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Archive for July, 2006

Sustainable Seafood

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

What It Means to Georgia’s Foodservice Industry

July/August 2006

By Chef Helmut Holzer, CMC

Since 2000, consumption of fish and shell­fish in America has risen more than 9 percent, to a record level of nearly 17 pounds per person annually. Included in the top 10 fish and shellfish consumed in the United States were shrimp, tuna, salmon, pollock, catfish, tilapia, crab, cod, clams and various flatfish (flounder, halibut, etc.). Reflecting the appe­tite for more fish in diet and on menus, many restaurants throughout Georgia specialize in seafood, or have seafood dishes that share the spotlight with beef.

It’s no wonder that Americans are eating more fish these days. Fish have high-quality protein, with fewer calories than other meat. Fish have low amounts of sodium and are good sources of potas­sium, vitamins and other minerals. Most fish are low in cholesterol and saturated fats and contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for conditions such as hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

During the past two decades, however, alarming news about seafood has come from scientific studies. Wild fish populations are dwindling from overfishing, habitat destruc­tion and ocean pollution. Fish that was once cheap and abundant can now be hard to buy and are much more expensive. And, concerns about mercury, pesticides and other contami­nants in fish continue to circulate. Whenever contaminated fish is in the news, restaurant seafood sales fall dramatically.

Obviously, restaurant customers who make healthy lifestyle choices expect that the fish they eat is safe. A significant num­ber of them are making socially responsible decisions at the restaurant table by selecting dishes that are prepared from species that are not overfished. This is why in the last few years the idea of “sustainable seafood” has become more well known in the food­service sector.

SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD DEFINED

The idea behind sustainable seafood is sim­ply to protect threatened fish supplies. This means that customers and foodservice com­panies purchase fish species that come from sustainably sourced fisheries. For example, Compass Group recently decided to switch from buying Atlantic cod, a species that con­servationists have recommended consumers avoid, with the environmentally sound Pacific cod and other species. The company also plans to reduce buying shrimp and salmon – which are very popular on restaurant menus everywhere in Georgia – that are farmed in an unsustainable manner.

A group called Chefs Collaborative also pushes for a more sustainable food supply. The group tries to get those of us in the foodservice industry to make better and more knowledge­able food-purchasing decisions, including consideration of environmentally sustainable farming and fishing, and humane animal hus­bandry. Chefs Collaborative also emphasizes food that is locally grown, seasonally fresh and whole or minimally processed.

THE FUTURE OF SEAFOOD

What is the solution to overfishing, ocean pollution and contaminated seafood supplies? The oceans are already being harvested to their maximum capacity, which means that increased consumption will put more stress on endangered species, possibly driving them to the brink of extinction, most certainly driving up prices. Even when some species are plentiful in sustainable fisheries, who is to say that they are safe to eat? No one tests all wild-caught fish to ensure that they don’t contain mercury or other contaminants.

The solution has been developed over the last 20 years in the form of sustainable aqua­culture, or fish farms. Many consumers and chefs have their doubts about the quality of farmed seafood, as well as the taste. Stories abound about shrimp, catfish and salmon raised in polluted waters, about farming techniques that use growth hormones and heavy doses of antibiotics, about poorly man­aged farms that damage the environment and about tasteless farm-raised seafood products that are not worthy to be sold even as pet food. These types of operations are totally unacceptable and should not be supported by the foodservice industry.

In the last few years, however, I have learned about how farmed seafood can be grown responsibly and in a way that produces excellent taste and texture without the use of artificial ingredients and antibiotics. In fact, the best fish farms use only high-grade, government-inspected feed, which means that consumers can know for certain that there is very little, if any, mercury, pesti­cides, antibiotics, growth hormones and other contaminants in their fish. This is good news for wild fish species, which will not be overfished if there is a good supply of high-quality farmed fish available. Most of these high-quality farms are ocean-based operations, but soon, a new technology will eliminate all environmental concerns.

