Friday, February 26, 2010

18 Days is an Eternity

I had last reported on a case of Salmonella Montevideo relating to an outbreak in jalapeno peppers from 2008 in a blog titled, Support Your Local FDA. The reason for the blog was that the FDA is seeking more funding to bolster the food safety industry and to offer my support for such. I still support this initiative and now even more than ever. As I alluded to in the previous blog, there was a case regarding ground black pepper in Rhode Island that began on February 8th, 2010.

The latest update released on February 25th from the FDA states that the investigation is continuing and expanding into crushed red pepper. Yes, those are the little flakes you sprinkle on your pizza for an additional kick… Let’s back the story up a little… It was first a recall on possibly tainted salami products, then to ground black pepper, and now to crushed red pepper. It has been 18 days and I know many of you are thinking that this is a short amount of time, but in my world of food, this is an eternity. We have crushed red pepper in our kitchens and never would have considered pulling it until this report from yesterday. That means we could have potentially been using tainted product for the last 18+ days. Good news, we do not use that particular company to get our crushed pepper. It could have been a problem though…

So you see 18 days is an eternity whereby others using this product could have unsuspectingly been using and serving it. To be sure, the salami recall was necessary since that was considered the “common product” everyone ill had consumed. Like the tomato and pepper fiasco from 2008, the FDA rang the alarm on ground black pepper almost immediately. I wish I knew why… There are dozens of ingredients and spices that make up salami and they apparently got it wrong again.

The FDA Transparency Blog should be answering many of these questions but it is not. It seems to focus on the transparency of the bureaucracy rather than food safety issues. For example, I would like to know more about the laboratory techniques and why it takes so long to test the ingredient sources from tainted products. I still support the additional funding for the FDA, but I am going to question how the money is used every step of the way. It seems oversight is working, but field technicians are in short supply as well as lab and testing facilities.

Please invest OUR tax dollars wisely,


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sustainable Reality?

I was having an interesting discussion with my Sous Chef Jason the other day and we got talking about sustainability; as is really quite common these days. He was telling me about how some chefs he knows think that sustainability should be predicated on the way the French view it. What does this mean exactly? Seasonal of course! Now, I have been to France and think quite highly of the cuisine, but I failed to notice one important factor… Not everything is available all of the time…

In the United States we expect anything we want anytime and have done away with the experience of dining within our means and supply of food. Why? Because we can... This is the innovative spirit of Americans in general. Can’t get “X” product because of the season? No problem, let’s import it from somewhere that it is in season… And why not?

So I got to thinking that all the sustainability efforts that University Dining is implementing has been predicted on the desire for people to still have everything available at all times. What if my menus were based on sustainable reality? I can tell you there would be a whole lot less of the traditional 500+ items in my inventory to be sure! It would be hard to even make a traditional salad based on my region. Obviously, it would not go over so well with my student clientele if I could not get beef, chicken, seafood, or many types of fruits and vegetables all year long if I decided to implement a sustainable realty. I guess the point is that we as consumers and institutions must give up some luxuries if we want to be truly sustainable. Unfortunately, I find that my clientele and even myself are not willing to do so which means that I will never be 100% sustainable. Only just enough to call my operation sustainable based on other manipulative criteria.

If sustainability was truly an interest of consumers, including myself, we should question the food we eat and ask ourselves, “does this grow here right now?” If the answer is “no” and we continue to buy and consume such products, we are not truly sustainable in my opinion. Well, at least the packaging is made from reclaimed and recycled products right? I guess I can overlook the food for the wrapper and call myself sustainable. By the way, what is considered sustainable? Local, regional, national, or continental? I never do get a straight answer on this from whoever I ask.

Think about it,


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Looking For A Steak

I simply could not resist the opportunity to talk about the most ridiculous proposition to change the way hot dogs are manufactured or labeled due to a potential choking hazard. “Are you tricking me?” As my daughter says when I get caught teasing her… This article, Doctors Urging for a Safer, Choke-Free Hot Dog, from the Associated Press on February 22nd is appalling. It is an example of the absolute worst kind of journalism, reporting, and empty-vested drawn conclusion I have seen in recent times. Can we all put our time and energy into something that really counts such as educating our children how to eat right and in the case of infants and children how to eat period? Those of you who are not parents and/or do not understand this last statement; please understand that parents actually have to teach their children how to physically eat. Let me reassure you though that this is a natural process developed over millions of years. They actually learn to eat. Really! I just can’t resist the sarcasm here…

There are so many things wrong with this proposition that I will simply not reiterate them here. For a good laugh, please read the article for yourself. It will only take you two minutes to read since that is how much effort was put into the data, research, and conclusion.

