Saturday, March 20, 2010

Master Chef Turns His Skills to Cooking for Cancer Patients

Philadelphia Daily News

JACK SHOOP has owned several top-rated restaurants and is one of just 61 chefs in the United States who've been certified as master chefs by the American Culinary Federation. When the opportunity for a major career change arose, however, Shoop let his mom be his guide.

Less than two years ago, Shoop, a Harley-riding Kensington native, traded in his Florida restaurant gigs to become the executive chef for Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Eastern Regional Medical Center in Northeast Philadelphia. Shoop stresses the clinical and spiritual importance of food in the meals he prepares daily for about 800 cancer patients, their families and CTCA employees.

Shoop's decision to make such a significant career switch was due in large part to his mother's passing. "Even though my mother didn't die of cancer, I just felt like she was telling me to do it," Shoop recalled recently.

Hurricane Katrina played a part, too.

In 2005, the hurricane hit Shoop's restaurant in Destin, Fla. - the fourth such storm to strike the business. At the same time, his father passed away. The coinciding events prompted Shoop to return to Philadelphia to help his newly widowed mother.

She died unexpectedly a few months later.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Shoop began working at Viking Cooking School in Bryn Mawr. That led to him doing a cooking demonstration for CTCA leaders as a part of a team-building workshop they attended. CEO John McNeil approached Shoop after the event and asked him to join CTCA.

Working in a hospital, he sometimes finds himself thinking of his mother's passing, and it's brought him to tears. "I never cried in my restaurant. Here I've cried about a thousand times," he said. But the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world outweighs any emotional strain from his job.

Shoop sees his work as a way to "redirect passion for the culinary arts to better the lives of cancer patients and their caregivers."

Certainly the job brings special challenges. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 40 percent of cancer-related deaths are due to malnutrition. Cancer and its treatments can affect a patient's ability to taste and smell and lead to nausea, trouble absorbing nutrients, anorexia and fatigue.

At Eastern Regional Medical Center, Shoop and a team of oncologists, naturopathic doctors, nutritionists, mind-body specialists and therapists use a whole-person approach to ensure optimal nutrition for their patients. This approach is based on the idea that cancer does not affect one part of the body but rather the body as a whole - as well as all aspects of patients' lives.

CTCA's philosophy of all-inclusive care centralized under one roof is the result of another man's love for his mother: Founder Richard J. Stephenson started CTCA in Illinois after seeing the unsatisfactory care his own mother received when she battled cancer. CTCA also has facilities in Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona and Washington state.

The objectives of what CTCA calls its "Mother Standard of Care" are to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and to treat patients as they would their own loved ones.

Not surprisingly, Shoop enthusiastically embraced that approach. "Every single person can make a difference," he said, adding that he extends that philosophy to how he treats his 52-person staff as well.

Read the entire story here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Food Adventure" Clubs Embrace the Unusual

"Food adventure" clubs such as the New York-based Gastronauts are attracting members interested in trying unusual foods such as live octopus or goat kidneys. Pastry chef Jenna Volcheff said she attends Gastronauts events to experience food from different cultures without having to travel.

NEW YORK — Ben Raisher watches as the writhing Octopus on his plate has its tentacles clipped with giant shears, then squirms in amber sesame oil like a pile of bisected earthworms.

With a deft pinch of his chopsticks, the wriggling, still-alive limb is in his mouth and down his throat.

Raisher, 28, smiles. It's what brought him to his local food adventure club, one of a handful of groups dedicated to dining on exotic and bizarre foods from New York to Denver to San Francisco.

The iron-stomached champions of New York City are the Gastronauts, who meet monthly to feast on foods many wouldn't consider, such as pig hearts and intestine in vinegar, goat kidneys or sauteed lamb's brains.

"Nothing's off the table," said co-founder Curtiss Calleo, who grew up in Austria and Italy and wants to bring Old World curiosity to New York plates. "Any restaurant worth its salt has sweetbreads or tongue or pork bellies. There's a food renaissance going on."

