Alumni Spotlight: Caroline Pierce

There is a lot of unseen work that goes into writing a good recipe. Typically, conventional recipes contain a list of ingredients and their measurements followed by instructions for how to manipulate those ingredients into a successful dish. The recipe may use precise measurements, or may only call for a pinch or a dash. A recipe may instruct the reader to fold, knead, or broil, and expect the reader to know what each word means. In addition to the ingredients and the methods for combining them, recipes often call for a wide variety of cooking tools and implements. Some recipes may call for elaborate and expensive equipment (Vita Mix, anyone?), whereas some recipes may call for no equipment at all. Recipes can be vague and recipes can be precise. How detailed a recipe is depends on the audience the recipe writer has in mind. A cookbook written for advanced culinary students may be very different from a cookbook written for novice home cooks. In my opinion, recipes should be written with as much information and instruction so as to make the recipe accessible and available to as many readers as possible.

Luckily, I get the chance to write, edit, and test recipes every day. I currently have two jobs that allow me the chance to accomplish these tasks. I am a recipe developer at Just Add Cooking, a local meal kit company that provides easy, delicious, and healthy meals made with ingredients sourced from New England farms and companies. Writing a recipe for Just Add Cooking is challenging because not only must I write a recipe that is easy to read, quick to make, and delicious to eat, but the recipe must also meet the size constraints of the box we ship in and adhere to budgetary constraints. Also, we have nearly 500 recipes, so new recipes must be inventive and interesting, and we don’t like to call for equipment that many people may not have. The Gastronomy program has been incredibly useful in helping me to write good recipes. Karen Metheny’s class, Cookbooks and History, taught me that a recipe can be exclusionary in both financial and educational terms. A recipe that calls for expensive ingredients or equipment limits one group of people, whereas a recipe that excludes important details about cooking terms (how does one actually temper an egg?) excludes another.

When writing a recipe, I include as much information about the ingredients as possible and provide as many details about the instructions as I can in order not to alienate new cooks. I try not to assume anything. Furthermore, I am fully aware and continually question (thanks to the Gastronomy program) how financially accessible meal kits are to the general population.

In addition to my work at Just Add Cooking, I also work as a freelance recipe tester for Fresh Magazine produced by Hannaford Supermarket. As a tester, I am sent recipes which I follow without making any changes or alterations in order to determine whether or not there are any issues with the recipe. Usually, I am looking to make sure that the cooking times are accurate, the recipe yields the correct number of servings, and the instructions in the recipe are precise. This last part is the most complex aspect of recipe testing and could include any number of variables. The baking time might be off, a sauce needs more liquid, there’s too much oregano, etc. The purpose of the test is to ensure that the recipe can work flawlessly in any home.

People lead busy lives and if they go to the trouble of making dinner for themselves and their families, then following a recipe shouldn’t be stressful. Recipes should be straightforward, and the results should be exciting and satisfying. One of the major lessons I learned from the Gastronomy program is that of empathy. My job is to make people’s lives easier. I can accomplish this by writing and editing recipes so that they are clearly read and easily made. If I can also introduce people to new cuisines, techniques, and ingredients, then I am doubly successful.

Alumni Spotlight: Priya Shah

There are some duos that just go together. Milk and cookies, Batman and Robin, or peanut butter and jelly are a few that instantly come to mind. But what about those that are less common? For BU Gastronomy alum Priya Shah, there isn’t a better combination than food and storytelling.

After graduating from the program in 2011, Priya aspired to make her favorite fusion a reality. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as she thought. Instead of diving straight into the culinary communications industry, Priya returned home to work for her family’s hotel business in Iowa. After a little less than two years, she was yearning to trade her conversations about RevPAR and third-party reservation systems for wine characteristics and restaurant openings. Priya decided it was time to start researching communications firms that solely focused on lifestyle brands. Eventually, this search led her to Atlanta. There, she gained valuable experience working for boutique and corporate firms managing a range of food-related clients. From James Beard Award nominated chefs to Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, her breadth was quite diverse.

Learning best practices from her agency experiences, Priya realized that her Master’s in Gastronomy equipped her with a rare set of skills. Unlike her colleagues, she could speak the language of her clients and was often chatting with them about industry trends. It didn’t take her long to decide to open up her own shop. In June, she launched ShahSquared Consulting, a communications and marketing firm dedicated to food and beverage, hospitality and travel clients. To set herself apart, Priya focused on three core elements: 1.) expertise; 2.) authenticity; and 3.) approach. She would provide her customers with the utmost hospitality while cutting through the fluff. Her greatest joy comes from sharing her clients’ stories and watching them succeed and prosper. But, don’t be mistaken — Priya doesn’t take herself too seriously. Between promoting her dog to Chief Morale Pawficer and her blatant obsession with pineapples, Priya’s not afraid to let her personality shine in her business.

