Culinary Arts program to spotlight locally sourced ingredients

Jul 15, 2022Gail Crutchfield
Culinary Arts

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate, center, presents Wallace State President Dr. Vicki Karolewics with a proclamation regarding a partnership with the college and the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) to promote the preparation and usage of specialty crops in restaurants and home kitchens through the USDA AMS Specialty Crop Block Grant. Pictured from left are ADAI Deputy Commissioner Hassey Brooks; UNA Asst. Professor Prema Monteiro; Wallace State Chef Aaron Nichols, Commissioner Pate; President Karolewics; Wallace State Farm Manager and Kress Farms owner Travis Kress; WSCC Culinary Arts alumnus Austin Salinas.

Hanceville, Ala. — Serving a meal prepared using mostly locally-sourced ingredients, the Wallace State Community College Culinary Arts program promoted the Alabama Specialty Crop Cooking Demonstration grant the college was recently awarded.

The grant helps promote the preparation and usage of specialty crops in restaurants and home kitchens through demonstrations. The funds are part of the USDA AMS Specialty Crop Block Grant administered by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI).

Special guests at the event were Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Rick Pate and representatives of the ADAI, as wells as members of the Culinary Arts program’s Advisory Board Committee.

The menu included a lemon basil spritzer as an aperitif followed by a tomato and cucumber salad on rosemary focaccia with avocado mousse, red onions, blueberry goat cheese and basil balsamic vinaigrette. The main dish featured brisket en glace with shitake mushrooms, a sweet potato and jalapeno galette and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Dessert consisted of blackberry cobbler and vanilla bean ice cream.

Ingredients were sourced locally from Pleasant View Farms, J. Calvert Farms, Sullivan Creek Ranch, Humble Heart Farm, and Kress Farms.

Wallace State Chef Aaron Nichols is excited about the prospect of educating others on the importance of supporting local farmers by purchasing their products for home cooking or restaurants. For the home cook, the benefits are many, including financial.

“For people at home who don’t have the knife skills or know-how that we have, they’re scared to purchase those [fresh] items,” Nichols said. “They want to buy the pre-chopped or the pre-made and they’re spending too much doing that.

“Our goal is to promote that specialty product across the state and give people, restaurants and everyone, the knowledge and know-how to prepare these items and to also purchase them locally.

To do that, the program will utilize a food trailer from which demonstrations will be held to spotlight in-season produce and other locally sourced products. Spectators will learn more ways to prepare specialty products at home and in ways they wouldn’t normally prepare them.

The food trailer will be used the first time at the Alabama National Fair in Montgomery this fall, with other appearances planned next year at the Orange Beach Festival, Auburn City Festival, Cullman Strawberry Festival, Tomato Sandwich Lunch, Cullman Farmers Market, Cullman 2nd Fridays, Cullman Sweet Tater Festival, Kentuck Festival and National Peanut Festival.

“The whole purpose of the grant is to increase the consumption of Alabama products,” said Travis Kress, Wallace State Farm Manager and owner of Kress Farms in Cullman.

Some of the benefits for the buyer include knowing exactly where their food is coming from, the freshness of the product and the knowledge they are supporting local farmers.

“They will be using a product that has been harvested at peak ripeness which leads to optimal flavor,” Kress said, as opposed to a product that could have spent at least a week traveling from an out-of-state or out-of-country farm.

“When you buy locally, it very easily could have been picked within a 24-hour period,” Kress said.

Encouraging restaurants to source their ingredients from producers in their area is another aspect of the grant.

“As a chef in this industry, it is our responsibility to source at least some of our products locally,” Nichols said. “The restaurant and hospitality industry has one of the largest footprints on our environment. If we are purchasing from the local farmers in Cullman and surrounding areas, we can shrink this footprint on our worldly environment while also supporting our local economy. Even more important, chefs that take on this responsibility can offer their guests the most incredibly fresh and best tasting food they could ever experience.”

Nichols said with this Specialty Crop Initiative, using the food trailer will allow he and his students to help the local restaurants to make new connections and educate the public on what the local restaurants are offering them.

“At the same time, we will be able to educate the public on how to better use the local farmers market to prepare simple and delicious meals at home,” he added. “I am proud to take on this responsibility for Cullman and use all of the incredible resources that we all have in this area.”

Commissioner Pate said they are looking forward to seeing how the program will not only support Alabama farmers but help the state’s residents as well.

“I’m just convinced that people want to eat local,” said Pate. “They want to eat like you said, 'basic food', but a lot of people are intimidated and don’t know how to cook those foods, and most of it doesn’t taste good if you don’t cook it correctly. We’re excited about this whole partnership with Wallace State.”

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