Friday, April 30, 2010

Congratulations to Class #58

Congratulations to Class #58 of the Second Helpings Culinary Job Training Program.

Class #58 graduated Friday, April 30, 2010, putting the total number of graduates since the program's inception to 401.

Pictured below (front row, left to right): Shane Everett, Deadrick Green, Kathleen Blackwell, Alwanna Bradley, Brett Davis, Michael Carruthers (back row, left to right): Chef Conway, Michael Bower, Derek Prezzy, Timothy Rosa, David Upshaw, Conrad Rollins, Robert Snowden, and Michael Hewitt.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Food for the Journey

For students in Wilma W. Stephenson’s culinary arts classes at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, cooking is more than a skill. “It is the key to their futures,” says Stephenson. She’s not exaggerating. In the 11 years her graduating seniors have participated in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) Cooking Competition for Scholarships, Stephenson’s pupils have racked up more than $3 million to be put toward paying for college, earning $637,000 in 2009 alone.

“A lot of these kids in the beginning do not see themselves doing much of anything [as a career],” says the 64-year-old schoolteacher. Stephenson explains many don’t even consider education beyond high school. Some come from broken homes; others are accustomed to financial hardship. Yet when they leave her class, many go on to college and careers where they hold titles such as executive chef and pastry chef at restaurants all across the country.

“My students are successful because they have the motivation to succeed; they have that drive,” says Stephenson who has taught at Frankford her entire 41-year career. But their success is also due in part to the impact of the dynamic woman who runs her classroom like a boot camp. Yelling like a drill sergeant, she presents her classes with a laundry list of rules, including: “You have to be on time, you cannot chew gum, and you cannot wear big earrings.”

For some students, her tough demeanor is off-putting at first. “In the beginning I felt intimidated,” admits Lasheeda Perry, a former student. “She was tough, straight to the point, and didn’t take any mess.” As hard as it may have been under Stephenson’s direction, Perry earned an $80,000 scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, to study baking and pastry arts. The 24-year-old is now a pastry cook at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.

But the students also see another side of Stephenson, whose take-no-prisoners teaching style is the subject of a documentary directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker called Pressure Cooker ( [3]). They see the side that buys a student a winter coat, the side that gives out her cell phone number so students can call her when life gets complicated outside the classroom, the side that assigns personal essays to her seniors and returns the writings as many times as it takes for the students to acknowledge how past traumas have held them back.

The lessons Stephenson dishes out in Room 325 don’t just pertain to cooking. No topic is off-limits if putting it on the table can benefit students. “I think I learned more from her [than from anybody else] about becoming a woman,” says Perry. But inevitably the conversation always finds its way back to cooking. In competition, students have two hours to prepare a three-course meal and clean up. Stephenson wants her kids to be ready. While some students will walk away from it with enough cash to further their education in the field, all leave knowing the value of hard work, emotional honesty, and discipline. Stephenson is certain that cooking is a way they build pride.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cajun Food Hides in Plain Sight in New Orleans

April 18, 2010 - New Orleans often seems to exist to be misunderstood by outsiders, and Cajun food — what it is, where to find it, what it tastes like — is a disorienting topic even to people who live here.

Not even K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Cochon, the city’s two best known Cajun restaurants, are full-blooded Cajun. An early K-Paul’s menu included fettuccine, and Cochon self-identifies as both “Cajun” and “Southern.” The Bon Ton Café, the city’s oldest Cajun cooking stronghold, serves dishes you can find at Galatoire’s.

“It does strike me as a little odd when people say I’m going to New Orleans to eat some Cajun food,” said Frank Brigtsen, who has been cooking Cajun-style food professionally for 30-odd years, most of them at his restaurant Brigtsen’s. “That requires a long explanation.”

I’ll try to keep it short.

New Orleans is an old city, but its reputation as a stronghold of Cajun cooking is relatively new and roughly 136 miles off the mark.

Cajun food comes, of course, from Cajun country, the largely rural swath of marshes, swamps, bayous and plains whose unofficial capital is Lafayette. Cajuns are descendents of the French Acadians who fled eastern Canada in the 1700s. The food is born of the ingredients and challenges unique to rural people. It is porkier that the Creole food indigenous to New Orleans. It is also marked by fewer European cooking techniques, a characteristic that leads many to describe it as simple, which is not to say it isn’t labor intensive or deeply flavored.

That is history drawn in broad strokes, and anyone interested in the full story of Cajun cuisine should visit the library and/or the region itself.

Read a brief guide to Cajun cooking in New Orleans here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

For Former White House Pastry Chef, Life is Sweet

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. — With his chef’s-eye perspective of life inside the White House, Roland Mesnier served a platter of amusing anecdotes Saturday at a WV Book Faire event.

He recalled former President Bill Clinton’s penchant for big parties and hearty appetite for sweets, which presented a challenge: Clinton was allergic to chocolate, dairy products and flour.

