Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nello's teams with Whitted Bowers Farm and Whole Foods to produce first certified biodynamic tomato sauce in U.S.

From left to right: Rob Bowers, Byrne Huddleston,
Cheri Whitted Bowers and Neal McTighe walk through
the Whitted Bowers certified organic and biodynamic
farm in Cedar Grove. The Whitted Bowers Farm
will produce tomatoes for Nello's Sauce.
(Indy Week photos by Alex Boerner)
The imminent arrival of local tomatoes has long served as a sad reminder of the limits of Neal McTighe's entrepreneurial dreams.
The maker of Nello's Sauce, a line of premium tomato sauces produced and bottled just north of Raleigh, sources his tomatoes from California, where they grow abundantly year round. The volume he needs—currently about 20,000 pounds each month—and North Carolina's relatively short growing season made his goal of using locally grown fruit unrealistic.

Until now. Just weeks after announcing that Whole Foods was expanding regional distribution of Nello's Sauce to 140 stores from Texas to New Jersey—doubling the amount of tomatoes he processes each month—McTighe reveals the chain awarded him a loan to introduce a new product with specific local ingredients.

"It is truly groundbreaking," McTighe says. "It's the first in their business's history to support biodynamic agriculture. The real kicker is that this will be the first biodynamic, U.S.-grown, U.S.-made, tomato sauce ever. And we're doing it right here in North Carolina." Other sauces labeled organic and biodynamic contain non-U.S.-grown ingredients or were produced outside of America, most likely in Italy, McTighe says.

Nello's Biodynamic Marina will debut this summer with both USDA Organic and Demeter Biodynamic certifications. The limited edition sauce, labeled Summer 2015 Harvest, will be sold exclusively at Whole Foods. It will be made from the yield of 6,000 heirloom tomato plants (plus basil and garlic) grown for the express purpose at Whitted Bowers Farm in Cedar Grove. Sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and tomato paste have been sourced from other certified organic providers.

"I am willing to claim this will be the cleanest jarred tomato sauce ever produced in America," says McTighe, referencing the rigorous seed-to-shelf standards with which Nello's has to comply.

In fact, the standards are so tough that McTighe delayed announcing the new sauce several times while awaiting final approval from Demeter USA, the nonprofit American chapter of Demeter International, the world's only certifier of biodynamic farms and products.

Nello's Sauce founder Neal McTighe holds a
Bradywine tomato from Whitted Bowers Farm
in Cedar Grove. Whitted Bowers plans to produce
15,000 pounds of Bellstar heirloom tomatoes
to be used in the marinara sauces
of Raleigh-based company Nello's Sauce.
Established in 2005, the 52-acre Whitted Bowers Farm has been certified by Demeter since 2009. Co-owner Rob Bowers explains that the term biodynamic includes a range of protocols that improve the quality of farm land with fertilizer-free herbal and compost-based remedies. This not only protects soil from being drained of nutrients during the growing process but also discourages development of plant diseases that can destroy crops and devastate animal health. Given agreeable weather, he says the result of such mindful farming is "more and better output."

The stars also play a significant role at the farm, just as they did in generations past, when growers consulted the constellations for bountiful harvests. "It's the axis of biodynamic farming that raises the most eyebrows," Bowers concedes, "but paying attention to the alignment of the moon and close planets works.

"My grandmother once told me, 'Everyone knows you're not supposed to plant potatoes when the moon is in Pisces,'" recalls Bowers, who provides produce to numerous fine-dining restaurants and sells at the Carrboro Farmers Market. "There is a lot of folk wisdom, but it's evolved to the point that we know by the hour what to do. I don't know if it's causal, but there is a construct that works."

The farm's website prominently features the current phase of the moon to assist others who aspire to farm this way.

Since growing produce this way is expensive, the 18-ounce jars of Nello's Biodynamic Sauce will sell for either $7.99 or $8.99, depending on final production costs. The 14-ounce and 25-ounce jars of the current line sell for about $4.99 and $7.99, respectively.

Given the relatively small production, McTighe cautions that Nello's Biodynamic Marinara may sell out quickly.

"We didn't want to go too big this year because we're all a little nervous about introducing an entirely new product to the market," he says. "There is a lot riding on this, but we hope to grow quickly in future years."

This first appeared in Indy Week.

