Saturday, February 22, 2014

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.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Bey <3’s Kale!

Bey <3’s Kale!

"Volunteer Day."
artwork by Eamon Heberlein &#8216;16

"Volunteer Day."

artwork by Eamon Heberlein ‘16

Friday, January 17, 2014

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.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Yale Food Systems Symposium – Forecasting and the Food System

This recent article in the New York Times describes the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) most recent scientific understanding of the risk climate change will pose to our global food supply As a Geology & Geophysics major focusing on climate, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the reciprocal relationship between our systems of food production and changing climate, and how we can modify our agriculture system to mitigate rather than contribute to climate change. Last week at the first Yale Food Systems Symposium, I witnessed a discussion that looked at the relationship between climate and agriculture from a different angle—how can we adapt our systems of food production to the inevitable warming we will continue to face for hundreds of years into the future? The panel, called “Forecasting and the Food System,” included four speakers that discussed the ways that communities, farmers, and scientists in different parts of the world—from India to Vermont—are thinking about and adapting to changes in weather and climate.

Of the four speakers, Ethan Butler’s talk was the most compelling. Ethan is a 6th year graduate student at Harvard University in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. He presented the warming projections from the last IPCC report and explained the phenomenon of committed warming. What this means is that even if we stop emissions of greenhouse gases today, the time lag between increased concentrations of these gases and rising temperatures means that we will continue to have temperatures far above those today for hundreds of years into the future. While this certainly will have far-reaching impacts beyond those we can comprehend today, Ethan’s talk confronted the facts with ways we can adapt our food system to these inevitable changes.

Ethan’s work focuses on historical evolutionary adaptations to changing climate that have occurred in crops and how these adaptations can help us understand agricultural responses to future climate changes. His talk at the Food Systems Symposium focused on US maize, looking at the different strains of corn in the various climate zones of the US. Corn varieties have naturally adapted to local conditions of water shortage or high winds, for example, and we can take advantage of these adaptations by adjusting the food crops grown in different zones to better fit the changing observed and projected temperatures.

Instead of the fear and bleak outlook that can easily pervade discussions of climatic effects on agriculture, Ethan’s focus on adaptation gives us some agency over our future and provides a meaningful strategy to confront the inevitable problem. Although it is only a part of the solution, this kind of adaptation will be necessary to provide enough food for rising populations. Many countries are beginning to confront this issue, as described in the New York Times article:

The [IPCC] report finds that efforts to adapt to climate change have already begun in many countries. President Obama signed an executive order on Friday to step up such efforts in the United States. But these efforts remain inadequate compared with the risks, the report says, and far more intensive — and expensive — adaptation plans are likely to be required in the future.

While my focus will continue to be on agricultural strategies to mitigate climate change, Ethan’s presentation increased my awareness of the ways we can adapt our food system to the inevitable changes we are beginning to experience. Both of these approaches will be important in producing food in our warming world.

Emily Farr ‘14 is a Senior Adviser with the YSFP.  She is majoring in Geology and Geophysics and was a Summer 2012 Lazarus Intern.

Friday, October 18, 2013

School Food in New Haven

Pizza and Events Intern Maddie Marino ‘15 talks about some of the problems associated with institutional food and how the New Haven Food Policy Council is working to fix them.
Microwaved pizza can be a suitable breakfast if the slice has been marinating in your fridge overnight and the herbs have integrated themselves into the tomato sauce and crust is still crispy. But it gets old every day for lunch. I spent this summer working for the New Haven Food Policy Council on an effort to figure out how we can build a food system in schools that does not nourish our children solely with reheated pizza.
The goal of the project was to get more local farm food into public school kitchens. As it turns out, these kitchens are a rare commodity. Most of the “kitchens” in New Haven’s public schools are more like reheating stations. Each school receives frozen pre-cooked lunches in sheet pans from one big Central Kitchen, and then reheats this food to serve to students for lunch. The kitchens in each individual school aren’t doing much cooking of their own, and consequently, aren’t really kitchens.  Staples included ovens, pans, and tongs, but items we might consider fundamental to cooking are absent: no mixing bowls, no cutting boards, no stovetops.
So let’s say hypothetically we tried to bring one school a couple pounds of beets to cook with. What would they chop them on? What would they peel them with? What would they cook them in? Introducing raw farm foods does not seem so feasible in this set-up.  

We took an inventory of each school’s kitchen and found that a couple schools did in fact have cooking utensils suitable for raw farm foods, tucked away in back rooms from before the Central Kitchen system was implemented. So these schools could be good places to start introducing local farm foods. Another idea would be to bring the ingredients to Central Kitchen itself. This would allow the farm ingredients to reach schools that did not have leftover cooking equipment—a welcomed goal as these equipment-barren schools are often located in the poorest communities of New Haven where students are likely not getting fresh veggies at home.

