paying for my travel. For more blueberry recipes and nutritional information, visit the Blueberry Council's website or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube.  


Cathy @ She Paused 4 Thought said...

Were you in heaven or what? I am still drooling over those lamb chops with blueberry glaze!

Erika Kerekes said...

@Cathy, I was in heaven - but the food was only part of it. I really enjoyed the intense discussions about the business side of cooking. Everyone was incredibly nice and interesting and engaged. It was a fantastic group and I felt extremely lucky to be part of it.

Marnely Rodriguez-Murray said...

Wow, that must have been such a fun experience!!!!

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