Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Cooking up a dream

Danny Weber has never cooked for an audience before. With me here watching him, the tall, red-haired Weinberg sophomore’s hands start to shake as he lays out his ingredients. A ribbon of sweat charts one round cheek. He fidgets with giddy excitement.

When he pours hot water into a bowl to prepare his stock, the steam clings to his glasses, but when it fades, a change has come over his face. Now, he embraces the spotlight and begins to perform. His 19-year-old vocabulary, sprinkled with “likes,” fades as he explains how the Arborio rice will expand, explode and ooze starch, how the broth for the rice must always match the addition to the risotto. He deconstructs an onion with precise incisions and lists even the most obscure ingredient by name, down to each variety of wild mushroom he drops into the stock: lobster, wood ear, morel.

“Every chef I’ve met does it this way,” he says. Then, quickly, he corrects himself. “Or by met, maybe I should say watch.”

Weber has spent a lot of time watching the Food Network, and his cooking style is filled with its riffs. He flips his mushrooms sautéing in the pan like Mario Batali taught him (“push it forward, flip it back”). As he watches the cooking rice “sweat,” another term he lifted from a cooking show, he sighs. “Unfortunately I can’t cut to ‘30 minutes later.'” While he waits, he tries out his best TV voice. “Risotto is pretty straightforward,” he says, thickening his voice and sticking up his nose. He breaks and smiles, then dons his mask again. “We got a nice rustic mushroom. You’re really going to want to cut them in this fashion.” He shakes his head. “I’m glad this isn’t on video. I’m not quite ready.”

The rise of foodie culture in the past decade has perhaps affected no group more than college students. They grew up watching the Food Network and read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in high school. Now they peruse a handful of food blogs and watch reality TV chefs. They are academic foodies, viewing a meal as something that can be deeply intellectual. The serious hobbyist might cultivate a cooking blog that incorporates an academic interest or pursue a behind-the-scenes career related to the industry. Someone like Weber, who plans on going to culinary school after receiving his undergraduate degree and dreams of reaching the same heights as the star chefs he admires, is a more extreme example of the way foodie culture can inspire college students.

“The industry years ago was just seen as a job,” says Paul Brown, associate director for admissions at the Illinois Institute of Art’s Culinary School. “Now it has evolved into a profession.”

Much of that added oomph in the food industry can be attributed to the Food Network’s increased popularity over the past decade, making cooking look glamorous, competitive and anything but a chore. When the Food Network debuted in 1988, there were only a handful of culinary schools, Brown says. The first class at the Illinois Institute of Art, which opened in 1990, had 25 students; currently, there are more than 800 students in the institute’s culinary programs.

Or perhaps students are getting behind food simply because they are tired of working hard in the abstract (SAT, ACT, GRE…) for an intangible result. Weber went to a competitive college-prep school in Los Angeles, where taking test after test left him yearning for a different kind of reward.

“(Cooking) is a really tangible way of giving to people,” Weber says. “Eating good food, it makes me happy, and I think it makes most of us happy. So when I think of something I want to pursue as a career, that seems like a worthwhile thing to do.”

The path to stardom

Weber has already begun building toward those career aspirations and will devote his summer to getting his first real kitchen experience. As an intern at John Colter Cafe Court in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, he’ll have opportunities for upward mobility over the course of the summer. He hopes to reach the role of line chef, which would have him preparing entrees.

His education began in front of the TV. He started watching “Emeril Live” before his bar mitzvah.

“It’s kind of like an indie band,” Weber jokes. “I started watching Food Network like five years before everyone started watching it.”

He tuned in to the show every night, sometimes taking notes. In middle school he began taking cooking class. By sophomore year of high school he was experimenting with Italian food, now his favorite cuisine to cook. By freshman year of college, he was looking at “hard” recipes, those that might require four different components for a dish instead of one or subtle and challenging sauces to match.

For all his preparation, Weber hopes to land a spot in culinary school after receiving his undergraduate degree in English. In Weber’s eyes, a diploma and a chef’s knife go hand in hand. To him, a meal can be infused with the same depth and meaning as a novel. “A lot of the more successful restaurants I’ve been to, the head chefs are intellectual, deep-thinking people,” Weber says. “And that’s what you get from an undergraduate degree and an education.”

Weinberg senior Matthew Alfonso sees a similarly intellectual appeal in food. The interdepartmental studies major in communications and art theory and practice discovered his love of cooking in college and in some ways found it a more rewarding outlet for his intellect than his studies.

“You can very easily get lost in it,” he says. “It’s improvisational but still holds to certain rules. At school you are supposed to be satisfied by a lot of hard work, but that doesn’t bring the same satisfaction as cooking a great meal has.”

