Ron DeSantis: Creating “The Fellowship of a Table”
The letters “CMC” are stitched into Ron DeSantis’s white coat. The terse abbreviation does not do justice to his full title: Certified Master Chef. He’s one of only 67 people alive in the country who can honestly print that on their business card. The lofty epithet of “master” was bestowed upon him after he passed a rigorous ten-day exam that tests one’s skills at freestyle menu planning and food preparation, as well as one’s knowledge of gastronomy and nutrition. Only 12 percent of people pass all the stages; a Navy SEAL candidate can expect a higher success rate.
He is Yale Dining’s current (and first) Director of Culinary Excellence; the position was created for him. Don’t let the “master chef” designation lead you to think Ron wears a cape everywhere or acts holier-than-thou. Once he began speaking at a Master’s Tea in Trumbull College, he struck me as humble and down-to-earth. If he took off the coat and told me he was a barber, I would believe him.
Ron began his three-decade-long professional culinary career in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he went through cooking school and placed 28th in a class of 30. He got better with practice, and after leaving the service enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, “the original CIA.” His Jedi-like education continued when he moved to Germany, which he felt attracted to because all the great chefs he had met at the CIA seemed to have foreign accents. He originally planned to stay for a year; that turned into five years, because it took a while to convince this one pretty German girl to marry him.
As a chef, Ron has cooked at restaurants like the Ritz Carlton, taught at the CIA, served as the presidential chef at Camp David, and consulted for Sonic, McDonald’s, and Borders (he apologizes for the sandwiches they once served in their café).
Food has the potential to evoke strong emotions in people, and Ron says his mission as a chef is to craft memorable experiences with the dishes he serves up, whether it’s to George Bush or some bearded Yale junior scribbling incessantly in a pocket notebook. To him, the Pixar film Ratatouille—particularly the scene where the restaurant critic eats the peasant food and is taken back to a meal his mother made him when he was a young boy—really nails the joy of the culinary arts. Every meal is an opportunity to make someone’s day great.
Eager to show us just how great our days can get, Ron announces that he has talked enough about himself, and leads us into the Trumbull master’s kitchen for a cooking demo. The dish he has in mind is pasta with sautéed vegetables and a white bean velouté sauce. It’s both vegan and gluten-free. Ron sees the trend in American eating towards a more plant-based diet as a good thing, and tries to practice it himself.
He floats to the front of the cutting board, swifty picking up the chef’s knife and beginning to chop up shiitake and cremini mushrooms. The up-and-down movement of the blade reminds me of a sewing machine. Then it ceases.
“Of course,” Ron says, “I’m just showing off.”
He then demonstrates how to chop properly, first on the remaining mushrooms, then an onion and some sun-dried tomatoes. The tips he shares—hone a knife with a steel every time you use it to keep it sharp, place a wet paper towel under the cutting board to keep it from slipping, fold your non-dominant fingers and rest the middle phalanges against the blade—all sound familiar to me; I’ve heard them from cookbooks and other chefs I’ve encountered. It pleases me to recognize a canon of cooking.
Now it’s time to make some sauce. “All blenders are not created equal,” Ron tells us. Well, his blender, “a Vitamix knock-off,” appears to be at the top of the heap. If kitchen appliances were evaluated for overall quality by their potential to cause damage when dropped on someone’s head, this one would be a winner. Ron pours in some cooked white beans and vegetable broth that had been simmering on the gas stove, and then kicks the blender into high gear. The roar of the blades spinning at 30,000 RPM, pulverizing the ingredients into a white paste, compels Ron to yell in order for all of us to hear.
“You really just want to let it run for a while! When the food’s as smooth as possible, you unlock the most nutrients out of it!” That part sounded like something I had heard on a late-night NutriBullet infomercial, so I asked him if it was really true. “Oh yeah!” I guess you can believe some things you hear on TV.
The sauce is composed of just the two ingredients, beans and broth. The simplicity lends potential for a wide variety of meal types. “I would serve this dish to anybody,” Ron tells us as the blender whirlpool dies down. “The beans and stock make a great mother sauce that can be used in all sorts of cuisine. Mediterranean, Asian, whatever.”
Let’s go back to the veggies. Ron tosses the chopped mushrooms into a pan over high heat, with no oil. It’s not long before they begin to sizzle.
“Hear that?” Ron asks us. “Cooking is all of your senses.” He keeps his distance from the whispering mushrooms. “Everybody wants to move stuff around when it’s in a hot pan like this. Well, don’t worry, it’s cooking!” If you don’t disturb the food while it’s cooking, you get more caramelization, therefore more flavor. Ron merely monitors them with a watchful eye. “The equipment never burns food. You do.”
As if he’s received some signal that’s invisible to the rest of us, he snatches up a bottle and drizzles some extra-virgin olive oil into the pan. The hearty Italian aroma of browning mushrooms and hot oil fills the kitchen. Ron notices the pleasant change in the group’s expressions. “See, it’s the smallest things! You can make a room full of people salivate just by sautéing some onions!”