To that point, should we even be spending this much effort to improve the quality of food in schools when many of our citizens do not have enough money for food itself? In the six poorest communities in New Haven, four out of every ten people have experienced food insecurity in the past month. That is, they have not had always had enough money to buy the food they need. So is our farm food goal missing the point?  

This is a question I often return to, but I do think in this case the focus of the project is well-chosen and poised to have long-lasting consequences: feeding our children farm food in schools does not only nourish them better at present, it also sets them on life-long patterns of eating nutritious food. Part of the challenge tied up in food insecurity is getting individuals nutrient-rich foods. But providing these foods will only be beneficial if people choose to eat them. I hope that feeding children nutrient-rich food while they are in school will set them up well to choose nutrient-rich foods once they are on their own. 

New Entry and Food Access in Boston

Events Intern Jake Wolf-Sorokin ‘16 discusses his work with New Entry, a nonprofit serving the Greater Boston Area and questions his own food choices.

Up until leaving for college, I had spent my entire life living in the greater Boston area. For the first 18 years of my life, I knew one farmer by name: my uncle who raised lamb in rural Minnesota. Once I began thinking about the sources of food, it became hard to escape. Where had that tomato I’d eaten on my sandwich at lunch every day—even during New England’s winter—actually come from? Who picked it? Were they treated fairly? Was it organic? If not, what kinds of chemicals was it grown with? How was it shipped to Boston? Would the label tell me anything? Why couldn’t I find out all this information? What structural systems was I supporting by taking a bite out of that tomato? And couldn’t I be asking these questions about everything I eat?

The lack of connection to my food—one of life’s vital ingredients—began to really unsettle me. It seemed every question, generated three more until I’d cast aside the tomato, the lettuce, the turkey and the sprouts. All that was left of my lunch were two pieces of sourdough bread. I’d decided they were ok since they came from a bakery near my home that got its flour from an organic grower in New York. That’s when I began to see food consumption as a political act. In the short term, as someone living in an urban area, I lacked a means of escaping this food system. Without eating sandwiches like the one I described, I’d have trouble living. But by seeking answers to my questions and making efforts to change my habits, I’d be able to make some progress on a longer timescale. And that’s why I decided to intern at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization dedicated to helping aspiring organic farmers open viable farms near urban areas in Eastern Massachusetts.

Through my work, I had the chance to meet scores of small farmers aiming to make local farming the norm—or at least more common—again in America. “My goal for the future is to continue farming and to continue to supply people in the community,” Bessie Tsimba—one of these farmers—told me. She moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 1988. Like most immigrants, Bessie arrived without much land—let alone enough to begin a garden or farm. So for 20 years, Bessie—like most Americans—cooked with grains and vegetables bought at the grocery store. Over time she began to see farming as a reminder of home and a way to promote healthy eating.

In 2009, Bessie seized upon her renewed interest in farming and began a small-scale organic farm. “It’s something we grew up doing back home and I benefit from eating organic,” she said. Five years into her endeavor, Bessie sells her produce to a cooperative CSA and to many of her friends who also came to America from Zimbabwe. “I know the things they miss [from] back home,” Bessie told me. By growing maize and other crops common in Africa, but harder to find in the United States, Bessie has created a community around her farm.

Her optimism inspired me. Like many of the farmers trained by New Entry, Bessie didn’t have the means to give up her other job to farm full time. And despite five years of effort, she does not ever expect her farm to become her principal income. Bessie’s belief in the importance of food as a means of enriching culture and community motivates her.

As an organization, New Entry aims to ensure its farmers have a guaranteed source of income by operating a cooperative CSA. Although this CSA does not provide enough income to support a full time farmer, the World PEAS CSA represents a good first opportunity for many new farmers. Over the last 15 years, New Entry has helped to dramatically increase the ranks of urban, organic farmers in Eastern Massachusetts through its farmer training programs. Yet challenges remain: given the dense population of the region, the sum total of food produced by all these farmers represents a small fraction of the food needed to sustain all of the areas residents.

After spending a summer conducting farmer interviews for an analysis of New Entry’s success and working to promote the cooperative CSA, I left feeling both inspired and realistic. Centering our food system on sustainability and community health will require a dramatic change in our society’s understanding of what it means to consume food. Yet through the dedicated, passionate work of individuals like Bessie Tsimba and organizations like New Entry, these seeds of change in the food system are beginning to grow. Realigning our food system around sustainability and community health will require the collective effort of many individuals, beginning with a desire to understand the nuances of the connection between the food we consume and its source.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Video from Eamon Heberlein ‘16