Many of Priya’s passions and achievements she attributes to her time at BU. Her exposure to different industries and educational experiences through her peers made every class discussion worthwhile. Whether she always agreed with her classmates’ opinions was another story. Outside of the university, Priya has enjoyed using the alumni network to connect with other gastronomy grads. It was through the network that she met Shaun Chavis (BU Gastronomy ’07). Now a friend and confidant, Shaun was influential in Priya’s entrepreneurial pursuit. Together, the two have used their talents to collaborate on client projects and support each other in their respective businesses.

As for the future, Priya looks forward to expanding her businesses and attaining more clients. The world is her oyster and she prefers hers with homemade Mignonette and a little fresh grated horseradish.

Alumni Spotlight: Chris Maggiolo

Alcohol is an ancient food. It is a social lubricant. It is a component of ritual, of art, of dream-making. It is powerfully charged and, yet, so completely misunderstood in American culture.

chrisI moved from Virginia to Boston in September 2011 with these words in mind – words jotted down while taking notes during my freshman seminar in alcohol and culture. I was keen on studying the anthropology of alcohol and the Gastronomy program, I felt, was the perfect tool by which to do so. A few years honing my studies and then I’d apply to a PhD program. Well, the best laid plans…

To say I concentrated in alcohol studies would be putting it lightly. It was everything I did. I worked full time managing the Modern Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge, leveraging contacts and a vast network of brewers to find interview participants and volunteer opportunities. I took a second job in the summer managing relationships between wholesalers and retailers. I conducted every project and wrote every paper (save for one, I think) on the subject of craft brewing and alcohol culture. And when I wasn’t working or hunkered down over a book for school, I volunteered with breweries and, later, distilleries. I believed in the holistic approach fostered by liberal arts studies, and I tried to engage the industry from all angles.

siloUltimately, it was the liberal arts approach that landed me my job at SILO Distillery. Craft producers need to be swiss army knives rather than specialists, and the Gastronomy program prepared me well for this. To a degree, I understood marketing and sales, production practices, legislature and regulations. In a pinch I can crunch financials. And if I didn’t know something, I had the tool set to figure it out. I never would have guessed that I would know as much about boiler systems as I do now, but last week I answered a call from an aspiring distiller with a background in chemical engineering and we had a half hour call about our boiler unit. The liberal arts approach is real, and it can be very valuable.

But it can also be too vague, too broad. It’s important to have a goal in mind – something to anchor the Gastronomy net. Focus your intent, and the program will open amazing doors.

I frequently draw on my experiences with the Gastronomy program to fuel SILO’s growth. As a company we focus intently on local and regional agricultural systems. I’ve held meetings with groups of farmers in order to discuss potential crop growth for distilling purposes and to facilitate the collection of our spent grains. Having an understanding of their work and struggles goes a long way to securing these relationships. In conceiving of new products, I consider both modern trends and historic and cultural precedents. For example, amaro is really hot right now in trendy restaurants and cocktail circles. I’ve been working on a fun analog rooted in a mid 17th century cookery book. It’s been a blast and I think it’ll be quite successful.

Just as Gastronomy studies the art and science of food, distilling practices the art and science of spirits. In a craft that is as technical as it is creative, having a liberal arts background is a keystone of success. Sure, work can be stressful at times, but familiarity with the big picture brings everything back into perspective and keeps me energized and excited for what lies ahead.

Alumni Spotlight: Nina Quirk

nina-headshotFinding the perfect career path can be a struggle for some Gastronomy graduates. Throughout my time in the program, my friends and I would discuss matters such as balancing hospitality industry schedules with families, low pay and menial incentives, endless hours of kitchen drudgery, and many more unappealing aspects common to a life devoted to food.

While pursuing my degree, I worked as a personal chef, specializing in cooking for people with cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and food allergies, using advanced diet therapies to help address those conditions. This offered flexibility, hands-on experience and decent pay, but clients came in waves. I found myself craving the social atmosphere of a kitchen and wondering what foodservice management might be like.

My husband works in elder care, so I conducted various studies with the senior population he served as I worked toward my master’s degree. I researched nursing home and assisted living gardens, taste loss and aging, and Grandmother Cuisine, among other topics. That new interest in senior food systems led me to pursue a career with SALMON Health and Retirement, a housing and healthcare organization in Central Massachusetts.

In June 2015, I took the position of Director of Dining Services for SALMON’s Natick campus. Our building houses 66 residents in assisted living apartments (including memory care), 54 residents in a skilled nursing center, 50 children in the SALMON Early Education Center, and 45 Adult Day Health Center clients. All in all, the kitchen I manage feeds 200 people daily.