He picks up the pan and carries it around to give us all a peek at the delicious alchemy that’s taking place inside. Heating the mushrooms reduces their moisture content; this causes them to shrink and concentrates their umami flavor.
Into the pan go the diced onion and julienned tomatoes. He leaves it alone for a bit (caramelization!), then dumps the white bean velouté sauce onto the veggies. It smothers the sizzling. Next comes the steaming rotini pasta. Stirring the end result together, Ron mentions how rotini is an ideal noodle to use for a dish like this; the sauce invades every nook and cranny of the pasta surface.
After about 25 minutes total prep and cooking time, the meal is ready. Ron spoons some of the pasta into a bowl and brings it to his face. He takes a slow whiff of it, then holds his spoon in the air like a confident professor holds a piece of chalk. “As a cook,” he says, “What should you do before serving your guests the main meal?”
We know this one. “Taste it,” we answer.
He shakes his head. “Torture them!” He plunges the spoon into the dish and takes the first bite.
Jackson Blum ‘15 is a farm managing intern.
Product Development Specialist intern Shizue RocheAdachi ‘15 makes a mean salsa. Here, she shares a radio piece reflecting on her time as a ranch hand.
There is a grace to death––a beauty to be found in the heavy moments that linger as present becomes past. The slaughter of an animal is rarely afforded such moments of grace, however, as carcasses are hung and processed in rapid motion, each worker on the slaughterhouse floor making a repeated slicing motion. Yet when I had the opportunity, as a ranch hand, to participate in a field slaughter after one of our steers had broken his leg in the cattle guard, I discovered that there was another way to carry an animal into death.
This is a five minute piece I put together of some audio taken on that cool morning, as wet clouds hung low providing a welcome respite from the summer heat. It is not a somber or gruesome piece, rather I like to think I captured the sweetness of the event and the sense of ceremony. There is a respect afforded as the eighty-year-old butcher, Tom, pulls the skin from the steer he lovingly refers to as “sweet pea” but there is also an understanding that this is not something to treat as precious. A steer breaks his leg, he is shot, he is skinned, he is cut open, he is gutted, he is sliced in half, and he is loaded into the back of a pick-up truck to hang in a cooler before being broken down into cuts. This is the way it goes.
Miya’s Sushi: How to Adapt Traditional Cuisine So Both Sushi and Ocean Life Can Survive
Jackson Blum ‘15, a farm intern, drew upon his love of a local sushi restaurant and a Yale College course he took to make an informative and entertaining podcast.
This past fall semester, I took Karen Seto’s Environmental Studies seminar “Urbanization, Food Systems, and the Environment.” In lieu of a boring final assessment, like a test or research paper, the students each created some kind of outreach project that presented some of the class’s takeaway lessons in a publicly digestible form. I elected to have a little fun and produce a podcast. My subject: my favorite New Haven sushi restaurant.
In early December, the class got together for a closing dinner, catered by Miya’s Sushi. The head chef and manager of Miya’s, Bun Lai, said a few words about the philosophy of his restaurant and its place in the modern world of sushi. I recorded Bun’s remarks about the popular Japanese cuisine and turned it into a podcast that illustrates the perils that many fish species experience in the face of the modern seafood industry and how one New Haven restaurateur and sushi chef hopes to address these challenges.
Apples and Burgers
By Yasha Magarik, YC ‘12
In December I had the honor of sitting on a food justice panel with renowned cookbook author and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. As when I worked Chewing the Fat events as a Yale student farm manager, the excitement was tangible in every carefully planned logistic, every nervous remark, every request for a signed book or a photo op. Celebrity speaking engagements can sometimes be fluff; I worried that this one might be too. But just as Carlo Petrini infused his 2010 speech at Yale with political radicalism informed by his communist roots, Bittman leveled a thoughtful critique of foodie culture that I’d like to share.
Earlier in the day, Arielle Golden and Anabelle Harari two other Jewish Food Justice Fellows from the Leichtag Foundation interviewed Bittman for an audience of a few dozen San Diego food systems professionals. At one point, Bittman drily (and amusingly) satirized foodies living in Brooklyn (where I was born and raised but no longer live). Bittman’s career was for a long time based on recipes for tasty (and eventually nutritious) cuisine, but has since expanded to include food’s economic and sociopolitical implications. So my understanding of the satire is that for him, (urban young) people with a narrow focus on or even fetish for the aesthetics of food represent a past whose recurrence as a broad generational trend he views with skepticism.
In other words, if refined hedonism is the best that the new food movement can offer, that’s a pretty shoddy menu.
Bittman was later asked whether, given the choice, he would buy a local apple or an organic apple. For a few minutes he explained the ins and outs anyone familiar with these issues could expect: how local is “local,” does the organic apple also happen to be “local,” what are the sizes and practices of each operation, and so forth. But after a profound pause, he said, “Look, the question for most people in this country is not whether to buy the organic apple or the local apple, but whether to buy the apple or the burger.”