Hello, folks!
Eamon Heberlein here. I’m new to Yale and new to the YSFP. I grew up in rural Wisconsin surrounded by an agricultural community at the forefront of the organic and CSA movements. Ergo, I have a deep love for food, good land, all things cow-related, and the smells and sounds of the farm.
After graduating from Deep Springs College in June of 2012, I took a year off to escape academia and engage in agriculture from a different perspective. I spent two summers running cattle through California’s White Mountains at Deep Springs, and spent much of my interim period in Nepal and India.
In Nepal I taught computer skills to high school students in a remote Magar village in the mid-hills of the Himalayas. However, most of every day was spent outside the classroom as an assistant researcher interviewing farmers and working with them in their fields. Later I helped an organization train settling nomadic Chepang people in biodynamic agriculture in Nepal’s Terrai, and in India I interned on Vandana Shiva’s ”Navdanya” farm and seed bank.
Rather than try and synthesize these experiences, I put together some images from this past year; a sort of evocation of the simple everyday work and lives in these farms, villages and urban centers. The music consists of a friend, Moti, singing a traditional Magar work song, and then children from the Magar village singing the Nepali national anthem.

Read More

Monday, May 20, 2013

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure–with a number of YSFP staffers, Yale faculty members and students–of sharing a breakfast with Michael Pollan, god of all things food related. For the majority of the breakfast, I cowered in the corner of the table, afraid to arrogantly assume I might have something to add. But I did finally work up the courage to ask him a question, one related to a topic I think about a lot when it comes to considering recent changes in American gastro-culture. 

We’ve all probably seen at least a bit of Top Chef. Maybe that’s just an assumption I’m making to rationalize my period of obsession in high school- it was my “Untextable Hour.” I stopped watching when I decided that they just weren’t showing enough of the actual food. But I’ve always assumed that the proliferation and popularization of cooking shows, be they competitions, travel shows, or demonstrations could at worst have a neutral effect on food culture in America, and at best could get Americans thinking more about how fun and satisfying it can be to cook. I assumed they were slowly priming us to go cook more, since we already model so much of what we do based on what we see on TV. But I wanted someone else’s take on this theory, so I sheepishly asked Mr. Pollan for his thoughts.

His answer was simple and in retrospect, very unsurprising. His response was basically that TV is designed for one thing, and that’s to keep people watching TV. Not anything else. So even if I end up making myself a sandwich instead of peeling open a Lunchable after watching some Hells’ Kitchen it’s probably not indicative: I’m an outlier, or someone who would have gotten up to make the sandwich myself anyway. 

I’m sure there are valid counterarguments to this idea- what about documentaries? Newscasts? TV has been used effectively to motivate people often throughout history in some absurd ways. But to me it presented a more basic lesson, one that sits comfortably in between both theories: always seek to know why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, and whether you’re doing them for the right reasons.

There are many ways to be a conscious and responsible consumer of food, and obviously certain ones are more palatable or possible for certain people (in my house, we call Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck”).  And if one of those ways is reinspiring yourself to cook periodically by tuning in to Top Chef, then more power to you! To not do that would be dumb. It’s clear is that dogmatic idealism and unrealistic expectations are just as, if not more harmful than getting a little distracted every once and a while.

At the same time, in our search for a better way to interact with our food, it’s important to not trick ourselves and let that distraction develop into inaction.  Let’s make sure that we don’t get stuck feeling like we’ve done our duty when we buy an organic bunch of bananas, or judge others for their TV choices while we congratulate ourselves for being gluten-free locavores. If we’re going to choose to care about this issue, let alone work to improve things, then it’s important we don’t get stuck rationalizing and settling, or judging and proselytizing. If we all find the best way to be involved, and remember to think critically about our involvement, then we’ve taken the hardest and most important step forward. Even if that step takes you back onto the couch.

-John Gerlach, ‘14

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I’m currently lucky enough to be enrolled in the class “Urbanization and the Environment in China and India”, which included a spring break trip to Guangdong Province and New Delhi. As part of the class, I’m working on a group research project about meat availability and changing diets in China and India.

Our research entailed visits to various types of markets in both countries—a fascinating process that allowed us to consider both food production and supply, and social and cultural practices. One major theme: even though urban diets have changed and are changing in both countries, becoming increasingly processed and industrialized, fresh markets remain the vibrant norm.  

Even more fundamentally, I observed in both places a difference in attitude, compared to the US, towards food shopping in general. Most basic staples remain unbranded, which isn’t to say that industrial food isn’t present—it’s just that meat that is produced industrially is not as commonly sold under a brand name like Tyson.

Thus, in both China and India, “consumer choice” in food still implies very physical, very real choice. Rather than choosing between brands and abstracted concepts of food—in the US, the premise of our industrial food system is that one Tyson chicken breast is indistinguishable from another—people rely on their senses, experience with the seller, and personal judgment to select precisely the food that looks best to them. Even in the Chinese supermarkets we visited, people pick through trays of chicken wings, and the plastic-covered Styrofoam package of six chicken breasts remains the exception rather than the norm. Although this kind of shopping may create anxiety about food safety, I think it also points to an attitude that doesn’t consider it elitist to invest time and effort in procuring quality food. 

-Abigial Bok, ‘14