Visit the new Georgia Aquarium to see how wild fish species will be saved from extinction. The same technology that keeps the fish thriving in their huge tanks will be used in farms throughout the world. With this technology, any type of fish can be grown on land, virtually anywhere, on a commercial scale. This means that instead of harvesting marginally safe-to-eat fish from our depleted oceans and growing fish in remote areas where the last remaining clean water in the world is available, we will be able to grow any species of fish we want in our own backyards. Right now Atlantic cod, white halibut, and even king crab are being grown commer­cially. Aquaculture scientists are certain that they will be able to raise more endangered species at these technologically advanced, environmentally sustainable farms.

Many purists swear that wild-caught fish still tastes the best because it’s “natural.” I can’t argue with that. But soon, there will not be any more wild-caught seafood left if we don’t do something about it. That means being more knowledgeable about where the fish you buy and serve comes from. Is it wild-caught from a sustainable fishery? Is it farmed in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner? Does it contain mercury, pesticides, antibiotics and other potentially harmful contaminants? These are easy questions to ask your seafood suppliers who, if reputable, should know and tell you where their fish and shellfish come from and, if farmed, under what conditions.

There’s a growing awareness of the sus­tainable seafood concept in the Georgia foodservice industry. The initiative begun at Compass Group will surely catch on at other companies. This idea will continue to spread as its benefits become more widely known. I urge you to look into the future of seafood in the foodservice industry by visiting the fol­lowing websites. Learn how you can protect the supply of seafood so that you and your customers can enjoy great seafood cuisine you prepare far into the future.

  • The Monterrey Aquarium, www.mbayaq.org. Check the Seafood Watch section for tips on what seafood to buy. Printable guides are available.
  • Bon Appetit Management Company, www.bamco.com, is a foodservice company com­mitted to finding sustainable food supplies for restaurants throughout the country and to raising awareness of sustainable food source practices.
  • Seafood Choices Alliance, www.seafoodchoices.com, is a worldwide trade association that assists the seafood and food­service industries in making the seafood marketplace environmentally responsible and economically sustainable.
  • Chefs Collaborative, www.chefscol­laborative.org, works with chefs and the foodservice industry to foster a more sustainable food supply by translating infor­mation about food supplies into knowledge for making purchasing decisions.

Chef Helmut has over 30 years of culinary experi­ence. He is a Certified Master Chef in the U.S. and Europe, an Austrian Master Pastry Chef, has won multiple gold medals at international culinary com­petitions and has appeared on numerous TV shows. He created Culinary Masters to provide customers with the finest products and culinary solutions. He can be reached at hholzer@culinarymasters.com, or (770) 667-1788.

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Chef Tulla White

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

Hometown Restaurant King 

July/August 2006

By Hope S. Philbrick

When planning a grand opening it is impossible to truly predict how the day’s events will unfold. Unexpected things are bound to happen. Of course, the best-laid plans will include contingencies based on educated guesses. But some things are impossible to predict. What do you do if the world changes in an instant?

It’s hard to imagine a worse day to launch a business than September 11, 2001. But on that day Chef Tulla White opened his first restaurant, The Basil Leaf, in LaGrange, GA. “Of all the times in the last 100 years to open a restaurant, I picked the worst,” he says. “It was really scary times. We didn’t know where the country was headed; a lot of things were swirling in chaos.” His response was to keep going. “I looked at it as I had nowhere to go but up.”

White, a fourth-generation restaurateur who started busing tables at age 10, had developed the fortitude to view adversity as opportunity at a young age. His father died when he was 14 and within a year his mother had to close the family’s three restaurants. Remarkably, White says, “At that point it was kind of the best thing that had ever happened to me: She said, ‘You have got to go to work.'” White joined Hogan’s Heroes in Hogansville, GA, where he remained an employee to age 24. Today he credits Jeff Spader as “really, the person who taught me to cook. He was like a father figure, a phenomenal guy.” Dealing with dramatic change is nothing new to White, who noted that his mentor is now serving jail time, an unfortunate situation that “took 10 years of my life that was such a positive and, in one day, made it something negative to some people.”

