When a chef is asked how he or she got interested in cooking, it’s a very good bet the answer will begin, “When I was growing up, I started helping out my mother in the kitchen…”
The 16th annual Tastes of the World Chef Conference at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, held earlier this summer, took cooking back to that iconic, primal place. The theme was Home Cooking from Around the World, and the conference more than lived up to its name, with both campus chefs and lecturers sharing memories, cooking methods, recipes and more.
The 200 chef participants from 45 colleges and universities across North America spent busy days exploring this timely trend.
“Home cooking is the next big trend on campus that you need to watch,” said UMass’ Ken Toong in his welcome remarks on the first night of the conference, adding that students are looking for rustic comfort food that is “appealing, flavorful, fresh, healthy and a great value.”
The conference opened with a fun and heartwarming mother-and-son cooking lesson. Chef Prakas Yembamroong and his mother Vilai Yenbamroong, owners/operators of Talesai, an upscale Thai restaurant in West Hollywood, demonstrated the analogy that Holy Basil is to Thais as a hamburger is to Americans. The two worked together and created an aromatic Thai curry that could easily be reproduced in a campus setting.
Next, Texas chef James Sanchez of Acenar restaurant in San Antonio, reminisced about eating chalupas as a kid growing up in San Antonio and showed attendees how tostadas can make leftovers fun. Sanchez described making some refried beans that took a customer “back to her mother’s kitchen.”
“We have that power as chefs; to touch someone’s memory from way back,” Sanchez said.
Chef Tony Jung, who also brought along his mother, shared memories of a Korean snack time with pancakes made with fresh clams and a pungent paste of fermented soybeans. Jung is a UMass alumni who is chef of the newly renovated Berkshire Dining Commons.
The sense of family, home and community was further illustrated by Chef Neela Paniz. The Bombay-born chef and restauranteur spoke about the ‘power of lentils’ in an Indian neighborhood, demonstrating a few different uses of the simple protein (including bringing people together).
“Come, have bal chaba with us,” Paniz said, explaining that lentils and rice is a homey, comfortable food that’s casually enjoyed with family and friends.
Chef Graciel Caces, freelance food stylist and recipe tester for the Food Network and Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine, demonstrated another popular snack, Filipino chicken wings using just five ingredients: the wings (should have a lot of fat), vinegar, garlic cloves, ground black pepper and a bay leaf. Simple, spicy comfort food defined!
Simplicity was also present in the presentation by the ‘Mediterranean Mama,’ aka prolific cookbook author Joyce Goldstein, who made a “low impact comfort food” grain dish, Farrotto con Funghi e Nocciolie (Farro with Mushrooms and Hazelnuts) designed for weary college students on a rainy day.
The way that campus chefs can help homesick college students from far and wide feel welcome was an underlying theme at the conference. Taking care of your customers by serving something delicious that reminded them of home or introduced them to a new kind of home was demonstrated in many ways over the course of the conference.
Of course, being chefs on a college campus, it almost goes without saying that you must be on top of the latest trends for an increasingly food-conscious student body.
Here are some of the trends identified by foodservice analyst Nancy Kruse and consulting chef for Gordon Food Service Gerry Ludwig, CEC, heavily tinged with the ‘retro comfort food’ vibe:
- - Meatloaf
- - Bread Bowls
- - Oatmeal
- - Patty Melts
- - Tater Tots
- - Chicken Wings
- - Banh Mi (soft-bunned Asian sandwiches)
All the while, the chefs at the conference were anticipating the conference’s culmination in its American Culinary Federation (ACF)-sanctioned competition. There was much talk of the secret ingredients that might be specified and much speculation. By Friday, the chefs were ready.
15 teams from 18 colleges and universities competed in the competition, which began at 6 a.m. sharp.
You can view the full list of winning teams here http://www.umass.edu/chefconference/2010/competition-results. And you can view a slide show of conference highlights here http://food-management.com/video/umass-chef-culinary-conference/