By Janet Krenn
Chef Kyle Woodruff didn’t cook much swordfish growing up on the York River, his family’s go-to seafood was whatever they caught or from the local watermen.
Yet when he chose a seafood item to prepare for his cooking demonstration at the 2013 Chef Seafood Symposium, he chose swordfish after he learned that VIMS fisheries professor John Graves was planning to present on North Atlantic swordfish and how U.S. regulations have helped in the recovery of populations. Now, according to Graves, eating more North Atlantic swordfish in America could help keep the industry alive and prevent U.S. fishing quotas from going to a less regulated country.
Knowing that Graves wouldn’t include any practical culinary tips, Woodruff said, “I decided to prepare swordfish and give an idea of what we can do with it utilizing local and seasonal ingredients.”
Combining the scientific and the culinary is what the Chefs’ Seafood Symposium is all about. The result of a partnership between Virginia Sea Grant (VASG), Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), and the Virginia Chefs’ Association, the event has been a way for chefs to learn more about the seafood they cook and serve for more than 20 years.
Getting the science behind their products is important to chefs and their customers, says Woodruff, who is Chef de Cuisine at Waypoint Grill in Williamsburg.
“The customer base is so educated,” he says, noting the prevalence of smart phones that allow users to surf the Internet from anywhere or to scan specialized symbols called QR codes to access more information. QR codes are black and white squares that can be printed and placed on anything—a banana, a bottle of wine, a magazine page. Woodruff says, “We really are in the information era.”
The Chefs’ Seafood Symposium began well before smart phones and the information era. In 1989, VIMS scientists attended a meeting of the Tidewater Chefs Association to give presentations on the status of seafood populations such as scallops and blue crab.
“It went over so well, they decided to expand it and open it up to all of the Chef Associations in the area,” says Vicki Clark, retired VIMS education program leader and VASG extension partner who ran the event from 1993 until 2012. “And they needed a bigger place; so it moved to VIMS in 1990.”
Now that they had more space, the next step was filling it. For chefs who are typically busy at meal times and throughout the day, breaking away from the kitchen is always a challenge. So Clark and members of the Virginia Chef Association worked to get the Seafood Symposium accredited, giving chefs the opportunity to get between three and six American Culinary Federation Foundation Re-certification Credits that could be used for earning or renewing certification on the national level.
Since credits started being offered in 1994, the event almost always sells out at 150 participants and registration usually closes weeks in advance.
“Offering credits gives our program legitimacy,” says Clark. “It’s like a seal of approval that we can provide worth-while continuing education to culinarians.”
Credits weren’t the only addition. The program started to include more emphasis on culinary skills, such as cooking demonstrations like Chef Woodruff’s, and the scientific presentations began to look at the overall ecosystem, not just at single species like crab or oysters.
“Chefs understand the importance of the whole ecosystem to seafood,” says Clark. “We focus on seafood as the backbone of the program, but we also bring in people to talk about water quality and ecosystem dynamics, such as the role that microscopic plankton play in supporting the entire ecosystem.”
Another change has been the increase in student attendance at the Chefs’ Seafood Symposium, and the challenge will be to meet the needs of this expanding, changing audience.
“We have seen an increase in students coming in large groups to the Symposium,” says Lisa Lawrence who took over from Clark and led her first Symposium in spring of 2013. Since 2001, Lawrence calculates that the student population expanded from about 30% of attendees to almost 60% at the most recent event.
As attendance evolved, the Symposium started including more student-focused activities. Student chefs from Hermitage Technical Center, for example, have prepared a seafood lunch for all the attendees annually for the past 10 years. In the afternoon, Virginia Chefs Association Apprentices square off in a cooking competition, working with a mystery basket of ingredients. In addition to the students and chefs-in-training that contribute to the agenda, the event attracts busloads of student chefs from at least three other culinary schools in the area.
“We need to think carefully about how to better serve those students groups,” says Lawrence, adding, “It may mean a different event with a completely different approach.”
One thing is certain: chefs of all levels are dedicated to improving their knowledge about the products they serve.
Chef Woodruff, for one, has attended nearly every Symposium since he became an apprentice in 2005, missing only one so he could attend his own wedding.
“The chef’s life is a hard life. You spend lots of hours in the kitchen, nights, weekends. But you have to get out and do these kinds of continuing education events to keep updated and your mind sharp,” Woodruff says, adding that the Chefs Seafood Symposium, “really is a terrific educational experience; those who miss it really miss out.”