When IT Grains.. It Pours!

We have been getting heavy rain in northern California these past few weeks. But don’t feel sorry for us, we welcome the rain because it enables the vegetables to grow! Without rain, we are in a drought and then all the California politicians start fighting over who gets water from where. Rain resolves a lot of those issues, and it lowers the price of tomatoes, which lowers the cost of tomato paste which means your pizza price should not go up this year!

On Jan. 23, while it was pouring rain outside, we were all inside the beautiful CIA Greystone building in St. Helena, CA. After three days of watching people cook, the audience was getting antsy. I mean, here you have a room full of chefs, a beautiful CIA kitchen, piles of perfect Whole Food supermarket worthy produce and dozens of CIA culinary students running around just waiting to help out with mise en place, prep and dishwashing! We were chomping at the bit waiting to get into that kitchen!

The day started out with a beautiful breakfast buffet sponsored by Avocados from Mexico and included some of the following items: mango and avocado smoothies; breakfast burritos with beans, eggs and avocado salsa; an avocado and manchego platter; and several other non-avocado items like blueberry-peanut muffins (made with spelt flour), cherry-peanut bread and whole-grain carrot bread. This was NOT your typical hotel continental special—no gourmet detail was spared!

Then we had a few lectures where culinary strategies for building flavorful, craveable and healthful foods were discussed. Suvir Saran showed how to use fruits in savory applications. Joyce Goldstein demonstrated satisfying bean-based soups and stews. Other presenters talked about peanuts, avocados, mushrooms and beans, all of which were sponsors of Produce First.

Then we were divided into teams. Each team had a produce sponsor representative, a guest chef, a CIA faculty member, and an invited attendee (i.e., menu developers from restaurant chains). One team was lucky enough to get … ME! … a press member with a culinary degree who still remembers how to use a chef knife!

Last year, I took on a more movie-director role and made a short, 10-minute film that you can watch on YouTube. But this year I decided to participate and found myself on Team Latin/Mexican. We were lucky to have Chef John Ash as our guide and I partnered up with Chef Chad Sarno, an R&D chef from Whole Foods Market. I did a lot of prep work and Chef Chad struggled a little with chickpea-batter crêpes, but in the end everything turned out great and everyone was inspired on ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their own large-scale culinary operations. It’s easy to get people to eat more fruit and vegetables—just concentrate on making them the desirable part of the meal. Get people to order an entrée not based on how big the steak is, but because it comes with a side of mango, pineapple and grapefruit salad or avocado fries!

But don’t take my word. Here are a few quotes from some of the Produce First participants!

  • Stan Frankenthaler, an RCA member and executive chef at Dunkin Donuts told me: “The most fun moment was the brainstorming lead by Chef James Sanchez. We had great ideas and great collaboration”
  • Chris Schully, an RCA member and executive development chef at Taylor Farms said “Produce First made me reevaluate the way I develop products by building in healthy ingredients from the start, and I have a newfound appreciation for avocados!”
  • Joe Dodds, corporate chef at Stop and Shop, who wants to be a member of the RCA, said: “I have a reemerged interest in Indian cuisine! I want to incorporate the flavors into familiar dishes to help give them a unique and flavorful flair. I also loved the camaraderie of chefs and the relationships that were built between chefs and produce suppliers.”
  • Bob Coyle, the marketing team leader of the National Peanut Board, loved the way the event brought together flavors and he “can’t wait to bring the great food ideas that he picked up back to the Peanut Board!”

The day ended around 3 P.M., and everyone went home excited, inspired and ready to make vegetables the center of their food service plate!

About Rachel Zemser