White attended West Georgia Technical College in LaGrange, studying under Chef Henry Menard. He then made plans to open his own restaurant in LaGrange. Before opening day, White had encountered at least one other obstacle: His mother. Though he says, “I have to give a lot of respect to my mother. I still call her every day for something. But when I said that I was coming downtown [to open a restaurant], she said, ‘Tulla, don’t do it. It would be the worst mistake you ever make. Do not go downtown. There’s no parking, you can’t get there …'”

But he had fallen in love – with a “quaint” building and with the idea of bringing fine dining to his hometown. In pursuit of his dream, White opened The Basil Leaf when he was 25.

From day one, “We concentrated on the number one rule of business: Don’t let your problems become the customers’ problems. We did the best we could with food and ser­vice,” says White. His wife, Christy, worked the front of the house with one server while he was in the kitchen with a dishwasher and an assistant. “We just worked hard. It was rough, but the town really supported us and it just grew and grew.”

Now 30, White owns four restaurants and a catering business, operating as The Downtown Business Group, a company with 55 employees. He optimistically estimates it will earn $3 million this year and account for about 80 percent of downtown LaGrange’s food and beverage business.

A LaGrange location has advantages. In a population of 63,000, “word travels fast. There was nobody really doing what we were doing food-wise. I did no advertising,” – when The Basil Leaf relocated a block away from the original location 10 months af­ter opening, there was no sign for six months – “but they found us.”

LaGrange also presents challenges like sourcing staff and educating a populace on the subtleties of a fine dining experience. “At The Basil Leaf, every single dish is cooked by itself. Nothing is cooked ahead of time or in big batches, so it takes some time to get your food,” he says. “This is an experience. If you have four courses, you’re going to be here for two hours.” For a town that had primarily chain restaurants, this was a tremendous change in dining habits. “People get so used to coming in, sitting down and getting their food in an 18-minute ticket time. I could not do that in this kitchen even if I wanted to. But when I go out to dinner I want to take my time and enjoy it.” Business suc­cess, however, requires the ability to recognize that one’s preferences aren’t necessarily universal. If a customer at The Basil Leaf requests a rush, “we can slam the food out,” White says. “Formalities are trivial if the guest is not happy.”

To woo customers, White says he “came out of the dining room every night and walked around.” Greeting people, asking for com­ments and truly listening ultimately meant exchanging ideas. He taught diners a new pace, they taught him to stick with what works. “We were playing with a recipe. A gentleman came in and said, ‘What did you do to the linguini pappagallo? I have people that drive down from Atlanta just so they can come with me to eat this’ – I did not know that – and he said, ‘Today it doesn’t taste right.’ I said, thank you, and the next day we changed the recipe back.”

With a variety of restaurants, all four of which are located on Main Street, White is able to offer customers a range of dining options, from formal to casual. The Basil Leaf serves upscale international cuisine, Venucci features hearty Italian food, Tulla’s Bayou Bar & Grill offers Cajun and Southern classics, and the new Lazy Peach (opened with partner Joey Hart) is a “kind of a Mellow Mushroom meets Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville,” says White, with a Caribbean-rustic menu and a focus on Island drinks. The business reason for such diversity? “Some people call me crazy,” he laughs before providing a serious explanation: “I saw a need for some privately owned, different themed restaurants. Every time I’ve opened something, I’ve tried to think, what can we do that’s not being done in town? And then try to do it to the best of our ability.” He says that he admires Pano Karatassos and cites Buckhead Life Group as a model: “If I could ever get to that level of food and service, then I could die happy.”

As his business has grown, White admits it’s been a learning expe­rience. When he opened Venucci an initial worry was that The Basil Leaf sales might suffer. That he succeeded in retaining customers and attracting new ones did not automatically allay concerns about a third restaurant. “I thought, oh no, with three restaurants, even though they’re different, people can only eat out so much. The funny thing was that when we first opened Tulla’s we were so busy that it packed out all the restaurants. It still happens on the weekends. If one is booked, they just walk down the street and try to get in, so we kind of catch our own overflow.” Varied pricing also helps attract a mix of guests: Menu options range $12-30 at The Basil Leaf, $8-15 at Venucci, $8-19 at Tulla’s (with specials creeping up to $25). These three restaurants serve 425 diners on a strong night. The newest, Lazy Peach, aims at $6-12 and in its first five weeks already increased the draw.

