Welcome to Conscious Cuisine Chef’s Tables: Students powwow before service (left) and a final plate of crudo with hibiscus, beet + sorrel.
How do you get the next generation of chefs to care about food sourcing, ethics and conservation? Conscious Cuisine is one of the 3 labs (and one academic course) that make up JWU’s Wellness & Sustainability elective.
Conscious Sourcing, Conscious Dining
Today two groups of students will be serving 4 diners today as part of Chef’s Tables, a final group project where students collaborate, “Top Chef” Restaurant Wars-style, on a thematically-unified 6-course tasting menu.
“Conscious Cuisine is a capstone (senior-level) course focusing on where we source our food, how we get those ingredients, when we get those ingredients — and then puts it into practice in a fine dining setting,” explains Chef TJ Delle Donne.
Protein Is Not the Main Event
Every student is responsible for at least one dish, and each team must create a dessert.
In addition, each student team decorates the tables, designs the menus and runs the front-of-house (technically a spruced-up corner of the kitchen).
Overall, the menus emphasize charcuterie and “off-cuts” — Conscious Cuisine is where JWU students really learn to use the whole animal. “This class is all about snout-to-tail cooking,” explains student Bethany Caliaro.
“Primarily, all of our protein is local,” notes Delle Donne. “They [break] down a whole pig, rabbits, ducks… They do all kinds of charcuterie — sausages, mousse, head cheese, rillettes.”
And yet, protein is not the main event in the final plates — vegetables, edible flowers and bright fruits pack an equal punch, adding both flavor and visual flair. (Dishes make excellent use of in-season produce like beets, Brussels sprouts, radishes and winter citrus.)
Posted above each team’s work station are hand-drawn schematics detailing every ingredient, dish and place setting.
Clockwise from left: Conscious Cuisine menu. Salmon skin crisp with avocado crema and roe. Duck fat caramels.
The prep tables are crowded with all kinds of ingredients that will be used as components: Apple butter. Szechuan peppercorns. Fresh-picked herbs. A tray of ruby-colored ribbons is actually a “pomegranate veil” that will later enliven seared duck rillettes.
When I arrive, the tables are set, the prep lists have been checked and the students are running down their pre-meal “game plan” with Chef Delle Donne. (They are graded on their food, but also on how smoothly they run service, from expediting and refilling water glasses to clearing the silverware.)
The Menu Rundown
Spelt biscuit with miso butter and cultured buttermilk
Trio of crisps:
- Salmon skin with avocado and roe
- Chicharrone with apple butter and Szechuan peppercorns
- Grilled chicken skin with hoisin
I: Duck rillettes with crisp winter vegetables and pomegranate veil
II: RI flat fish (sole) with persimmon, hibiscus, beet and sorrel
III: Seared pork tenderloin with gigante beans, escarole, bacon-fat-poached oyster and reduction
Palate cleanser: Rambutan sorbet with coconut-lime foam + herb flowers
IV: Porter stout cake with rye-infused ice cream, cherry gastrique and toasted macadamias
V: Duck-fat caramels
Duck rilletes with crisp winter vegetables + pomegranate veil.
Once the plates are cleared, it’s time to critique the meal. Good and bad points, presentation, service — everything is fair game for discussion.
Overall, the dinner gets high marks for the beautiful plating and unusual flavor combinations. On the minus side, almost every plate has one ingredient too many.
The crudo with persimmon and hibiscus garners universal praise for flavor, freshness and impeccable knife cuts. Everyone loves the rich gravy and bacon-fat poached oyster with the pork tenderloin, but the meat itself isn’t cooked consistently.
“We start to split hairs when you guys want to go from great to outstanding,” Erik Goellner, director of culinary purchasing, tells the students.
“Grading is three-prong,” notes Chef Delle Donne. “There’s my grade, then there’s the self-assessment. And I really take the guests’ comments into consideration.”
After a tough but fair crit, everyone claps and thanks the students for an unforgettable dinner.
“Fun Course to Finish the Year”
Afterwards, students talk about what makes “Conscious Cuisine” such a special class.
“You get to break down whole animals, go to farms, meet the farmers,” says Matthew Low. “And you get to put all your effort into one plate that you can say is truly yours.”
Notes Bethany, “It’s been a really fun course to finish out the year with — to take everything I’ve learned and really apply a perspective of sustainability, clean eating and also local food.”
Porter stout cake with rye-infused ice cream + cherry gastrique.