When last year’s Chefs for Success dinner at Schenectady County Community College was publicized with a brief online notice, someone responded by asking to see the menu. As the guests discovered at this year’s event, the ninth such, held at the college on Feb. 21st, with the level of talent that was on hand, you need only trust.
The college is renowned for its culinary instruction, and Chefs for Success is an annual fundraiser for the program, bringing in a half-dozen accomplished area chefs to create the menu. We got a literal taste of what’s being funded as hors d’oeuvres were passed around, the creation of a current crop of students under the direction of chef-instructor Michael Stamets. Smoked salmon mousse, sauerkraut buns, and seared tuna bites were among them, generously offered even as the food stations aromatically neared readiness.
After introductions and acknowledgments, it became a walk-around, help-yourself kind of deal, and one of my first stops was to sample what seemed at first a rich pork dish – and which turned out to be butternut squash, seasoned with cumin and coriander and flecked with crisp bits of pancetta.
“I love squash,” Anna Weisheit explained, “and try to find new things to do with it.” She’s a SUNY Delhi graduate, which put her through a program similar to Schenectady’s, and is now the executive chef at Albany’s Hollow Bar + Kitchen, where she’s been for two years.
Weisheit was voted one of six Rising Star Chefs at the 2016 Albany Chefs’ Food and Wine Festival, and, like the other chefs at this event, saw it as a chance to give back some of the benefits she enjoyed as a student.
Jared Bafaro is a 2008 SCCC graduate who now runs The Tailored Tea in Latham. “I’ve always supported the college,” he said, “and I always tell them, ‘If you need anything from me, give me a holler.’ They taught me really well.” Barfaro’s restaurant features breakfast, lunch, and teatime menus in addition to a broad spectrum of correctly brewed and served tea. “It’s artisan fare, but I try to keep it to seven-minute ticket times.”
He, too, used butternut squash, but put it inside ravioli served with a maple-sage butter cream. “When I work with students, I like to see what they do, and I want to find out what they love to do. Because you have to love what you do in this business – I work twelve-hour days running my restaurant.”
Students learned some fundamentals as they prepped with Culinary Institute of America graduate Jeffrey Rayno. “I showed them how to break down ahi tuna, basics like that, and tried to give them a run-down of what the industry is like.”
When Mazzone Hospitality learned that Rayno had spent a decade as a chef in Hawaii, he became a natural choice to head their new seafood restaurant, Fish at 30 Lake in Saratoga Springs, which opened last June. Fresh fish is featured daily, “and we have six or seven specials. And we try to rotate among the species to keep it sustainable.”
Students who worked with Shawn Nash also learned some of the more philosophical aspects of the business. “The kitchen brigade has changed completely since I started working in the 80s. It’s totally different. No knives flying, no swearing – and it’s OK to make mistakes. I teach them that you can be relaxed and go through the steps again till you get it right.”
Nash is executive chef at the Saratoga Casino Hotel, and a graduate of Monmouth County’s Brookdale Community College. “I was looking at a career in pediatrics, but every day a culinary instructor there named Billy Hahn would see me in the halls and say, ‘I want you in my class.’ One day I went into his class and I never left.”
One of his dishes was what he called Nouveau Shepherd’s Pie. “It’s a little bit different, isn’t it?” he enthused. “It’s a dish I designed to allow me to work closely with students here to create it, so they’re not just simply helping out.” It featured braised beef and cheese-laced Dauphinoise potato layers as a nod to tradition, but the dish was finished with a dressing just spicy enough to embrace the other ingredients with intense enthusiasm.
Giovanni Morina is a 1998 graduate of SCCC’s culinary program. “I learned so much from the professors here that it’s a pleasure to give back.” Which, in his case, meant crafting a table of desserts that included a cannoli cream-filled zeppola (a deep-fried dough ball) with salted pistachio brittle, which would have been my favorite were it not for its neighbor: chocolate-espresso panna cotta, a generous individual portion of which was served on an anisette crème Anglaise.
Chef Morina is the creator of and instructor at Gio Culinary Studio in Voorheesville, which he founded in 2007; before that he was chef at such area eateries as L’Ecole Encore, Cowan & Lobel, Mallozzi’s Rotterdam, and the Glen Sanders Mansion – and he was a regular cast member and competitor of Food Network Challenge 2010-12.
For the patrons, it was a chance to sample a variety of the creative achievements of graduates of SCCC’s culinary school or similar programs, but the students saw up close what it takes to be a successful professional chef. For many, it’s a challenging choice, as Chef Weisheit explained: “I was either going to do this or be an opera singer. I figured I had a better chance at a career doing this.”
Photos by B.A. Nilsson