Business sense drives White’s decisions more than personal prefer­ences. “To be honest, New Orleans style of food is not my favorite food style,” he says. But he recognized the cuisine would fill a niche and created Tulla’s Bayou Bar & Grill when he stumbled upon an available 3,000-foot space and was encouraged by its owners to “dream big.” At the time, he was actually searching for a space to house a pastry kitchen, thus proving flexibility and the ability to recognize an op­portunity are crucial to success.

A bakery has yet to open. “The long-term plan is to turn part of Venucci’s 4,000-square-foot space into a pastry prep and catering kitchen,” says White, who currently operates Tulla White Cuisine & Catering out of his restaurants. The catering business is strong, “but with these little kitchens, it gets tough to pull off a normal day’s business plus send out an extra 500.”

White believes each component of the business supports another. Still, there have been bumps. Recently, White stopped lunch service at Venucci. He cites a variety of factors, including the low-carb craze and the fact that he didn’t accept credit card payments. Adding salads to the menu helped draw customers, but attendance varied too drastically to standardize staffing. Since he was “barely breaking even,” he made the decision to cease lunch service, which he calls “the first failure.”

Ultimately, White aspires to own more restaurants. “Thirteen was the goal,” he says. “I figured I’d pick the unluckiest number that we could and see if we could reach it and see what happens.” It makes sense if you think about the fact that he opened on the worst day imaginable and thrived anyway. “But I don’t think that I’m ready to do any more right now. I spent a long time trying to grow the business and now it’s time to try to perfect what we have already.” Current challenges include tracking inventory (with four restaurants on the same street it’s common to move things from one to another without recording the transfer), learning not to micromanage (critical if White ever expands outside LaGrange), formalizing processes and systems (like a new security system) and continuing education (such as increasing his understanding of the capabilities of his POS system).

As White’s business has grown, LaGrange has changed, too. “Rents are going through the roof now.” The city is revitalizing its downtown. “They put in about $13 million,” White says. Construction projects include a new promenade, several courtyards, an $8 million parking deck and more. Though it seems undeniable that his restaurants have had an influence, White cites good luck in choosing the location when he did. “I could not have picked a better time to come downtown,” he says. Even White’s mother had to admit she was wrong about advising against the location.

How does White feel about his particular American dream? “Even on those days when everything in the world that could go wrong went wrong, at the end of the day, I love it.”

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Chef Michael Deihl, CEC

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

In Pursuit of Excellence

July/August 2006

By Christian “Kit” Kiefer, CEC, CCE

diehl.thumbnail.jpgWhen he was 15, Michael Deihl lied about his age in order to score a dishwashing position at the Bradford House in Ridgefield, CT. Shortly after, he perplexed management by requesting that he be moved to the less desirable “pot sink” area. At the Bradford House, the hot line was visible from the pot sinks, but not from the dish sinks and Deihl desperately wanted to see the action. He quickly moved to the soda station and later took a job as a broiler man at Chuck’s Steakhouse. It was here that the passion and fever for the culinary arts consumed him and Deihl was determined to one day become a chef. He’s never looked back.

Deihl applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and anxiously awaited an answer, hoping for acceptance into the prestigious program. Upon notification, he was overjoyed that he was accepted, but somewhat chagrined at the one-year waiting period. Determined to utilize this time wisely, Deihl worked as many hours as allowed, spending much of his hard-earned wages on books: culinary texts, biographies and autobiographies of great chefs, cookbooks – anything that had to do with cooking.

When he wasn’t working or studying, Deihl spent time with his second love, ice hockey. Getting up in the early morning hours in winter was typical for those who played hockey, when ice is reserved for practice, so cook’s hours were nothing new for Deihl. While at the CIA, Deihl made the hockey team, which took the league championship in December of 1978, the same year he graduated.