Alfonso seriously considered applying to culinary school in New York after he graduating. While Weber’s parents support their son’s career choice, Alfonso’s parents convinced him otherwise.

“My dad emigrated from Cuba and had nothing,” Alfonso says. “I think for him to be able to finance me going to college and then me deciding to go into a profession which an older generation doesn’t associate with ‘Celebrity Chef,’ Food Network and artistry kind of confounded my dad.”

The glamour and celebrity that surrounds cooking has motivated many of the Illinois Institute of Art school’s applicants, Brown says.

“A lot of people I interview are these ‘foodies.’ They read the food blogs, they watch Food Network, they watch ‘Top Chef,'” he says. “And they want to be the next one, the next Rachel Ray or Gordon Ramsay.”

But even those at the top slaved over chopping tables for years before finding the spotlight. Chuy Valencia, co-owner and head chef at Chilam Balam in Chicago, seems to fit the bill of a culinary star. Only 24, he operates his own restaurant, one that takes a deeper, more insightful look at cooking. He crafts Mexican cuisine using only sustainable resources, from local farm to table. Dishes like cazuelas of banana leaf-roasted pork belly with “pibil” pan juices, pickled onions, avocado and spicy habanero serve to do more than satisfy but also educate about sustainability. However, Valencia’s level of creativity and control only came after working his way up from washing dishes in high school, earning his stripes as sous-chef at the renowned Frontera Grill, finally landing in his own restaurant 10 years later.

“Nowadays, being a chef has this sort of rock star image,” Valencia says. “I don’t know about college kids going into cooking with no experience, watching it on TV. It’s a shit ton of work.”

Valencia, too, struggles with why the undergraduate would want to go to trade school, rather than do something more academic like enact health policy or engineer sustainable food technology.

“Northwestern produces some of the smartest people in the world, so what if they tried to put that skill towards the greater good and find a sustainable food source?” he asks. “I mean, I’d love to have that platform too.”

Working behind the scenes

More t
han a dozen NU students maintain active food blogs. Many weave in their knowledge on issues like health policy and international affairs, embracing their platform as degree-bearers.

While Medill junior Amanda Westrich loves to cook, she never entertained ideas of stardom. She kept a blog this summer called “My Summerizations,” after learning about the real food movement she saw on other blogs. She detailed her discovery of what went into her food and why it mattered. Westrich says she used to eat poorly, but getting involved in blogging got her thinking more about how and what she ate. Her blog chronicles a summer of simple culinary feats like salad with raisins, seasonal raspberries, chicken and shredded carrots, piled with feta cheese and drizzled with raspberry dressing.

“Every time you buy something and eat something, you’re making a choice,” Westrich says. “People have to eat, so it’s a pretty easy statement to make. Just choose the right food. It’s such a huge factor on people’s health. It’s a thing to get behind.”

Weinberg seniors Ben Pitler and Max Ojserkis write a food blog they call “Two Plate Solution.” Their majors in Middle Eastern studies served as a genesis for the blog: After Pitler and Ojserkis studied abroad in Egypt and Israel, respectively, both wanted to highlight the food of the cultures they had devoted their academic careers to. Whether sampling different kinds of hummus or debating the accuracy of a New York Times food blogger’s recipe for Moroccan tagine, their food musings come from a more collegiate voice. For Pitler, food has professional implications. He currently works at as an intern at Savor, a marketing firm that specializes in restaurants and food manufacturers.

“I don’t know if I have it in me to open a restaurant or anything,” Pitler says. “We have pipe dreams of starting restaurants and breweries, but I can still definitely see myself getting involved in the food industry in some way.”

Reevaluating a risk

Weber knows his decision is an unconventional one. He philosophizes about it a lot.

“Going to a competitive high school, coming here—success is world-leadership and making a lot of money, and being a chef isn’t exactly being a world leader,” he says. “Can I still be successful if what I want to do is cook?”

His dream is to own a restaurant one day and show people “what food means to me.” For Weber, that’s making mushroom risotto for himself on a Sunday night, spending an hour around the rich, woody scent of the broth as it seeps, adding in morels like veiny shriveled hearts that to someone else might not seem worth their high cost, just to be tossed in the stock for subtle flavor.

“I’ve had to re-evaluate what I think of success and a successful career,” Weber says. Success is sitting down to eat his plated dish, feeling every stage of its creation all at once: the cream of the rice mixing with butter-sweet onions, that sweetness countering the hearty mushrooms, all awakened by a dash of salt. He takes another bite and begins again.

On the other side of the table is the plate Weber offered me, sprinkled with extra parsley for garnish. Except that’s all that’s left; I’m scraping the last stripes of starch away with the side of my fork.

“See, that’s the sign,” Weber says with a smile. “Speaks so much louder than words.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Cooking up a dream