Mesnier — who retired after more than 25 years as the White House executive pastry chef — said he made a low-calorie strawberry cake that Clinton appeared to enjoy; he once ate half of a cake by himself.

One day, Clinton wanted leftover cake and was upset when a butler couldn’t find it. Clinton’s voice rose and he pounded a table.

“We think that Al Gore is the one who took it,” Mesnier quipped.

Mesnier, 65, a native of France, told story after story at Blue Ridge Community & Technical College, where he was a celebrity judge for the book fair’s Edible Book Contest.

“There was a time when he ate alone a lot,” Mesnier said of Clinton. “Even the dog wouldn’t eat with him. I don’t know if you remember those days. They were rough in the White House.”

“No more comment,” Mesnier added as the audience laughed.

Mesnier said thousands of people visit the White House daily during a three-month period around Christmas. If he didn’t start the season with 120,000 pieces of cookies and cake, the pastry shop couldn’t keep up.

Part of the demand was from what Mesnier called “the club of blue-haired ladies.”

Younger women were little trouble — they were usually dieting and trying to fit into size-2 skirts, he said.

But the blue-haired ladies ...

“Beware: Those were cookie thiefs,” he said.

Mesnier described them wandering along, opening their pocketbooks, looking around, whistling — and pushing entire plates of cookies into their bags.

The women later had their husbands drill holes in the cookies, which they would string up and give as Christmas tree ornaments, he said.

“So we had to bake not only for the ... guests, but for all of the neighbors of the blue-haired ladies,” Mesnier said.

Read the rest of the story here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault

(Even the great Julia Child hated it!!)


FOOD partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters.

Culinary sophistication is no guarantee of immunity from cilantrophobia. In a television interview in 2002, Larry King asked Julia Child which foods she hated. She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.”

“So you would never order it?” Mr. King asked.

“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”

Ms. Child had plenty of company for her feelings about cilantro (arugula seems to be less offensive). The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word “coriander” is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug, that cilantro aroma “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes” and that “Europeans often have difficulty in overcoming their initial aversion to this smell.” There’s an “I Hate Cilantro” Facebook page with hundreds of fans and an I Hate Cilantro blog.

Yet cilantro is happily consumed by many millions of people around the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America. The Portuguese put fistfuls into soups. What is it about cilantro that makes it so unpleasant for people in cultures that don’t much use it?

Some people may be genetically predisposed to dislike cilantro, according to often-cited studies by Charles J. Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. But cilantrophobe genetics remain little known and aren’t under systematic investigation. Meanwhile, history, chemistry and neurology have been adding some valuable pieces to the puzzle.

The coriander plant is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and European cooks used both seeds and leaves well into medieval times.

Helen Leach, an anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has traced unflattering remarks about cilantro flavor and the bug etymology — not endorsed by modern dictionaries — back to English garden books and French farming books from around 1600, when medieval dishes had fallen out of fashion. She suggests that cilantro was disparaged as part of a general effort to define the new European table against the flavors of the old.

Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense.

Read the rest of the story here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pastry Chefs Rising Stars of the Culinary World

SAN FRANCISCO — Not too long ago, the pastry chef was a bit of an afterthought.

Sure, there was tiramisu and molten lava chocolate cake. But, for the most part, kitchen celebrity was measured by thrills at the grill, not by teaspoonfuls of baking soda.

That's changed.

Artisan cupcakes are everywhere, Bravo TV's "Top Chef" is spinning off a show "Top Chef: Just Desserts," and TLC has "Cake Boss." Then there's Food Network's "Ace of Cakes," following the adventures of Duff Goldman as he and his crew whip up such concoctions as Viking ship wedding cakes, detailed right down to the breaking waves.

Pastry chefs are the rising stars of the culinary world.

"There's definitely a lot of interest," says Peter Reinhart, baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University and author of five books on bread baking, including "The Bread Bakers Apprentice." At Johnson & Wales, one of the nation's leading culinary schools, "we sell out our baking and pastry program faster than any other program, and that tells us a lot."

Dorie Greenspan, author of "Baking: From My Home to Yours," thinks blogging has helped shine a spotlight on sweets. There are cake bloggers, cookie bloggers, macaron bloggers. "There's just been a lot more news about what's going on in the sweet world."

Read the rest of the story here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Young Job-Seekers Hiding Their Facebook Pages

(CNN) -- Justin Gawel says there's nothing too incriminating on his Facebook page.

"There are a lot of pictures of drinking [but] nothing naked or anything -- at least I don't think so," he said jokingly.

Even so, the Michigan State University junior recently changed his Facebook display name to "Dustin Jawel" to keep his personal life from potential employers while applying for summer internships.