When I arrived on the scene, there were obstacles to overcome. In my first few weeks on the job, we went from using an outside contractor to being a Salmon-managed kitchen. As the first manager of this new operation, I saw boundless opportunities to create a wonderful, gastronomy-friendly system for a superior dining program. I started by teaching my culinary team to cook menu items from scratch, saying goodbye to the frozen and canned past they knew. I hired a talented pastry chef to elevate the baked goods and treats on campus. Now, most of our food items are homemade, including salad dressings, breads, pizza and desserts. Our residents grew enthusiastic and happier with the new dining services over time, and the positive impact good food had on the whole community became obvious.

This acceptance allowed me to host a variety of programs to engage our residents around food:

  • We formed a traveling group, visiting foodie destinations like the Boston Public Market or the Boston Public Library for afternoon tea, and various local farms.
  • We established a Solarium for residents to grow plants—both edible and flowering. The space is solely dedicated to the garden craft; it’s also been widely accepted by our residents with dementia.
  • Each month, we host interactive cooking demonstrations where residents handcraft ethnic specialties. So far, we’ve made ravioli, pierogi, tomato tarts, pickles, jams, and much more.
  • We partnered with a group called Brain Wellness to conduct a three-part seminar on brain-healthy eating where I cooked the foods and served them to a full house.
  • Our most recent endeavor is a program called Heritage Cuisine. We’ll gather recipes and food traditions from our residents’ families to create a varied and unique campus cuisine.

We have a lot of fun at work building community around food, and I feel very fortunate. This position has provided me with the perfect application of the Gastronomy Program: food infused with meaning.

Alumna Emily Contois Explores Icons of Australian Food Culture

By Amanda Balagur

Despite the wet and windy weather last Thursday evening, a lively crowd attended the third Pépin Lecture of the semester to learn about “Icons of Australian Food Culture: Vegemite, Kangaroo & the Flat White”. Emily Contois, who graduated from the MLA in Gastronomy program at BU in 2013 and is in her third year as a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University, greeted the audience warmly and dove into her topic with enthusiasm.

Emily standing title slideWhile she grew up in Montana, Emily’s father is Australian, and she and her sister were born Down Under. So it should come as no surprise that she feels a connection to the food and culture of her homeland. There are quite a few iconic dishes from Australia, including meat pies and desserts like pavlova and lamingtons. However, Emily chose to focus on three slightly polarizing foodstuffs: kangaroo, the flat white and Vegemite.

According to Emily, kangaroo is a lean gamey meat that has been eaten by Australia’s indigenous population for thousands of years. Since it’s considered to be ecologically friendly and nutritious, there has been a recent (and mostly unsuccessful) effort to get more Australians to incorporate it into their diet. However, kangaroo meat is often associated with road kill and pet food (it’s largely exported to Europe as an ingredient for the latter), and the trend has been slow to catch on. But creative marketing, such as 2008’s Taste of Kangaroo/Roocipes campaign, may be making a dent in the Australian market — kangaroo is now more widely available, and sales may be increasing.

While Aussies may be slow to embrace eating kangaroo meat, the same can’t be said for the iconic treat Emily spoke Emily talking about Vegemiteabout next. The flat white was described as “Australia’s greatest contribution to global gastronomy” by Australian food history scholar Michael Symons. Stemming from European coffee culture, this popular hot drink is a product of 20th century immigration. It consists of a double shot of espresso and micro-foamed milk, resulting in a coffee drink that’s velvety sweet without the fluffiness of a latte or cappuccino. Traditionally served in a 165ml tulip cup, it’s also enjoyed at a slightly colder temperature than other coffee/milk specialties. From Emily’s point of view, the flat white is uniquely global, created as something new in Australia based on Italian coffee culture. Members of the audience at the lecture who had enjoyed the flat white while visiting Australia agreed it was a truly enjoyable part of their daily ritual while traveling there.

TheVegemite crackers last featured food of the evening seemed to spark the most interest from the crowd: Vegemite. Developed in 1923 due to the decreased availability of Marmite from England during World War I, Vegemite is made from yeast extract left over from the beer brewing process and is seasoned with salt and vegetable extracts. From the start, it has been promoted as a health food that is “packed with B vitamins”. Emily shared some impressive statistics, including that Vegemite can be found in 80% of Australian kitchens. It’s also rumored to be many Australian babies’ first solid food, and many Australians don’t leave home without it (because, of course, it comes in convenient Crowd sampling Vegemitetravel-size tubes). She pointed out the culinary tie to the British Empire and explored marketing campaigns in Australia and the U.S., noting the correlation between the first successful sales of Vegemite in America and the Aussie pop culture wave that occurred here in the 80s.

The evening ended with a Vegemite tasting; each audience member received two Ritz crackers with a thin coating of the inky spread, which garnered some spirited reactions. Overall, it was a fun and informative presentation, and the audience was keen to participate. For more information on Emily’s work in food studies, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @emilycontois.