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.

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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.

After Graduation: Starting a Wine Business

by Kim Simone

Alumna Kim Simone (May ’14) shares her post-degree career path and founding her company, Vinitas Wineworks.

kim1One of the questions I heard frequently from people while I was attending the Gastronomy program was “What are you going to do with your degree?” It’s not exactly a traditional program with built-in job training (with the exception of the culinary program.) We do it because it’s a part of who we are and what we love. I bet that most of us use the degree to forge our own way in the world of food, creating a place for ourselves in one of the many industries that pertain to our chosen field of study, be it cooking, writing, education, hospitality, and so on. I chose wine.

At the same time that I started the Gastronomy program I also jumped into the wine world, working first in a large retail store and then for a medium-sized Massachusetts wine distributor. And although I was climbing up the industry ladder, I got an idea pretty early on that a job in sales wasn’t the place for me. My real love has always been educating the public and “geeking out” over the finer points of whatever is in my wineglass. Which is why, after years of thought and planning, I founded an independent wine education and consulting company after finishing my degree last May.

Wine-is-fun-single-1080x675I specialize in wine education classes and hosting wine events for the general public. These can be either private events (e.g. tastings in people’s homes, private parties, etc.) or something bigger like a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I also provide training for those in the hospitality trades that either need some guidance within their own store or restaurant, or who need someone to train their staff to be better servers or wine consultants. My education through the Gastronomy program and the Elizabeth Bishop Wine School has really prepared me for this new role. Both the hands-on tasting classes led by Sandy Block and Bill Nesto, as well as the History of Wine class, really opened up this fabulous world to me. The most important thing I feel that I can pass on to my clients is that wine doesn’t have to be scary. It is complex, yes, but there truly is something out there for every palate. Once you learn what you like the possibilities are endless. Through my events and blog I provide the place to ask those questions that you might think are a little bit dumb and get that knowledge flowing.

Kim Simone can be reached at kim@vinitaswineworks.com or www.VinitasWineWorks.com.