Although Gawel ditched his rhyming alias after two weeks when he realized Facebook users also can be searched by e-mail address, school and network, he is not alone in his efforts to scrub his online résumé. Many students and recent graduates say they are changing their names on Facebook or tightening privacy settings to hide photos and wall posts from potential employers.

And with good reason.

A recent survey commissioned by Microsoft found that 70 percent of recruiters and hiring managers in the United States have rejected an applicant based on information they found online.

What kind of information? "Inappropriate" comments by the candidate; "unsuitable" photos and videos; criticisms of previous employers, co-workers, or clients; and even inappropriate comments by friends and relatives, according to the survey report, titled "Online Reputation in a Connected World."

Such prying into his online life makes Gawel uncomfortable.

"I understand that when [employers look] at someone's Facebook page, they're just trying to paint a bigger picture of the people they're hiring -- so they're not just a name on a résumé," he said. "But that doesn't demonstrate whether they can do the job. It shouldn't matter what someone does when they're not in the office."

Gawel said he's not sure that employers would object to the information on his Facebook page. For him, it's more about personal privacy.

"Too many people take pictures of you. I didn't want to go through and 'untag' all of them," he said. "There's nothing illegal or too ridiculous in the photos ... but people don't take pictures of people studying or doing school work. They take pictures of people at parties and doing silly things."

For better or worse, online screenings may be a permanent part of the 21st-century hiring process.The Microsoft survey found that 79 percent of U.S. hiring managers have used the Internet to better assess applicants.

Read the rest of the story here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Superbowl Triumph Brings Wine, Osteopaths Back to New Orleans

April 5 (Bloomberg) -- “Ever since the Saints won the Super Bowl people have stopped asking if the streets of New Orleans are still full of water,” said Ted Brennan, whose family owns Brennan’s in the French Quarter. “You can’t imagine how important that game was. People are coming back, eating in the restaurants, and ordering good wines again.”

The last time I spoke with Ted and his brother Jimmy was after Katrina hit in 2005 and destroyed vast quantities of restaurant wine, mainly from heat spoilage after the electricity went out.

On the night after Katrina blew through, Jimmy Brennan and his chef Lazone Randolph kept a vigil with loaded pistols to ward off looters intent on robbing their 30,000 bottle wine cellar of its treasures -- all eventually condemned by the health department.

Antoine’s lost 16,000 bottles, Emeril’s 6,000.

“We’re back up to about 5,000 bottles now, which is $500,000 wholesale,” said Jimmy Brennan. “And prices are coming down fast. It used to be very difficult to buy 2005 and 2006 Bordeaux and Burgundy, but now there’s a lot of wine unsold because of the economy worldwide. They got to get rid of that wine.”

Jimmy, 68, says that the older New Orleans restaurants (Brennan’s opened in 1946 and moved to Royal Street in 1955) “held our own” after Katrina and during the recession. “Everybody’s ordering in the medium price range, with very few high notes.”

He prides himself on low markups. “You get a lot more bang for your buck in New Orleans than you would in New York, Boston, or other cities where they jack up the prices,” he said. “If I pay $10 for a wine wholesale, I charge the guest $30; if I pay $50 or more, I just double the price.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Once a Rising Star, Chef Now Feeds Hungry

Madurai, India (CNN) -- Narayanan Krishnan was a bright, young, award-winning chef with a five-star hotel group, short-listed for an elite job in Switzerland. But a quick family visit home before heading to Europe changed everything.

"I saw a very old man eating his own human waste for food," Krishnan said. "It really hurt me so much. I was literally shocked for a second. After that, I started feeding that man and decided this is what I should do the rest of my lifetime."

Krishnan was visiting a temple in the south Indian city of Madurai in 2002 when he saw the man under a bridge. Haunted by the image, Krishnan quit his job within the week and returned home for good, convinced of his new destiny.

"That spark and that inspiration is a driving force still inside me as a flame -- to serve all the mentally ill destitutes and people who cannot take care of themselves," Krishnan said.

Krishnan founded his nonprofit Akshaya Trust in 2003. Now 29, he has served more than 1.2 million meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- to India's homeless and destitute, mostly elderly people abandoned by their families and often abused.

Because of the poverty India faces, so many mentally ill people have been ... left uncared [for] on the roadside of the city," he said.

Krishnan said the name Akshaya is Sanskrit for "undecaying" or "imperishable," and was chosen "to signify [that] human compassion should never decay or perish. ... The spirit of helping others must prevail for ever." Also, in Hindu mythology, Goddess Annapoorani's "Akshaya bowl" fed the hungry endlessly, never depleting its resources.

Krishnan's day begins at 4 a.m. He and his team cover nearly 125 miles in a donated van, routinely working in temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

He seeks out the homeless under bridges and in the nooks and crannies between the city's temples. The hot meals he delivers are simple, tasty vegetarian fare he personally prepares, packs and often hand-feeds to nearly 400 clients each day.

Read the rest of the chef's inspiring story here.