Campus and community
A food industry veteran with more than three decades of experience in cooking and working in restaurants, Eamon Lee, executive foodservice chef who began his tenure at the University earlier this year, knows a few things about the holiday kitchen. We sat down with Chef Lee to determine how to appeal to a crowd, what features to highlight in holiday meals, and the supply chain issues plaguing the food industry.
First of all: what the hell should I do for the holidays?
The great thing about vacations in the North East is that they are all framed by a particular season – late fall, early winter – so you may be wondering which type food this time invites you? Comfort food, for starters.
It’s cold outside, maybe you’ve lit the fireplace, start to take out the warm clothes… naturally you start to think of things you can roast. Roasted root vegetables: celeriac, parsnip, swede, turnip, all the nasty, gnarled little things you start to see in the market this time of year. When you roast them it conjures up sugars and then everything becomes my favorite acronym, GBD – golden, brown, and delicious. This applies not only to meat, but to vegetables.
Grains are also needed, and not just brown rice. We have more options for grains today than 20 years ago… freekeh, farro, ancient wheats, all kinds of different beans. Together, the grains and what I’ll call the “keeper” vegetables – the hardy winter crops – create that truly wonderful, understated color palette that goes with holiday cooking. A good axiom to keep in mind when planning menus is: “If it grows together, it goes together”.
This time of year also evokes large format and family cooking. No cute stuff or fancy plates – it’s time to gather around the table and have a meal together. This year in particular, it is not only a question of meeting to eat, but of meeting to heal oneself. We have been roughed up in recent years. Food plays a big role, but at the end of the day it’s just the light that gets everyone around the table to do something much more important.
How can I take into account the different food restrictions or preferences of my loved ones when planning a menu?
I come back to veg, which ticks all the boxes for some of the more specific diets we see. Vegetables are generally gluten, vegan, vegetarian, animal protein, dairy free and nut free.
I think protein, and animal protein in particular, has presented a somewhat wrong value in the American diet. People seem to think that if two-thirds of their plate weren’t occupied by animal flesh, they sort of settled for less. If we spent so much time thinking about how to prepare vegetables in so many different ways as we would, say, chicken breast, could you imagine how more colorful and delicious those experiences would be?
Most people will steam broccoli and put some butter or olive oil in it and that’s it. Try something new! Shave it, turn it into a salad, grate it and roast it over high heat, turn it into a quasi-grain by making it rice, toasting it, turning it over and braising it in a sauce, turning it into osso broccoli buco— you can do so many things if you look at it like it’s a piece of meat and then ask yourself, “How else can I prepare it?” “
I always try to make one or two vegetable dishes which are just awesome dishes, which are also vegan, gluten free, dairy free etc. some people. It’s about satisfying dietary preferences while elevating a dish to a new level, turning it into something memorable and delicious.
I keep hearing about supply chain issues from grocery stores on the news. Is there a way to limit the impact of supply chain issues on my holiday table?
It’s about cooking in season and cooking locally. In the long run, I think these supply chain issues will be a good thing because people have discovered how fragile our supply chain system and our food system is.
Going back to what I’ll call “grandma’s economy,” we historically ate based on what could be mined from the earth in our immediate area. If all your dirt gives you rutabagas, parsnips, and turnips … you’ve eaten rutabagas, parsnips, and turnips. But you treat them with humility, celebrate them and develop them in any way you can.
In America today, we suffer from a wealth embarrassment, with access to an unnatural amount of food at any given time. In many cases, we have lost our connection to the agrarian society from which we came. So much so that it seems strange or poetic to think of having a relationship with the people who grow your food. But I encourage people to develop relationships with their local farmers. Introduce yourself, shake his hand, talk to him, ask him questions, reestablish that connection.
The disruptions in the supply chain have shown how perilous it is that we have become used to having our food shipped halfway around the world on a ship. A local supply chain is much less sensitive to this. I think people will start to say, maybe my friends or neighbors started buying local and sustainably grown food because they were idealistic, but now I’m going to start talking to my local suppliers because I don’t want to run out of food again. It’s a whole different set of motivations.
Any advice for planning a big meal so that everything is hot at the same time?
Two tips: one, a cooler is no different from a thermos, technically speaking. It also does a good job of keeping things warm, so coolers are your friend when it comes to timing a big meal. Wrap the dishes in a towel and place them in a cooler and they will stay warm enough to serve.
Second, invest in a good instant-read thermometer, keep it calibrated, and make sure all of your dishes stay above 145 degrees (except for meat which has its own internal temperature). The best practice is to aim to serve all of your food within two hours of taking it out of the oven.
What do you personally enjoy during the holidays?
My culinary life has meant different things at different times – when I worked in public restaurants vacations were the busiest time of the year. After cooking for 1,000 people, you tend to take your jacket off, hang up the toque and say, “Can someone get me a bowl of soup and a first aid blanket ?!” And I’m fine. Now that I’m further removed from the restaurant scene, it’s easier to remember how much I love vacations.
I have always enjoyed coming together around a table as a family, community or group of friends, even as colleagues and co-workers. I think this is one of the most important and deepest things we can do. It is a healthy thing to do. It is the best place to bond and learn from each other.
At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of critters living on a small rock and we have to figure out how to get along. Getting together at the table is a panacea for many things, and the holidays are the perfect opportunity.