Barker-backed pizzeria likely coming to Carrboro

Chef Ben Barker is talking with Carrboro officials about something diners have been hoping to hear since he and wife Karen closed Magnolia Grill in Durham two years ago this month: They plan to open a pizzeria.

Barker told the INDY in January 2013 that such a venture was possible, so long as their son Gabe was in charge. Gabe has been honing his culinary and business management skills at restaurants on the West Coast.


Gabe Barker
(ilonausa.com photo)
Barker is not offended that a growing buzz is describing the place as “Carrboro’s Pizzeria Toro.”

“The Carrboro project is still in the early stages of development. We haven't even signed a lease,” Barker says. “What a wonderful compliment to be compared to Pizzeria Toro, though, a restaurant with operators that we are huge fans of and drive to Durham regularly for.”

This first appeared in Indy Week.

Ben Adams leaves Piedmont, triggering changes in Durham dining scene

Ben Adams (left) and Wyatt Dickson
(Photo courtesy Jennifer Kelly)
It's been two years since chef Ben Adams took over the kitchen at Piedmont. He and general manager and wine director Crawford Leavoy lifted the Durham eatery from a slump to become a hotspot known for creative seasonal fare and spot-on service. Now, Adams has left to launch his own place.

Set to open this fall in North Durham, it's tentatively named Picnic. The name is a nod to comfort food cuisine that can range from beach blankets and icy Budweiser tall boys to silver trays and mint juleps, as well as the picnic shoulder cut favored over the Boston butt by partner and pitmaster Wyatt Dickson of Pig Whistle. Picnic's third partner is Ryan Butler of Green Button Farm in Bahama, whose pasture-raised heritage pigs could practically walk to the not-quite-finalized location.

Meanwhile, Piedmont is continuing with acting chef de cuisine Lorenzo Leon Guerrero. He will stay on to support the next executive chef, Greg Gettles, current sous chef at Herons at the Umstead Hotel, who takes over June 1. Scott Crawford, former executive chef at Herons, hired Gettles when Ben Barker was closing his legendary Magnolia Grill in 2012.
Adams and Dickson met in 2002 as fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina. Independently, Adams and Dickson moved to New York after graduation, where they worked in “suit jobs” providing legal and financial services.

As they sat in Crook’s Corner last Wednesday, sharing plates of Pig Whistle barbecue and a twist on traditional slaw—red cabbage, green onions and a bright cilantro vinaigrette—Adams and Dickson dressed in the casual, come-as-you-are look they hope customers will wear at Picnic.

"The sides and small plates will be my thing," Adams says, pausing to dip some of chef Bill Smith's Hoppin' John before passing the bowl around the table. "Some will be familiar to Piedmont diners, like my collards with smoked bacon."

The Charleston native, who cooked at Sean Brock's famed McCrady's before being lured to the Triangle, says other dishes under consideration include a mac 'n' cheese starring Chapel Hill Creamery's award-winning Calvander, baked beans with Sea Island red peas, and fresh ceviche served with pork cracklins. A pop-up preview is May 23 at Daisy Cakes.

"This restaurant was always in the back of our minds, but I was glad to wait until [Adams] was ready," Dickson says. "We won't be garnishing dishes with tweezers and micro greens, but the experience he's gained at Piedmont is invaluable. Just wait until they see his rillettes and terrines. It will set us apart from most of barbecue places."

Barbecue figured prominently in Dickson's life while he grew up in Fayetteville. His dad bottled batches of the family's eastern-style sauce as holiday gifts. Dickson, however, says his style weds the best of eastern and western traditions.

"I think of it as the 'Great Carolina Compromise,'" he says with a hearty laugh, referencing Pig Whistle's business motto. "After all, what's a little ketchup between friends?"

Dickson started developing his signature sauce at his UNC fraternity, where he cooked for football games. He didn't barbecue while in New York but started again in 2008 when he returned to Carolina for law school. His focus though became creating a catering business.
Dickson’s first big boost came from chef Andrea Reusing, who invited him in 2012 to cook a whole hog at the 10th anniversary celebration of Lantern in Chapel Hill. It was the first time he used heritage pork (Reusing’s supply is raised by Chapel Hill Creamery on whey, an abundant cheese byproduct). He never went back to commodity meat.

Aside from special restaurant events—Piedmont featured Pig Whistle at a whole hog dinner last July, and Crook's will have it on the menu again June 3—the only way to try Dickson's barbecue is to place a party-size order. Picnic will allow him to serve fresh, affordable portions daily.

