Friday, August 24, 2012
Chef John Foster: Food has many qualities, not the least of which is its ability to nurture
The food started to pour into the Sullivan University Lexington commissary on Tuesday, both for the Farm to Table Dinner at the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion in downtown Lexington on Saturday the 25th and also for our event at the Ronald McDonald House tonight. It will be a busy weekend for us, turning the abundant agricultural wealth of the Bluegrass into dinners for 30 and 175, respectively.
There are beautiful tomatoes and peppers becoming a rich, bracing gazpacho, organic chickens for the grill and corn for a salad. Pork will be rubbed down and slowly roasted until it falls off the bone. The fruit alone would be enough to satisfy the thirst we all have for fresh food from great farmers and producers.
Eating the food is the best part, but for the students and even the instructors, cooking the food becomes that much easier and more rewarding. It is far easier to coax the sweetness out of local watermelons than manufacture the flavor with additives. I’ve spoken and written about this before; the difference between buying and using local versus anything else and why we teach students and consumers alike that they should seek this type of food out and promoting it to the general public. Dinners like the Farm to Table bring that home very easily, but the other dinner, The Ronald McDonald House event, ends up being more far reaching.
If you’re not familiar with the work Ronald McDonald House does, it is compelling. People and resources completely geared toward families struggling to fight children’s diseases, particularly cancer. The purpose of the house is to keep families together in a time of great stress, at distances that would stretch the budget to a breaking point. Our work this Friday is minor; dinner for 30 and the leftovers for the next day’s meal. So simple, yet so important that we get it right, and that the students working on this dinner understand its value to their guests.
We will serve some of the same dishes that the general public will have at the Farm to Table Dinner, our way of attempting to normalize and connect the people at the market with the families at this center. The food will be partially local and wholly healthy as we want to do our part to aid in recovery the only way we know how. As I said, we are a small part of the process, happy to help.
And that is a lesson we sometimes fail to teach at school and in the industry. As chefs we sometimes fall into the trap of cooking with and for vanity. “Look at me blend flavors together like a magician!” “I have created all sorts of wonderful things for you to be amazed by!” We forget that food has other qualities as well, ones that we may have learned at our mothers knee or over long apprenticeships in a kitchen.
One quality that stands out is the ability to bring people together both in times of great joy and also tremendous sorrow. Directly after 911 the lower part of Manhattan was a ghost town, businesses that had survived the catastrophe found themselves without customers, the only people present being the workers at the World Trade Center site. Chefs and restaurateurs stepped in and started feeding those people, and soon other customers drifted back yearning for some stability and comforted by other likeminded individuals and the meals they shared. It happened again after Katrina, and in some ways it will always happen that way. It is no surprise that along with a hand out of blankets and water, the Red Cross tries to make sure there is a meal to share early on in the process, the breaking of bread being a great way to break the ice.
The other important ingredient that food brings to the human experience is nurturing. Similar to the social aspect, the nurturing quality of food manifests itself in a full belly, something we sometimes take for granted. Food can be simple or complex but it needs to fill a hole both physical and spiritual to take on the nurturing side. Dishes we have had on vacation that combine skill with that ethereal side of atmosphere are nurturing, Food from our past; grandmothers, mothers, even fathers who cook and introduce us to that side of food may not know what they have set in motion, and it may not come to fruition until the recipient becomes the nurturer.
This is what we hope to accomplish this weekend, in two very different venues: to socialize and nurture. Although the experiences will be different, the aim similar. And the medium is and will always be the same – food.
Note: Tickets to the Farm to Table Dinner Saturday will be available at the door for $45. The event is from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Fifth Third Bank Pavilion at Cheapside Park in downtown Lexington. For more information, click here.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.