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Why I Love Working at Culinary Events like Roots Cultivate 2018

Clockwise from left: Farmer Lee Jones of the Chef's Garden, Natasha Daniels '17 and Richie Farina '05. Photo: Meredith Demuth-Bibb/The Chef’s Garden

Natasha Daniels '17 has pursued her culinary curiosity from a young age. In her native Ohio, she worked in restaurant kitchens and volunteered locally at places like the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) to expand and strengthen her skills. At JWU, she was part of the student culinology team that won first prize at the Research Chefs Association’s inaugural Evolution of Food Waste Student competition. Now that team is developing a full line of products, OURGrain, using Brewer’s spent grain (BSG). Daniels also works as a private chef and keeps up her Ohio connections by assisting at CVI events like Roots Cultivate, where she catches up with chefs from all over the US — including JWU alumni. Read all about her experience at the 2018 conference:

I first got involved with Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) when I was living in Ohio — well before I ever went to culinary school — and while I was working downtown at a place called The Flying Fig. I was doing some random searches online for culinary-related things (competitions, events, seminars, etc.) and came across something called “Chef for a Day.” This is a program that CVI runs during their events where a home chef can come into the kitchen for a day and cook alongside the guest and resident chefs — an amazing opportunity to cook with the best product and learn so much while doing it! The program includes two tickets to dinner at whatever event is happening at the time.

Everyone leaves their egos at the door and it’s just culinarian to culinarian.”

So I scheduled, paid and went. It looked like a fun experience and the pictures of the garden were so beautiful! Honestly I just wanted to learn more about the place and do something out-of-the-box. The event was a farm-to-table dinner featuring a Disney chef.

In the end, I didn’t use the dinner tickets and instead stayed in the kitchen for plate up and clean up. When Jamie (Simpson, CVI executive chef) and Ulfet (the sous chef at the time) heard about how I was working in restaurants and considering going to culinary school, they said, “You could have just called and come to help for free!” And of course that is what I did the next week, and many many times after that before I left the area.

Why I Love Working at CVI
CVI is really a great place to rediscover why you started cooking in the first place. Everyone there is so welcoming and loving and it’s all centered around food. The goal is just to make a super amazing event and put the best food on the plate and I try to do that in my everyday life and job as a private chef.

It’s a place of elegance but not perfection. Things happen there and we always work to make the best event with what we are given. There isn’t a better place to stay up until 3am making cheese, or tell life stories with world-renowned chefs over a family meal from Jim’s Pizza Box.

Roots Cultivate 2018 Highlights: Next-Level Proteins, Self-Care and Culinary Connections
Roots Cultivate is put on every other year buy CVI and The Chef’s Garden — essentially a biannual gathering of the food world’s greatest masterminds. The talks center around recent trends in food, farming, restaurants, safety, and anything related. This year’s theme of Cultivate was perfect because it is time to “cultivate conversation and change” in the food industry, especially with many big changes being implemented and coming.

Some highlights that stuck out to me:

  1. A conversation called “Cultivating the Best Version of You.” Bradford Thompson, Andreas Pias (a JWU alum who is a senior Research Chef at McCormick Flavor Solutions), and Justin Carlisle had a great conversation about work-life balance, which is really important in this day and age. It really takes a conscious decision to put your physical and mental health before the job and it’s something that isn’t talked about much.

  2. During Andrew Zimmern’s keynote, the topic of eating bugs came up. He said something that really summarized how people can change the way they think about food. He noted that it’s almost impossible to believe that one day people will just stop eating meat. On the other hand, if a population has to move 30 degrees from a particular axis, it’s easier to move 1 degree in 30 different places to achieve the same result. Whether that means some people eating bugs, and some people going vegan, it is the variety of changes that make up a whole and I think it is important to remember that.

  3. Talks and seminars are great but what always makes the greatest impact on me are the sidebar conversations with panelists, other chefs and visitors. We can have the most amazing revelations about our business, food, selves, etc. One that really stuck out to me was a conversation I had with several individuals where we talked about expectations and “the CVI effect.”

    Sometimes when newcomers come to the CVI they are not sure whether they are “good enough” or “fit in” because there are always big name chefs there that have multiple restaurants, Michelin stars, James Beard nominations, etc. But when you get down to it, CVI is a place to learn and discover. Everyone leaves their egos at the door and it’s just culinarian to culinarian — people realize why they started cooking and what they can do in their current positions to make food the best it can be.

My Many Roles at Roots
I am an overall jack-of-all trades at Roots as a “Supporting Chef.” Every year Chef Jamie brings in 10 chefs for 10 days to champion the culinary team. CVI doesn’t do events like this often, and they only have 3 full time people: Jamie, Tristan Acevedo (who used to work at MOTO), and Dario Torres (amazing chef and bread baker).

At an event like Roots, I’m networking even when I’m not trying to.”

So to really pull off Roots they need people that can prep, cook, wash, clean, organize, coordinate, build, and just overall help. Many people who come are visiting for their first or maybe second time. For someone like me, having been going there for more than 5 years, it’s a great help to Jamie, Tristan, and Dario to have people that know where everything is, know how the kitchen and equipment functions, know the overall scope for Roots and what needs to be done/has been done/works/doesn’t work etc. My responsibilities include

  • receiving and putting away orders
  • organizing our refrigerated semi trucks (a true walk in coolers)
  • organizing kitchen supplies/equipment
  • family meal
  • prep/cooking for guest chefs
  • helping chefs put away their prep when they arrive
  • organizing volunteers from the local culinary school
  • building outside kitchens
  • helping load and unload trucks from the farm
  • literally anything else
  • answering A LOT A LOT of questions

At an event like Roots, I am networking even when I am not trying to. One of the other supporting chefs was JWU alum Dave Barette, who used to work at Persimmon in Disney World and now owns Main St. Kitchens in Hanover, New Hampshire. And it was actually the second time for Andreas Pias, Richie Farina '05, and Brad Kilgore '06 (Alter, Kaido and Ember) — they all came last year too. I know Andreas from JWU and other events, and I’ve known Richie for a while too — he did lunch for day 1 which was really great! He is a wonderful chef and the lunch was a true representation of his whimsical character and culinary skill. As for Brad — he is awesome! I met him and his wife Soraya, who owns Madlab Creamery, last year and I am so happy to call them friends.

ALL PHOTOS BY MICHELLE DEMUTH-BIBB/THE CHEF’S GARDEN. // BELOW, CLOCKWISE: FARMER LEE JONES, KEYNOTE ANDREW ZIMMERN, MCCORMICK SENIOR RESEARCH CHEF ANDREAS PIAS, PANEL DISCUSSION, food.

Farmer Lee Jones, Andrew Zimmern, JWU alum Andreas Pias and other speakers at this year's Roots Cultivate conference.

One of the dinners at this year's Roots Cultivate.

Roasted roots

Topics: Alumni Culinary Nutrition