Lunches will range from $7-$10, with dinners around $12-$18. Choices other than barbecue will be available. Daily specials will be designed around seasonal availability.

If ribs are your favorite part of the pig, Dickson advises showing up early. “A pig only has so many ribs,” he says. “This isn’t a factory. We’ll serve them one or two at a time to make sure people who really want them can get some.”
 
Pop-Up Events:

● May 23, 7 p.m.: Ben Adams will serve Picnic-style sides and small plates at Daisy Cakes, 401A Foster St., Durham (919-389-4307). Note: 16-seat limit.

● June 3, 5:30 p.m. (until gone): Wyatt Dickson’s Pig Whistle pork barbecue will be featured on the menu at Crook’s Corner, 610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill (919-929-7643)

● June 7, 4–7p.m.: Pig Whistle will be paired with Green Button Farms at the annual Farm to Fork Picnic held at WC Breeze Family Farm, Hurdle Mills. Details at farmtoforknc.com

This story first appeared in Indy Week.

Friday, May 1, 2015

IACP-winning cookbook author Cathy Barrow to teach canning class at Southern Season

Cathy Barrow, aka Mrs. Wheelbarrow, will teach at a cooking class at 6pm Monday, May 11, at Southern Season in Chapel Hill. She'll demonstrate her No Pectin, No Fail Strawberry Jam, water bath canning, Strawberry Jam Barbecue Sauce with Pork Sliders, and Mini Jam Tarts from her award-winning book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving. To reserve your seat, click here or call 800-253-3663.

Cathy Barrow, aka Mrs. Wheelbarrow
(Photo © Christopher Hirsheimer)
With local strawberries starting to appear at farmer's market, even those who have never canned jam or jelly before find it hard to resist to the tug. "Do it," they seem to say, as dew from early morning picking begins to dry into a sweet sheen.

The timing could not be better, both for those unfamiliar with canning techniques and experienced jammers who want to step up their game. Cathy Barrow, whose debut cookbook, Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry, recently earned the 2015 International Association of Cooking Professionals award for best single-subject book, will unlock the secrets of strawberries on May 11 at Southern Season.

"Every new canner starts with strawberry jam and it's really the hardest one to make," says Barrow, who writes about preserving for The Washington Post and in her Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen blog. "I've got a few tricks up my sleeve to make sure those first-time jammers are successful."

Those tricks benefit experience canners as well. Using her directions, I've produced the most glossy, flavorful strawberry jams and sauces ever. I'm a particular fan of her Double Strawberry Preserves, which uses both fresh and tart dried cherries, and the lightly floral Strawberry Mango Jam.

I had the privilege of being among a group of testers, her Practical Pantry Posse, who made those recipes before the book was published. Trust me, there's just no going back after you've made these flavor-packed treasures.
 The book lists for $35 but often is available for less online. While there's nothing a diehard canner likes better than a jam-splattered cookbook, note that the Kindle edition currently is on sale for just $2.99.
The following is one of her strawberry-based recipes that will not be on the menu at Southern Season. While I'm told that local rhubarb can be found at some farmers markets, you are more likely to find it imported from a cooler climate at a well-stocked grocery store. Local strawberries, however, are abundant and should be your first choice.

Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce 
Reprinted with permission of Cathy Barrow from Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving  (W.W. Norton & Co.).
   
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 pints or 5 12-ounce jars, plus some to enjoy right now
 
Ingredients
  • 4 pints (48 ounces or 1380 grams) strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and quartered
  • 3 pounds (1350 grams) rhubarb, rinsed and cut into ½-inch dice
  • 5 cups (35 ounces or 1 kg) granulated sugar
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • Star anise (optional)
Instructions
  1. Put the berries to a large glass or ceramic bowl and, using a potato masher or wooden spoon, gently crush them. Add the rhubarb, sugar, lemon juice, and star anise (if using) and stir well and completely until the sugar has dissolved. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the mixture macerate for 4 hours, or if refrigerated, for as long as 2 days.
  2. Scrape the mixture to a preserving pot and clip on a candy thermometer. Slowly bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Then bring to a vigorous boil and stir constantly until th sauce thickens to the consistency of ketchup, about 25 minutes.
  3. Turn of heat and discard the star anise. Ladle the sauce into warm (sterilized) jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Clean the rims of the jars well with a damp paper tower. Place the lids and rings on the jars and finger-tighten the rings.
  4. Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
Note: You can skip the water-bath process and tucked the cooled sauce straight into the refrigerator, but processing keeps it shelf-stable for a year. You'll be glad to have some stashed for the holidays, or on a frigid day when you can laugh at the weather with a bowl of warm oatmeal topped with Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Strawberry-Rhubarb Sauce.
 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Provenance to bring creative dining concept to Raleigh

Another chef with impressive credentials has chosen Raleigh as the location to open a new restaurant.

