Univ. chefs cook up new menu items

The Berkeley dining hall may have lost its status as Yale’s only all-organic eatery back in fall 2006, but if the comment cards posted by the dining hall’s dirty trays are any indication, not all change is bad.

“Those muffins were tasty damn delicious! I GOTTA HAVE MORE!” says one.

Davenport College display cook Sheama McNeal and other University chefs face continual challenges when preparing organic and sustainable food items.
Ryan Galisewski
Davenport College display cook Sheama McNeal and other University chefs face continual challenges when preparing organic and sustainable food items.

“I was having a bad day until I ate one of the raspberry cupcakes,” says another. “Then I ate another one.”

“O-M-G!!” says a third. “I think I had a lunch-gasm.”

Every summer, cooks and chefs in Yale dining halls develop and test new recipes — and tweak old ones — to make sure things are interesting when students come back in the fall. Few Yalies said they noticed any big changes in the dining hall offerings this semester, but the continuing expansion of the Yale Sustainable Food Project has brought a few brand-new dishes, such as cranberry-apple chicken and the day-brightening raspberry cupcakes, and led to an effort to make old standbys, like corned-beef hash, from scratch. Recently, the emphasis has been on incorporating fresh meat, dairy and produce into traditional recipes, rather than on developing entirely new ones.

Seasonality is a major focus of YSFP, and that has changed the way menu items are developed. Joshua Viertel, co-director of the project, said the process now starts with whatever ingredients are available, and then the chefs design a dish around those items.

For example, he said, YSFP concocted its lamb and feta patties because the program found a local source for organic lamb and cheese. The heirloom tomatoes seasoned with salt, pepper and basil that appeared in dining halls last week came from a lawyer in a nearby town whose crop was ready for harvesting.

But even good ingredients need thoughtful preparation. Standing in the Berkeley kitchen with a tray of raw whole chickens dusted with spices, Berkeley First Cook Mike Schoen explained the importance of creative recipes to Yale’s expanding sustainable food movement.

“You can’t take a crappy recipe and insert local ingredients and all the sudden make it a good recipe,” he said.

When YSFP was introduced in 2001, its food appeared only in the Berkeley dining hall. Schoen said the sudden influx of unfamiliar organic ingredients — and the need to find alternatives to traditional, processed ones — meant that Berkeley kitchen staff constantly needed to develop new recipes. Some of the recipes on the menu rotation today emerged from brainstorming sessions in which dining hall employees went to each others’ houses to pore over cookbooks in search of new and creative ways to use YSFP ingredients.

When YSFP expanded to all 12 colleges in the fall of 2006, the development of new sustainable dishes moved beyond Berkeley. Many of the new recipes that appear in Yale dining halls, both sustainable and otherwise, are the work of Thomas Peterlik, director of Yale’s Culinary Resource Center, a chef trained in his native Austria. Peterlik said for him, developing a new recipe is an experimental and often solitary process, which often involves two or three trial versions before he shows his new dish to anyone else.

Every meal served in Yale dining halls, Peterlik said, needs to conform to a menu standard that dictates the number and type of dishes served. A dinner, for instance, needs to include two entrees with animal protein and one that is vegan or vegetarian, along with one “display item” that is prepared in front of students. Beyond those restrictions, Peterlik said, his inspirations come from student input — chicken breasts, for instance, are very popular with athletes and other health-conscious Elis — and from his personal favorite foods, which right now include Thai food and seafood.

But while Peterlik often works alone, he said he takes pride in having input from cooks “on every level,” and new ideas come from pantry workers on up.

Davenport First Cook Bill Hinners, who spent four days this summer experimenting with recipes in Aramark’s test kitchen in Philadelphia, said that while recipe development is a constant part of his job in Yale dining halls, right now, most Yale cooks are focusing on re-working established recipes to replace traditional ingredients with sustainable ones.

As he watched a kitchen worker send beef through a meat grinder to make homemade corned beef hash for the next day’s brunch, Hinners said the shift toward local and seasonal ingredients is “the best thing we’ve ever done” in his 26 years working for Yale Dining Services.

“I went to school for this,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m wasting my talent.”

Most Yale dining hall employees acknowledged that fresh and organic food is harder to prepare than produce that comes from a can. For the cooks, organic and sustainable ingredients mean more washing, chopping and de-boning.

But for those responsible for the YSFP’s parade of organic cupcakes, cookies and brownie bars, the sustainability movement has an even bigger impact on recipe development and preparation. Executive Chef for Catering David Kuzma — who develops goods for the Yale Bake Shop — said baking with organic ingredients completely changes the chemistry of the cooking process.

The recipe for the yellow cake that the YSFP introduced last year, for example, took around 35 attempts to develop, Kuzma said.

Unrefined sugar has a different melting point than regular sugar. Organic flour is even more difficult: Not only does it have a different starch and protein content than regular flour, it varies from batch to batch.

To make things more complicated, even when a recipe has been perfected on a small scale, it must be adjusted again when prepared in large portions, because mixing enough batter for hundreds of cakes produces so much heat that it affects the cooking process. For instance, butter creams more quickly in a giant mixing bowl than in your mother’s KitchenAid. Kuzma said recipes for organic baking on the scale practiced by the Yale Bake Shop simply do not yet exist.

“I’ve learned an immense amount of things this summer,” Kuzma said. “It’s a new challenge every time you try to come up with new items.”

Once he and the seven other employees at the Yale Bake Shop have perfected a given recipe, Kuzma said, they can begin playing with the basic preparation. The black-bottom, raspberry and banana cupcakes that debuted this fall all grew out of the yellow cake base that took so many tries to perfect. The banana cupcakes are prepared with bananas left over from the baskets of fresh fruit in every dining hall, he said, and the raspberry ones are made with raspberries that are frozen “at the peak of their freshness” in order to get the most mileage out of each crop.

Despite all the new development, YSFP dishes still do not make up the majority of the options in Yale dining halls, and many old standbys — pre-made hamburger patties, Campbell’s tomato soup from a can — are easy to come by. But most of the energy involved in creating new recipes, whether the YSFP is directly involved or not, is focused on building up sustainable menu options.

Viertel said Yale dining halls are approaching a tipping point where fresh, local ingredients are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Most Yalies said they are happy with the continued expansion of YSFP, which is temporarily serving four all-sustainable meals a week. But despite all the work that went into developing new recipes over the summer — and despite the Berkeley comment cards praising the additions — few students said they have noticed any change in dining hall menus.

“I’ve noticed some new combinations,” Tina Ho ’09 said. “Not really new food. New ways of mixing things together.”

Jacqueline Gosnell ’08 said she usually chooses the sustainable options in the dining halls, and Viertel said student responses to a 2006 YSFP survey indicate that students largely prefer YSFP food over the standard fare. He said 44 percent of students surveyed said they are “highly satisfied” with the sustainable food, a satisfaction level that is “a huge number in the food service industry for anything.”

And as the number of recipes in the files of Yale Dining Services using sustainable ingredients grows, it becomes easier to overcome the challenges of preparing fresh food for the Yale community, which numbers more than 5,000 in undergraduates alone.

“We’ve gotten to a point where maybe we know how to do it right even at the volume that Yale works,” Viertel said. “We’re almost there.”

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