Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A culinary field trip

I visited the Virginia Theological
Seminary dining room in March, where
my sister works. Under leadership of
Chef Benjamin Judd, the dining room
is operated by Meriwether Godsay.
Walking into another chef’s dining room is a field trip to me. As I wander through the servery my eyes processes the view at lightning speed. Even the smallest detail is imprinted on my mind in my quest for ideas to use in my dining hall. Like the school trip, I enjoy the adventure of surveying the scene while build my plate.

This isn’t an exercise in judgment of another chef’s establishment. I’m there to enjoy his food and share a meal with friends or family. But my eyes do wander, even after I take my place at the dining table. It’s an occupational hazard, one with the highest regard for an associate.

Standard culinary squirt bottles hold
salad dressing. Thicker dressings are
served from large Mason canning jars,
as are croutons.
Questions race through my mind. How is the meal presented in the chaffing dishes? Can diners freely navigate between stations? Are staff able to quietly move among stations as they restock and clean? Often I find myself quietly saying, “I wish I’d thought of that!”

This habit doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the meal. Yet, I see the field trip as an essential element of my career as a chef, one highlighted by years working in institutional kitchens. I’m impressed by chefs who’ve moved beyond the traditional cafeteria serving line. Though in use for decades, it’s fun to see a fellow chef put his own ideas on open serving areas.

Chef Judd began using Lodge cast
iron Dutch ovens for the soup station
in early 2013. Sterno fuel keeps the
soup warm for service.
It’s a clandestine way of comparing notes. Over the years I’ve gleaned a number of ideas in this manner. Meeting the chef is an added bonus. By the time we compare notes, I have a good idea how patrons flow though the dining room. Chef to chef quality time lets me share ideas, impart a compliment or two and thank the host for a great meal.

Who doesn’t love a good field trip? The highlight of my school years, I enjoy a good venue even more as a chef. Great food and a little learning go hand in hand. It gets you out of your kitchen and into the culinary another where ideas flow.

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