Anyway, the sad truth is that everyone chokes sometimes and it is scary. For those of you who may have lost a loved one, my heart calls out to you. I once had a choking experience that required the Hymlick and I learned very quickly to eat smaller bites and chew better. You see, evolution was kind to me and gave me a small amount of intelligence to extrapolate from this event as to what to do with my new found wisdom.

To be sure, the labeling or remanufacturing of a hot dog will increase cost and not prevent any less than the fewer than 100 deaths due to choking on hot dogs. If you want to make sure your kids grow up healthy and have a long life, eat less hotdogs! I am starting to envision the future of food that is all liquid or wheat germ based that we can suck through a straw… I guess Isaac Asimov was right again about the future of humanity in his epic novels… Luminary bodies made of energy with no cause left to live for while floating through the endless expanses of eternity. LOOKING FOR A STEAK!


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Go Yogurt and Take the Gelatin With You!

Back in the fall semester of 2009, we began getting requests for vegetarian yogurt which basically means not using gelatin as a binder. I figured, no problem, I will call my yogurt supplier and add it right away. My adventure in yogurt starts there. Other brands such as Dannon and Stonyfield have already taken the initiative, but Yoplait has yet to accommodate the vegetarians. I don’t typically like to “call out” a particular company in which we do a lot of business with, but it seems Yoplait has simply missed the proverbial boat on this one and indifferently made me learn more about yogurt than I ever wanted to. OK, it was a little interesting.

I also intend this to be the last time I ever want to talk about yogurt unless there is some relationship discovered between yogurt and quantum physics that might prove to be beneficial to humankind… In a minor deviation from our Yoplait agreement, we started to bring in the Dannon variety of vegetarian yogurt which uses either pectin or carob bean extract as a binder instead of gelatin. To make sure we had this product for vegetarians, we kept it under guard in the kitchen and made it “upon request only.” That was November of 2009 and figured I could sleep again having solved the mystery of binding ingredients in yogurt.

After the Winter break, to my great surprise, I was talking about yogurt again because my supplier stopped carrying the Dannon variety of vegetarian yogurt while we were hibernating. The calls came in from the vegetarians and managers that we were not getting the yogurt again. Anyway, a few calls to our supplier and we sourced the Stonyfield brand and that is where we stand today.

I have tasted all the brands of yogurt at this point and simply cannot taste the difference between gelatin, pectin, or carob bean varieties of yogurt. I am pleading with the industry to drop the gelatin altogether. Not only will you be accommodating the growing number of vegetarians, but keeping me focused on more visionary aspects of University Dining like the growing obesity rates, wellness, and nutrition.

Thank you for considering my request,


Friday, February 19, 2010

Servery Samurai Competition

The first annual Rice University Servery Samurai competition is tonight and I am nervous and excited for the three chefs. It will be filmed by RTV5 with a student audience. Basically, it is our version of Iron Chef on The Food Network. I want to thank all of the students involved with putting the competition together and Chef Roger (CEC, ACE) for the mystery basket and guidelines.

The competition is themed around a nutritionally balanced menu that the chefs will have to come up with on the spot when they see the ingredients in the mystery basket. The mystery basket style of competition is considered to be one of the most formidable challenges sanctioned by the likes of the ACF. When it is all said and done, a new Shogun will be crowned and hold the honor for one year.

Chef Derrix AKA the West Warrior, Chef Kyle (CEC) AKA the South Slicer, and Chef Ed (CCC) AKA the North Ninja will be representing their individual serveries for the title. Good luck to all of you and most importantly, have fun!

News release from the Rice Thresher


Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Cucumber by Any Other Name…

As I was walking through the beautiful and historic campus known as Rice University today anticipating what the chef’s have created for lunch, I happened to walk in on our Executive Chef, Roger and Dining Manager, Julie having a spirited conversation about all things cucumbers. I was impressed by the collaboration and debate over the pros and cons of a waxed cucumber vs. the English variety. Chef Roger in his usual passionate plea for a higher quality item vs. Julie with prices and calculator in hand.

You see, Rice University is a self-operated dining operation with 90% of scratch made menus. It is not uncommon for us all to debate in such a way over the 500 plus item inventory, but the conversation over cucumbers today reminded me of the true talent of our entire dining operation and level of detail that we think about. “If only the students knew what we do,” Chef Roger noted. We are not looking for the cheapest item at Rice, but the best… Like our students, faculty, and staff.

After a very short conversation and some background checking on the availability of the English cucumber from our supplier, the decision was made to change. Why? The English has nearly a 100% yield and softer more edible skin than the waxed cousin. This of course translates to a less labor intensive labor profile for preparation. Although the English is not seedless, the seeds are such that they are small, tender, and well tolerated digestively. What we got was a better item at the same adjusted price as a more inferior product.

