Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dining at Denison: Country Cuisine with Executive Chef David Schneider

ham and cheese flatbread.. utterly and undeniably delicious.
Last October (2011), I wrote about two dining hall experiences (dinner and lunch) led by Executive Chef Sathish Kumar, as part of Sodexo's Global Chef program.This year, Denison's Dining Services brought in Executive Chef David Schneider as a Sodexo Signature Chef. Chef David, born and raised in Yardley, PA, and a graduate of the CIA (i.e., the Culinary Institute of America), truly brought both a homey and elevated taste of the South (in the form of an authentic Virginian meal) to our community here in the Midwest.

When asked about what defines Virginian cuisine, Chef David emphasized the use of local ingredients; former Virginia native Beth additionally remarked that Virginia is known for three P's: pork, peanuts and paper. Both of these pov's (except for the paper bit) were made evident in the lunch and dinner put together by Chef David and Denison's Dining Services culinary team. After speaking briefly with DS General Manager Niles and DS Marketing Specialist Kristin about the great work they're doing, Kristin introduced me to Chef David who subsequently took me, Beth and Marilyn on a tour of their lunchtime offerings (and yes, I ended up trying everything).

To start things off, we began with the arugula salad, which was in two words awestruckingly awesome. I typically despite the pepperiness of arugula but found this particular salad to be well balanced by the dressing, as well as the natural sweetness from the delicious figs, brightness from the crisp apples and richness from the toasted walnuts. Another great touch and cool (literally, and truly quite simple) technique that was shared was the grated goat cheese that tied everything up with each bite. But goat cheese doesn't grate, it clumps, you might say to yourself.. not if you freeze it first!

Just around the corner was the warm and velvety Virginia peanut soup which contained peanuts (as a sign so eloquently pointed out) and heavy cream. Unless you had a peanut allergy, what was not to love about this?

A few metres away, the dessert table included Virginia peanut brittle and chocolate bourbon pecan squares, of which the squares were the source of my sole negative critique of the entire lunch: the base tasted slightly undercooked, leaving a floury pie crust kind of aftertaste. Really, that's the only issue I had. Pie crust.

Over at the hot food lines, Chef David introduced me to one of the best things I have ever eaten. Deconstructed from a ham and biscuit dish and reconstructed into a flatbread, the greatness of the Virginia ham and cheese flatbread was the white sauce that served as its base. With every bite, I got quite emotional (although unnecessarily dramatic in this write-up, I'm not joking when I say I started to tear up); it was that delectably outstanding. On the homecook station, five dishes equally celebrated elevated Southern homestyle cooking, beginning with the black eyed peas which are tough to mess up but are equally tough to add much more flavour. On their own, they could've used a touch more salt, but everything else was rightfully heavy on the salt that I didn't miss it all that much. Next up were the collard greens which are usually too bitter for my liking but were braised and pleasantly sweetened with a touch of sugar and cider vinegar. The custard of the corn pudding added a nice and creamy touch to the baked side, while the mashed potatoes were incredibly smooth. To complete the dishes, we ended this side of the line with the fried chicken that had undergone a sweet tea brine, the brine of which infused a delicate flavour profile into the chicken and was responsible for the tender, juicy meat underneath the crisped exterior.

And as if this wasn't enough food amongst everything else non-Virginia based that was served, the Virginia pulled pork sandwich was melt-in-your-mouth and served with a questionably super-creamy coleslaw.

Coupled with my recent adaptation (crossed with this one, minus the sour cream) of my dark chocolate salted caramel bacon brownies for the annual DOWS auction which we attended after lunch, one might think that I had enough food for the day. But alas, there was a dinner still to be eaten! Emphasising the many hours in between meals, I returned back to Curtis Dining Hall (this time with Beth, two of her sons and their family friend) and tried the Virginia-themed options for dinner. I first began with the vegetarian Brunswick stew with al dente vegetables and a warming broth. [Though, a true Brunswick stew isn't vegetarian.. 1, 2] Onto the main plate, I thoroughly enjoyed the sage enhanced fingerling potatoes and lemon pecan Brussels sprouts. Also on the plate were the lowlight and highlight of the entire meal. As much as I liked the flavour of the sweet potato biscuits, I may have expected too much after having heard about them earlier in the day but nevertheless found them to be rather dense and a tad dry.

On the other hand, I loved the glazed baby back ribs, of which I definitely went back for seconds along with more potatoes. I should note, too, that the second surprise taste that I enjoyed was of the banana pudding I had to scrape out of the serving bowl (apparently everyone else liked it, too!). Whew, and with all of that, I completed my day of tasting Virginia in Ohio. Again, many thanks to Chef David, Niles, Kristin and the rest of the culinary team at Denison for two wonderful meals! For these and additional photos, click here.

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