This week at the 16th Annual Chef Culinary Conference at UMass - Amherst, I tasted several bites of heaven-on-earth. They came mostly from one dish. The Mujadarrah (traditionally made with rice and lentils) made by a university chef using a recipe provided by the uber-talented and mega-brilliant and one-and-only, Joyce Goldstein. I could not help meddling in the preparation and ended up stirring, sauteing and frying the onions and chickpeas. But that was not the reason the recipe was so great.
Bush's canned chickpeas and California Olive Ranch olive oil took onions and rice to an exalted place. This dish happens to be my all time favorite comfort food along with its cousin, Rishta (a lentil and rice soup, also from Lebanon). Usually I am partial to the version prepared by my dear friend Mary Ann Joulwan, but this was close enough, good enough and deeply satisfying. Thanks Joyce! Thanks to all the chefs that made this conference possible. And thanks to Ken Toong and the stellar team from the dining department at UMass Amherst for hosting the conference and making it possible for all of us to have this experience. Thanks to their hard work and vision, chefs around the country, feeding students at colleges and universities, now have even more wonderful recipes to cull from. Now Mujadarrah could be one of them.
Each year, I marvel at the group of chefs from around the US and Canada that gather together at UMass Amherst for the annual Chef Culinary Conference. A motley group, it showcases the brilliance of our industry. It mirrors the melting-pot quality of the work force that makes up the food industry. It is a dreamy place to be. And most of all, it shows off the true talent behind the dining services that enrich the lives of students every day, around the US and Canada.
Most impressive is the hunger these chefs bring with them to learn, share and to better the offerings they serve up at their dining facilities. It is this greed to learn and change, to share and teach, to compete and to elevate the offerings that makes this gathering of chefs so special. At the very least, chefs from all across two countries get to come together, wine and dine, enjoy a clam-bake (great lobster and steak) and even a casino night, whilst taking hands-on classes with chefs, food writers, nutritionists and other food industry leaders.
Simplicity, sustainability, local, multicultural, healthy, comforting, fresh and honest are only some of the key words highlighted at the conference. It would take many posts to share the depth of what is experienced. Suffice it to say this is a conference that affects lives in ways that are worthy of being supported by all industry partners. We even celebrated milestones together. Like the 50th birthday of Iliana de la Vega (photographed above), the Queen of Mexican Cookery (chef/owner of El Naranjo in Austin, TX and also faculty at CIA-San Antonio, Center for Foods of the Americas), who was teaching us authentic Mexican cooking, beyond what is famous and popular in NYC, Chicago, SF and other cities across the US.
PS: I was proud to pose for a photo with a can of Bush's Chickpeas and California Olive Ranch oil, two great products and two healthy products. If more chefs use these, instead of prepared stuff that is simply brought to temperature in an oven (read processed junk), we would make an indelible change in the world of food in the US. It may seem corny or cheesy, but I hope for more to support such little efforts. It is such small change that leads to larger, bigger and more visible change. I respect Bush's Best, California Olive Ranch, National Peanut Board, Alaska Seafood, Bunge, McCormick and others that sponsor the conference for their support of the conference and through it our larger cause. How excited I was to meet a couple of chefs from University of Saskatchewan. Chef Ryan Rolph is photographed above, enjoying the clam bake. Meeting him and his boss Chef James McFarland, the Assistant Director/Executive Chef at the university was a pleasure. They came from this cold Prairie outpost (think Saskatoon Berries), and came warm and fuzzy, hungry to take back ideas that would please their student body and those others that come to their facilities for meals and sustenance.
I would be remiss in not commending the chefs/culinary educators (Chair Siriyarn of Marnee Thai, my favorite Thai restaurant anywhere, eating lobster at the clam bake) that made time out of their busy lives and schedules to be at Amherst for the conference. The list is long and august. The talent staggering and beyond brilliant. What is amazing is the humility that each chef brings with them, and the hunger they each have to educate, share and bring our food world into an ever-evolving and better place. Thanks!