Offal is old hat for groups like the Boston Gastronauts and the Organ Meet Society of New York City. There are groups devoted to eating only insects and some that venture into extreme territory, like the San Francisco Food Adventure Club that recently organized a human placenta tasting (the dinner had to be canceled due to potential formaldehyde exposure).

Most of the adventures are in good fun, but some have pushed boundaries. Last week, federal prosecutors filed charges against a restaurant and sushi chef accused of serving endangered whale meat in Santa Monica, Calif.

Read the complete story here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dinner is Served, But We Can't Tell You Where

By Jane Black

On Feb. 23, a select group of Washingtonians received an intriguing e-mail: "The orange arrow is pointing at you," the subject line read.

It was an exclusive invitation to "an exclusive underground anti-restaurant," the e-mail explained. "Because the DNA of the magical dinner is unmapped, these events will evolve, month to month, season to season, place to place & plate to plate."

The invitation alone wasn't enough for diners to make the cut, however. For the privilege of attending Orange Arrow's inaugural, $125-a-head dinner, guests had to agree to abide by certain rules.

"If you can't/won't eat certain things, this is not for you."

"No crybabies, whiners or buzz kills can come to our party. This isn't reality television."

"Don't try to sell your ticket on Craigslist. Failure to show basic decency gets you on the blacklist."

Reached by phone, Orange Arrow's co-founder, a James Beard award-nominated chef, made no apologies for the invitation's tone or defiant exclusivity. "We don't want them in if they're not fun or interesting," said the chef, who requested anonymity. "This is a private club. In a restaurant, you're a whipping post. This is a completely different thing."

In a city best known for its see-and-be-seen culinary destinations, a new breed of underground restaurants is emerging. These supper clubs shun pomp, circumstance and plebian steak dinners in favor of more-offbeat dining experiences. Some operate as for-profit businesses. Orange Arrow plans to obtain location and liquor permits for its ambitious suppers, which will host as many as 150 select "hungry, hedonistic gypsies" at venues that range from a museum to an alleyway. Others lurk in a legal gray area, accepting "suggested donations" for the food and wine to get around requirements for business and liquor licenses. Hush, the brainchild of a former World Bank staffer, invites no more than 16 for an intimate evening of home-style Indian food and culinary storytelling. There are even traveling underground restaurants. On Feb. 20, 40 in-the-know hipsters surrounded a long table to eat garlicky shrimp (and learn to suck out the heads) at the area's first Wok + Wine event.

Already, demand is strong. Orange Arrow sold 30 percent of its tickets within 24 hours; it requires visitors to visit to list a reference in order to get past the virtual velvet rope. After just one month of taking reservations at, Hush has an e-mail list of 300 interested diners, and every meal has had a waiting list. "The demand is unbelievable," said the host, who goes by the name Geeta and runs Hush out of her home in Northwest Washington. "I thought, you know, I'd join Twitter and send out some e-mails and maybe some people would check it out. I thought it would take six months to build interest, not 10 days."

Unlicensed restaurants have long prospered overseas. In Hong Kong, si fang cai, or speak-easies, in private homes are considered by many to have the best food in the city. But clandestine kitchens are a more recent phenomenon in the United States. The Ghetto Gourmet, which began serving meals in the basement of an Oakland, Calif., apartment in 2004, was one of the earliest. Soon, the concept spread to big cities everywhere. In Atlanta, RogueApron threw an event in an alley between boarded-up houses. In New York, patrons of A Razor, A Shiny Knife have together learned to carve a 150-pound boar. In Washington, two professional chefs launched a short-lived underground experiment, also called Hush, in Eastern Market in 2007. But it wasn't until this year that the trend took off in earnest.

Washington's new underground restaurants generally divide into two categories: amateur cooks who want to offer a new kind of experience and recovering restaurateurs who want to set their own rules.

Read the rest of the story here.