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 “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.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When in North Carolina, eat as the locals eat

Bob Garner, author of "Foods That Make You Say Mmm-Mmm," will speak at 7pm Wednesday, March 18, during a meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public.

Even with the different options available from east to west and back again, Bob Garner has learned that man cannot live by North Carolina barbecue alone.
Since he wrote his first book in 1996, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, Garner has become one of the state's best known bbq experts. He's written extensively on the passions of those who choose vinegar or tomato sauce - or vice versa - and featured hard working, traditional pit masters in countless WUNC television programs.

In his new book, Foods That Make You Say Mmm-Mmm (Blair Publishing), Garner takes readers along for a journey that stretches from the coast to the mountains - with plenty of pit stops in-between to fill up on local specialties.
"I decided to focus on foods that really are special to North Carolina, as opposed to things that are loved throughout the South," Garner says. "We all eat a lot of mac and cheese and chicken and dumplings, and wash it down with sweet tea. But there is a kind of cabbage collard grown here that is limited to the coastal plain. It's so good that has its own festival in the little town of Ayden, which calls itself the Collard Capital of the World. Now that is truly special."

The pale yellow leaves of the cabbage collard and sweeter and more tender than its stiff, dark-leaved cousin. It's also more precious giving its limited growing season. "I do get a little sad when you can't get them anymore," Garner says, "but then all the spring and summer produce arrives. In North Carolina, there is always something to look forward to."
Garner strived to introduce readers to some traditional foods that are less well-known outside of their native habitat. Ocracoke Fig Cake, which is generally available up and down the Outer Banks when figs are plentiful, is one such example.

"It's perfect for the winter holidays," Garner says of the cake, which uses a jar of fig jam for its rich flavor and distinctive texture.  
"I don't think most people know about that, but they should," he says with a trace of the familiar "mmm-mmm" he uses to accentuate foods he adores.
And while many North Carolinians are familiar with Brunswick stew, Garner would like to see them boldly try some Neuse River fish stew.
"It's a very localized fish made in no more than four counties along the Neuse," he says. "Unless you live there or know people - or are a food historian or a really clued-in foodie - you've probably never tried it."
Garner includes a recipe for Authentic Eastern North Carolina Fish Stew in the book. He warns that it's an ugly bowlful of often boney rockfish, layered with potatoes and onions, and topped with eyeball-like poached eggs slipped in at the last minute. The stew is not to be stirred while cooking - typically outdoors, or in a sheltered garage if it's too cold and windy - to ensure that fish stays in large chunks.
"It's been going on for years and years, but it's a little known dish outside of the immediate area," Garner says, noting that some renegades doctor their stew with crushed saltines . "There are only a couple of places where you can get it commercially, like Ken's Grille on Hwy. 70 in LaGrange.  But only on Fridays."

Another fish Garner originally thought to leave out but couldn't resist in charcoal mullet. Once dismissed as bait fish, sustainable oily mullet - especially jumping mullet - has become popular inland thanks to providers who rush fresh catch from the coast to grateful local consumers.
"Charcoal mullet is food for the common people, a thing locals always ate when others wouldn't," he says. "There's a lesson here. If you eat what the locals eat, you're going to eat well."