Great idea and great reasoning to continually make Rice Dining the best… I can’t wait to hear the next inspired idea which could come from anyone of the staff here at Rice.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Support Your Local FDA

I am not typically one for a larger government and increased spending especially during the current economic climate, but the request on February 1st from the FDA for 4.03 Billon “to Transform Food Safety System, Invest in Medical Product Safety, Regulatory Science” deserves our support.

On June 5th, 2008 the FDA reported that tomatoes were a leading suspect in the outbreak of salmonella Montevideo eventually affecting the entire continental United States. On June 9th, 2008 the FDA expanded its investigation in order to determine the location of the outbreak. As most people will recall, this ended up as a PR nightmare for the FDA. The tomato industry in three states and Mexico were decimated due to the warning not to eat certain types of tomatoes.

Nearly a month and a half later on July 21st, 2008 the FDA discontinued its recall and warnings on tomatoes since they definitively found the outbreak source as jalapeno peppers from a single source in Mexico.

This was a debacle of grand proportions that I believe has never been explained fully, but some good can be found in it nonetheless. Although the FDA recalled the wrong product, the media was able to disseminate the information nationally very quickly to the public. Secondly, as in many cases, a problem was identified in the ranks of the FDA that needed correction. Since then, the FDA has created new guidelines and inspection platforms without a dramatic increase in its budget.

It is time that we give the FDA more funds and resources to keep one of the largest food supply chains in the world safe from infection. By the way, there is an investigation into black pepper that started on February 8th, 2010 that has yet to have its source identified. It is the same strain of salmonella Montevideo found in the peppers of 2008.

Please support the FDA,


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hey Lovett!

I have to say that I have been very impressed with the dedication to your college and the cooperation you all have shown for the new dining arrangement. I know these changes can be difficult, but the end result will be tremendous. As long as we work together as a team, I believe that this will be a very successful year for both Lovett & Dining. One for the Rice archives to be sure... I know there was trepidation in the beginning, but I have been hearing very positive results from the diners thus far. So, thank you.

I also have to throw out a "great job" to Lovett & South servery kitchen teams. Outstanding work!


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What a Hoot!

It has been a month now since the student-run late night operation called the Hoot has been operating out of the west servery. I have to give credit to the students who have volunteered their time to operate the service point. Dining services has continuously looked for ways to offer a late night service for the students in the past, but working out the logistics was a difficult challenge. I believe the Hoot has been successful for two primary reasons. One, the students have proven that this is a niche that needed to be filled and two, students are operating it. It is an interesting lesson for us and other universities. “of the students, by the students, for the students.” Good work everyone!

The Hoot operates Monday - Friday from 10:00pm - 2:00am at the West Servery. By the way, I liked the name Night Owls better...


Monday, February 8, 2010

The Big One I Never Caught

This is my inaugural blog with the purpose of discussing issues of dining at universities. I want to start off by saying that sustainability is something that we cherish and work hard to achieve continuously. For the last ten years, at the very minimum, every conference and symposium I have attended featured some sort of sustainability initiative or guide. Let me say this, “I get it” and so do other universities. The primary challenge is that we don’t often have middle ground with these issues when cost and availability are of concern. One is either doing it well or not at all.

I would like to commend one initiative that seems to have understood this challenge. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch sets the standard by which all sustainability initiatives should endeavor to achieve. Seafood has exploded in popularity on university menus due to the nutritional value and endless ways to prepare it. Universities are battling obesity, poor diets, and allergies at a higher rate than seen in the past as well. The Seafood Guide enables the operator to choose which seafood to serve based first on region then availability. For example, my guide in the South will differ from the Pacific Coast region. The method uses a simple green, yellow, and red light system. The preferable seafood is in the green and the red is considered unsustainable. The brilliance of the program is the yellow column. The Guide understands that we can’t always be in the green so if you have to purchase in the yellow that’s acceptable too. Just stay out of the red if you please!

My university has been engaging this initiative since the onset of 2009 and has been able to achieve 95% compliance. Without that middle (yellow) ground, we would be somewhere in the 80% range of compliance.

As a little boy growing up in Northern California, I fished with my Dad and Grandfather remembering even now the nostalgic effect it had upon my life. Even 30 years ago they talked about how it was getting harder to find a good fishing hole. It is time we all accept this guide as a “best practice” to ensure that we can fish with our children and be able to tell them about the “big one that got away” rather than the “one we never caught.” Good job Monterey Bay Aquarium.