The Omni Hotels came to campus in October of 1978 and interviewed over 80 students for seven positions. Deihl was hired for an Atlanta property and didn’t think twice about the move. Quickly establishing himself on the southeastern culinary scene while taking numerous medals in culinary competitions, Deihl plied his trade in such reputable establish­ments as the Atlanta Athletic Club and the Old Vinings Inn. He moved to Hilton Head, SC, in 1993 serving as Executive Chef at Sea Pines Country Club until 1995. He then partnered at the Alligator Grille until 1997, next developing and opening with partners Anna’s Beachside Café (as Deihl & Associates), which in 2000 purchased the 15-year-old Tybee Island seafood landmark, MacElwees Seafood. There Deihl’s wife, Colette, ran the restaurant while he commuted to Hilton Head and worked with Anna’s and the Alligator, sometimes working in three kitchens a day. In 2001, Deihl, with Colette’s support, made the decision to pursue his decade-long dream and begin training for the American Culinary Federation’s coveted Certified Master Chef designation. This huge step required moving back to the Atlanta area so Deihl could train with colleagues and gain the support of key chefs in the Atlanta area.

Deihl was offered the position of Executive Chef at the renowned East Lake Golf Club, where he continues to serve in this capac­ity while training for the CMC exam. “The Club provides great support,” says Deihl. “General Manager Rick Burton is extremely supportive in every way. I have an environment in which I can truly grow people and build long-term relationships of cooperation and trust. My staff is superlative! They are tremendously focused and committed to excellence, whether I am right there or not. To put the time and effort into studying and training for a practical and written test of this magnitude (CMC) requires 100 percent sup­port from family and work, and I am fortunate to have both.”

The rigor of the training plan is daunting, but understandable considering that there are only 97 Certified Master Chefs in the world. “The CMC test is now eight days of straight cooking – it’s actually harder now with no classroom days. I am taking my certi­fied wine course this summer along with my CCA test [Certified Culinary Administrator], which is now a requirement before you can take the CMC.” About 80 percent of the candidates who attempt the CMC certification walk away with nothing but the experience. When questioned about the short odds, Chef Deihl responds, “I am fortunate to study with local and national CMCs. They have all made it very clear that an eight-day test does not make a CMC. It is all the work, practice, training and heart that go into the endeavor that ultimately makes you or breaks you. My training plan encompasses a four-year period that is structured and rigorous, and I will not test if I am not ready.”

Deihl is dedicated to giving back to the community and he couldn’t be in a better place to do just that. Mr. Cousins, who developed the club and surrounding area into what it is today, is a well known philanthropist, helping to make lives better through providing wholesome environments to live and work for many who wouldn’t have had a chance otherwise. Deihl regularly donates his time and energy, along with food and supplies to worthy causes. In addition, he is the newly elected President of the Atlanta chapter of the American Culinary Federation and is committed to education for junior culi­narians, the Atlanta Food Bank, the USO and many other community service organizations. “I would like to raise the awareness level of the ACF in Atlanta,” says Deihl. “This is an excellent forum for chefs to exchange knowledge and share ideas. Culinary competition is in the forefront and we encour­age all competitors, whether they are members or not.”

When asked about his cooking style, Deihl replies, “I am a cook’s cook. I pride myself on preparing good food and I am thankful for the compliments I receive, whether they are from a diplomat or a dishwasher. The day we became enter­tainment is the day we lost our integrity and I refuse to give up my culinary integrity! Cooking should be fun – not easy – but fun! We affect so many people’s lives in so many ways we just don’t know.”

One life deeply affected by Deihl’s culinary passion: his own. Though Deihl’s goal was to retire after 25 years in the business, those 25 years have come and gone. “Shoot, when I got to the 25 year point,” he says, “I thought, hey, I’m just getting started!”

“An eight-day test does not make a CMC. It is all the work, practice, training and heart that go into the endeavor that ultimately makes you or breaks you.” – Chef Michael Deihl, CEC

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