Brandeis chefs share epicurian passions

Have you ever dreamed of competing on 'Hell’s Kitchen' or 'Iron Chef?' Zachary Kestler recently brought home silver in the national Aramark competition

He’s cooked for Manny Ramirez, Harrison Ford and, mostly likely, you.

Zachary Kestler, a sous-chef who calls Usdan home, recently took second place in the 2012 Aramark Culinary Excellence competition (ACE) as part of the northeast region team. More than 130 chefs from universities and conference centers across North America competed over the past six months in 18 regional competitions, which culminated in the national showdown in Orlando, Florida.

If you’ve ever had dreams of competing on "Hell’s Kitchen" or "Irom Chef," check out Kestler’s final challenge: the top 30 Aramark chefs from the United States and Canada were divided into 10 three-member teams, given 30 minutes to create a menu, then allotted three hours to prepare an appetizer, entree and dessert.

Kestler’s team’s menu included pan-roasted tilapia with red pepper onion ragout, clam nage, and creamed leeks and lardons (cubed bacon).  The entree was a Latin-style chicken with a sofrito rice and ginger-scented slaw.  The meal culminated with a dessert called “Chocolate Trio,” which consisted of a flourless chocolate torte, Grand Marnier truffle and a chocolate mocha tower.

Certified master chefs from the American Culinary Federation (ACF) judged the competition, rating the finalists on a number of categories ranging from flavor and plate presentation to use of ingredients and food safety.

Kestler grew up in Newport, R.I., where seafood and local farming played a big role in the area’s gastronomy. He started cooking professionally in kitchens when he was 14, then attended Le CourdonBlue, where he studied classic French cooking techniques.

“We would have blind taste-tests of herbs until we mastered the flavor profiles,” says Kestler.  “The taste, the smell, and what dishes the herb pairs well with. It was definitely intense.”

He then externships at Walt Disney World in Fla. at both the Boardwalk Resort and the ESPN club, where a number of Hollywood celebrities came in to dine.

Kestler’s epicurean passions first took hold in his grandmother’s kitchen.

“My grandfather was in a wheelchair for all of my life, so I spent a lot of time at their house, cooking with my grandmother,” says Kestler. “She’s first generation Portuguese so I learned a lot about Portuguese cooking.”

Classic chorizo and kale soup was a staple during the cold, New England winters, he says.

With over 3,000 meals served daily, between Usdan, Sherman, the Faculty club and coffee shops, what does Kestler find most challenging about his work here? Addressing the wide variety of eating styles that are becoming more mainstreamed, such as vegan, vegetarian, dairy free and gluten free, he says.

“Brandeis has a large Asian population, so you can’t just prepare one type of cuisine and expect everyone to be satisfied” says Kestler. “We have many different stations, and are trying to adapt to everyone’s needs and wants.”

“I mainly eat at Sherman, and I am Gluten-Free,” says Lindsay Mitnik ’16.

“I really appreciate the effort the they put into the gluten-free options as they try to have something different every day- and they always have bread and bagels and pasta.”

Mitnik’s request:  Roast beef at the sandwich bar and more fresh fruit.

Many of the chefs at Brandeis have gone through extensive training, says Mathew Thompson, director of operations. He meets with the production team regularly to consult on everything from menus and individual recipes to placing orders.

Thompson attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY where he received a chef 2 degree. He also holds a Certified Chef de Cuisine degree from the American Culinary Federation (ACF), where the degree of culinary knowledge drilled down to how food pigments react. For example, if a purple carrot is cooked in an acidic solution, such as a citrus juice, what would that do to the carrot?

Thompson then went on to train to become a ProChef level lll, or executive chef.

“There were wine tastings, wine parings, and a business portion of the curriculum,” says Thompson. “They expect that those who leave that program could run their own restaurant.”

Thompson says when he was studying for the ProChef level lll certification he would train in the Usdan kitchen on Saturdays.

“When we wanted to learn how to make empanadas the authentic way, we had all of the grandmother’s cookbooks out, says Thompson. “The other chefs that went with me returned to campus with an even greater enthusiasm of our craft.”

So how is the restaurant atmosphere different from a university?

That gap is slowly diminishing, says Thompson. “All of our stations are now cooked on the floor where we add fresh sauce and toppings. I see restaurant and institutional cooking converging.”

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