Teddy Klopf will be executive chef at Provenance at SkyHouse, a restaurant and bar in the new high-rise condo and retail complex under construction at 308 S. Blount St. He left a year-long stint of cooking at Herons at The Umstead this month to focus on developing his creative concept and building his team for a scheduled October opening.

The 31-year-old chef has ambitious plans for Provenance, which will start with breakfast and lunch service in the downstairs bar. Upstairs, Klopf will feature a "subscription" dining option, which he says will be tailored to preferences of individual members, and themed pop-up style dinners on weekends. The latter will be something like Next in Chicago, where fans follow social media postings to jump on ticketed events.

"There is nothing else in the area doing what we will be doing. It's for people who are looking for a little more in their dining experiences," says Klopf, noting that the tasting menu-style meals will change daily based on seasonal availability. Themed events under consideration include a Don Quixote series, which will pair Spanish "wine and cuisine with elements of the fantastical," suggesting the high-tech gastronomy of the famed El Bulli.

After working as a pastry chef and certified sommelier from 2005 to 2008 at a handful of award-winning restaurants in Sante Fe, Klopf enrolled at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. The experience allowed him opportunities to learn at top New York City restaurants, including Thomas Keller's Per Se, Eric Ripert's Le Bernadin and Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park. After he graduated in 2011, he cooked for two years at McCrady's, one of Sean Brock's Charleston restaurants.

"I've had a lot of extraordinary experience to learn in great kitchens," Klopf says. "But there was no question for me that Raleigh was the place where I wanted to have my own restaurant."

Klopf credits the increasingly vibrant downtown restaurant culture and accessibility to farmers as primary draws.

"I did my homework and felt that my concept would be a good fit for the area. After a year at the Umstead, I'm quite certain about it," he says. "It's a very exciting time for the food scene and the sheer bounty and excellence of local goods is incredible. In my estimation North Carolina offers one of the best and healthiest agricultural centers in the country."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

North Carolina Military Veterans Join the Ranks of the State’s Brewers

When North Carolina troops return from military deployments, they often crave the familiar flavors we take for granted. After an extended diet of ready-to-eat meals, few things taste better than a grilled burger dressed with Duke’s, a second serving of strawberry shortcake, and an ice-cold beer.
 
For a handful of enterprising veterans, beer has become more than a sip of freedom. It’s their livelihood, earning them opportunities to translate leadership skills gained through service to our country into the creation of quality craft brews.
 
Since April is North Carolina Beer Month, it’s good to note that at least six breweries owned or operated by veterans have opened in North Carolina in recent years.
 
Beer Army Combat Brewery is located in New Bern, just down the road from the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. Among its award-winning beers are Fire in the Hole, an Irish-style red ale, and Heroes Never Die!!!, an American-style IPA. At The Mash House Brewing Company in Fayetteville, a double IPA recently debuted with the name Intrepid, a salute to the courageous fighters at Fort Bragg.
 
Railhouse Brewery in Aberdeen has KA-BAR, a brown ale named for the combat knife adopted by the Marines during World War II. The brew won a gold medal at the 2013 International Craft Beer Awards. Sold across North and South Carolina, it’s also popular around Camp Mujuk in South Korea, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the world, offering a taste of home.
 
These military brethren caught the craft-brewing bug the same way most of the state’s top brewers did: by making small-batch beer at home. But there is more that unites them.
 
“They all seem to agree that their military training gave them the know-how and confidence to become craft beer entrepreneurs,” says Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the NC Craft Brewers Guild.
 
And they all observed a lack of local breweries in friendly territory near the state’s many military bases. Several veteran-led start-ups were in discussion when Railhouse led the charge and was established in December 2010. Not far from Fort Bragg and Fayetteville and near Aberdeen, Camp Mackall Army Base is where soldiers train to become members of the elite U.S. Army Special Forces.
 