In food systems work it’s often easy to forget that the intricate details of sustainable vegetable production, local procurement, and even the debates over chemicals and GMOs seem irrelevant for most Americans. But my work for the San Diego Childhood Obesity Initiative’s Farm to School Taskforce has driven that point home for me. With adult obesity rates of 35.7% and annual obesity-related medical costs of nearly $150 billion, the human health basis for increased fruit and vegetable consumption may in fact trump ecological or communal justifications for local or sustainable agriculture.
While focusing on local farming networks, have we neglected to address the far graver health issues? Have we forgotten that only 2% of American farmland is devoted to fruit, vegetable and nut production, that America does not produce enough fruits and vegetables for each resident to meet the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines, but does generate 58% more chicken and red meat than the USDA’s total recommended intake?
Like many other food systems professionals, I believe that it’s essential to solve these problems in tandem with localizing our food networks, ending the use of chemicals and fossil fuels in agriculture, diversifying our crop portfolios, and of course, creating vibrant and resilient communities. But I’m concerned by the increasing aestheticization of local and niche foods among America’s urban elite. I wonder whether it might make a bigger impact to focus for now on the switch from burgers and soda to fresh fruit and vegetables, rather than argue about the pros and cons of local versus organic foods.
At this juncture, who cares where the apple’s coming from?
Yasha Magarik, a 2012 Yale College graduate and former Yale Sustainable Food Project intern, is spending a year as a Jewish Food Justice Fellow.
A Tale of Two Berkshires: finding common ground
What I first saw looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell: 70-year-old farmers and their families gathered around picnic tables, making small talk, as the hosts put the final touches on the buffet just a few yards away in the sugar house. As in a classic painting of New England farmers, these men wore overalls and leather boots. Many had hearing aids, and some walked with canes. These were not the new farmers of my generation, setting up shop in this region in a quest to return to the land as their parents or more likely their grandparents did. These were not the farmers you would read about in glossy New York Times Magazine articles, or hear their stories on your local NPR station. No, these were the farmer-members of the Berkshires chapter of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, the state chapter of the national Farm Bureau. And I, as a representative of Berkshire Grown, the local food umbrella organization I was working for this past summer, had stumbled into their annual summer legislative picnic, to listen to their concerns, and share what Berkshire Grown was doing to better our local food system.
I quickly realized that these were not farmers I had previously met. I had spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the Berkshires, meeting with Berkshire Grown members from every corner of the county. Small-scale blueberry producers, five-acre veggie farms and grass-fed beef operations – I had become acquainted with the local agriculture scene in the Berkshires, one that is mostly boutique, small-scale, and often-times removed from much of the population that lives in the region. But these farmers were different. They were the Larkins who had been dairy farming in Sheffield since the 1800s, and ran one of the largest (industrial) dairy operations in the region. They were the Leabs (who hosted the picnic at their Ioka Valley Farm) who raise cattle on GMO feed. I so hate to use the word “real,” but I can’t lie: Throughout the event, I kept telling myself, “these are real farmers.”
The food that they brought to the potluck picnic made this point clear: These farmers weren’t interested in a boutique local food system – they didn’t choose to farm in the Berkshires because it was a hip thing to do. They had been farming in the hills of Western Massachusetts for generations, and are completely different from the back-to-the-land farms down the road from them that Berkshire Grown mostly represents. It’s like comparing Chicago deep-dish pizza and New York thin crust pizza. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; both types of farms are feeding people, they just have totally different missions.
I found myself caught in the crossfire of farmers and politicians – never a pleasant place to be – that sunny July afternoon at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. After we (the farmers, organization representatives like myself, and politicians) had helped ourselves to the heaping stacks of food – GMO corn that was the sweetest I ever had, green bean casserole, homemade and likely-not-organic pickles, etc – we listened to speeches from the various politicians in attendance. Soon after members of the Berkshire delegation to the Massachusetts State House and Senate started speaking about their efforts pertaining to food/agriculture, farmers immediately started voicing their concerns about the recent GMO labeling propositions. One farmer blurted out, in the middle of a politician’s speech, “Just because those New York City second home folks are willing to pay more for their food doesn’t make it fair to the rest of us locals! We all use GMO feed and they better get used to it. No one knows what real farming is all about!”
This summed up the day for me. There I was, wearing my Berkshire Grown hat, driving my hybrid car, and thinking I knew it all about the local food system, but it was pretty clear I didn’t. It’s a complicated issue, and too often, we think by farming on a small-scale, we’re saving the world. We have to remember: There are folks out there who have been farming a lot longer than us, who are deeply set in their ways, and are feeding a lot of people. I’m not defending industrial agriculture by any means. All I’m saying is that it’s time we start looking at the bigger picture.
Rafi Bildner ‘16 is a farm managing intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
Hey all -
Leland the Podcast dude with another weekly audio / literary combo. Check out Dr. M. Jahi Chappell, polymathic agro-problem solver on our podcast.
And for an example of the science-politics overlap he’s into, check out this feature-length NYTimes article about the crazy, insidious science of junk food.