Ratkowski's business partner is Brian Evitts, a former home brewer who served as a nuclear propulsion chemist in the Navy. “That’s why Brian is the CEO and brewmaster,” quips Ratkowski. “We figured if he could handle nuclear physics, making craft beer on a commercial scale should be a breeze.”
 
Ratkowski says the structure and rigor of military service develops job-ready skills that are essential to success in the public sector.
 
“None of us are afraid of getting our hands dirty,” agrees Vernardo “Tito” Simmons-Valenzuela, a former Army medic turned brewmaster at Dirtbag Ales in Hope Mills. “Everything at our brewery, except what we’ve needed commercial permits for, we’ve done ourselves. Lead-from-the-front and be-the-example definitely came into play,” he adds.
 
Micah Niebauer, co-founder and CEO of Southern Pines Brewing Co., says his partners have a clear sense of mission and experience that lets them “adjust on the fly as we operate the brewery.”
With support from a Patriot Express Loan available only to military veterans, Niebauer created the company with fellow Green Berets who served in his unit. “From our perspective,” he adds, “opening a business and becoming an entrepreneur is part of the American dream.”
 
Niebauer’s team calculated that the Sandhills could support two breweries. Southern Pines Brewing is located along the same rail line as Railhouse Brewery, even having used Railhouse’s equipment before acquiring its own gear. More comrades than competitors, the two recently collaborated on a black IPA called Ties That Bind.
 
Like members of the armed forces, microbrewers say that they are stronger when they pull together. “We’re all on the same team,” Ratkowski says. “Our goal is to share our passion for craft beer. We think it’s more important for people to know and buy from their local brewer than some big faceless corporation.”
 
Richard Young developed his brewing skills on the West Coast before landing at Fayetteville’s The Mash House last November. Once a member of the distinguished 7th Infantry Division at California’s Fort Ord, he has fond memories of time spent training at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne.
 
“It makes sense to me do something I love in a community that I really appreciate,” says Young, who started brewing beer in junior officer quarters at Fort Ord. “Technically, it wasn’t quite legal,” he admits, “but let me say this: Up and down the halls, no one was complaining.”
 
Young is working on a new beer that will be sold to raise money for a nonprofit that assists members of the armed services. “We’re testing a few with our customers now,” says Young. “Once we settle on a winner, part of the proceeds will go straight to helping veterans.”
 
There’s little about the upscale taproom or list of classic Belgian-style ales at Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Brewing Company to suggest that it’s run by veterans. “We don’t market our military experience,” says CEO Joe Vogelbacher, a graduate of Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy and current member of the Naval Reserve. His partners include a Marine Corps infantry machine gunner who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Navy submarine electronics technician, and a former nuclear engineer with Newport News Shipbuilding.
 
“When people learn our story, they come and introduce themselves,” adds Vogelbacher, whose brewery is not far from the Air National Guard 145th Airlift Wing. “Birds of a feather, right? We all want to see people who served their country succeed when they get back home.”
 
With a logo that depicts an American eagle with a wild-eyed Devil Dog on its chest, there is no mistaking Beer Army Combat Brewery’s pedigree. The image combines the motivational nickname for the Marines with the look of Beer Army founder and “General” Dustin Canestorp’s beloved late Doberman. He says it’s a constant reminder that making and selling beer is a means to doing good in his community.
 
“Philanthropy is the reason I started this,” says Canestorp, a retired Marine who has directed more than $90,000 to local charities through his nonprofit, Beer Army Foundation. “We are part of the fabric of our community. Our mission is to help.”
 
Canestorp was inspired to create the brewery and the foundation following the combat death of a close friend. This year, he will expand the foundation’s reach by providing small scholarships through events proceeds and sales of logo goods. For a college student in need, it’s an entirely different way to think about “beer money.”
 
“I believe education is key to solving a lot of our country’s problems,” says Canestorp, who put himself through college by joining the Marines. “If our foundation can help a kid get ahead, become successful, and give back to their community, I’ll be very happy.”
 
Application information will be posted on the foundation’s website, BeerArmy.org.
Military branding also plays a big role at another veteran-owned and operated brewery. Being called a “dirtbag” might not strike you as a compliment, but Simmons-Valenzuela says fans of Dirtbag Ales recognize the intended fellowship.
 
“We call people dirtbags when they’ve kicked around” various deployments, explains Simmons-Valenzuela, who met his business partner and fellow Army medic Gerald Montero while they were assigned to a small hospital in Baghdad, Iraq.
 
Dirtbag also brewed beer at Railhouse before opening its own production site. Railhouse’s Ratkowski says Dirtbag is making one of the best K├Âlsch beers in the state. It’s on tap at super chef Ashley Christensen’s popular Beasley’s Chicken + Honey in Raleigh.
 
Simmons-Valenzeula credits an unused gift for Dirtbag’s success. He and Montero returned to North Carolina after their deployment, buying houses next door to one another. He gave Montero and his bride a beer-making kit as a wedding gift, but a year later, it was still in the package.
 
“I took it back, and I guess the rest is history,” Simmons-Valenzuela says. “There’s just no reason to let good beer go to waste.”
 
This story first posted in Our State Magazine.
NOTE: The Sun Journal of New Bern reported that Beer Army has closed. Founder Dustin Canestrop says he hopes to continue the work of the Beer Army Foundation.
 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Fire in the Triangle winner Ryan Conklin honed skills in healthcare kitchens

Ryan Conklin of Rex Healthcare
(photos courtesy Got to Be NC
Competition Dining Series) 
Early in his career, Ryan Conklin used to ditch his logo-emblazoned chef's jacket before walking into a grocery store or business where the company name might be recognized.

"I didn't want people knowing I worked in a hospital kitchen," says Conklin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who landed his first executive chef job at age 24. "I was embarrassed about the food we were serving and wanted to avoid anyone stopping me to talk about it."

With a win at the recent Fire in the Triangle portion of the
Got to Be NC Competition Dining SeriesConklin is no longer concerned about the stigma of hospital food. For the past six yeares, he has served as executive chef at Raleigh's Rex Healthcare, which provides nearly 4,000 meals daily. He previously earned two gold medals, in 2010 and 2012, representing Red at the Association for Healthcare Foodservice Culinary Competition.

Conklin planned his Fire in the Triangle dishes—which featured a vast range of surprise ingredients—on his study of competitor entries that had scored best with culinary judges and paying guests. "It's not about what’s the complicated thing a chef feels like making," he says. "We focused on cooking food that would make people want to lick the bowl. I told our team, 'Every dish should make people feel like it's date night.' " 

Conklin’s winning dessert course included Uno Alla Volta
ricotta-toffee cornmeal upside down cake, ricotta semifreddo,
Meyer lemon-blueberry compote, ricotta-vanilla bean cannoli
cream, pine nut crumble and a balsamic-white peach coulis.

Good advice. With a $2,000 prize and a new handmade chef's knife in his kit, Conklin will advance to the statewide finals to be held in October.

"How cool is that?" he says of his victory over a dozen competitors, many of them well-known chefs at critically acclaimed restaurants. "Who would have thought a hospital chef would win this thing?"

Conklin has been honing his skills in healthcare kitchens for about a dozen years. In addition to cooking for appreciative patients, chefs who work in this field have more stable work schedules than colleagues who work in public restaurants, especially those who cater to the late-night crowd.

"We're all out of here after 8 p.m. We trade weekends and we're off most holidays," says Conklin, who has cultivated a staff of former chef-owners and restaurant cooks who were glad to leave the daily grind. "With what we can accomplish here, I really don't miss working in a restaurant."

Conklin believes his team—as well as talented chefs who cook at assisted living centers and other medical facilities—has a responsibility to do more than just respond to a checkmark indicating a specific dietary need.

"We think of our operation as a hotel-style kitchen within a hospital. It's how we think about food and create new items," he says. "When I first transitioned from the restaurant industry to healthcare, it was a huge culture shock to me. Things were just thrown in the steamers. There was no passion about developing dishes or flavors. No one gave any thought to presentation.

"Today," he adds, "as far as being a chef in this field, I look at it as an untapped market dripping with opportunity and potential."

Conklin blogs about his career and collaborations with other healthcare chefs at 
NewSchoolHospitalFood.com. “We've become leaders in our field at Rex, and I don't take that lightly," he says. "I like to share information with people who are also committed to reinventing healthcare cuisine.”

While dedicated to thinking outside of the box, Conklin is not offended by having to produce daily batches of that most ubiquitous hospital snack: Jell-O.

"I've got to be honest, Jell-O is a very comforting food. People want it," he says. "But we don't treat it as 'just Jell-O.' When we serve it, we make sure it's the best Jell-O you've ever had."


This post first appeared in Indy Week.