Arts & Culture
The EcoBall challenges culinary students with regional ingredients to raise awareness about sustainability
Published: March 16, 2011
On a recent Friday, Chef Eric Yeager, a teacher at Baltimore International College (BIC), paced around a school kitchen in his tall paper hat, cracking jokes and dishing out criticism. He wiped a plate clean of a student’s attempts at artful drizzling and, with a practiced flourish, replaced it with a neat elongated teardrop of watermelon vinaigrette. He moved down the counter and pointed to another student’s stalk of phyllo dough filled with goat cheese. “This has got to be tighter,” he said. “You’re looking for a cigarette size, right? This is a Cuban cigar.”
Yeager’s critiques were nothing out of the ordinary; such is life at culinary school. But the students may have taken the chef’s advice more to heart on this particular day. With only a week to go before the Baltimore Green Works EcoBall—an annual event that pits students against one another in a Top Chef-like competition—their recipes were still what you might call half-baked. The consommé was murky, the spiced cantaloupe salad scalded the taste buds, and the chocolate for the dessert sushi just wouldn’t adhere to the sticky rice. In one week’s time, the students would need to produce perfected versions of these recipes for hundreds of paying guests.
The EcoBall, scheduled for March 18 at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum, is now in its third year. This year, the “celebrity” judges include Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewing Company, Michael Fiore of Fiore Winery, Reagan of Mix 106.5, Sascha Wolhandler of Sascha’s Restaurant, and former BIC student Kevin Miller, executive chef of Widespread Concierge Services. (Attendees, who pay $75 for the privilege, also get to vote for an audience favorite.) Baltimore Green Works, a local nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness about sustainability, uses the proceeds to pay for a speaker series, and organizers hope the event itself also has an impact on attendees’ eating habits.
“Baltimore Green Works was trying to get more people interested in sustainability and eating local,” Yeager says. “The best way to do it is to get students because they’re very interested in learning it as well. It’s a great education on both sides.”
Early this month, those BIC students interested in participating paired off into 13 teams, generally an upperclassman with a freshman. Each team was then assigned a category—soup and appetizers, salad, entrées, or desserts—and had a few short days to come up with an original recipe based loosely on local (anywhere along the East Coast) and seasonal ingredients.
“It’s a challenge given a certain set of ingredients and making a dish out of it,” student Sam Schaub says. Last year Schaub’s team won the grand prize at the competition with a salsify soup garnished with an oyster chip. A few days before the competition this year, she and teammate Karissa Lum were experimenting with conical chunks of cantaloupe, soaking them in vodka and hot peppers. Early attempts were a tad on the fiery side. But cooking on the fly is part of the curriculum at BIC, and mistakes are part of the learning process. On one recent afternoon, Yeager taught a lab in which he handed out only four ingredients—salmon, baby beets, haricot verts, and mushrooms—and precious little time to produce an entrée. As class ended and the students lined up to wait for the chef to taste their dishes, the colorful variety belied the fact that they’d used the same ingredients. “It’s to prove a point that not everybody sees ingredients the same way,” Yeager says.
Aside from the constrictions a “sustainable” menu brings, students who volunteer to participate in the EcoBall will have to build their recipes around an additional constraint: There are no adequate cooking facilities at the Maritime Museum. As a result, a few were contemplating bringing unusual tools—like blow torches and liquid nitrogen—to the event. But most students will prepare their voluminous quantities of food in BIC’s gleaming metal kitchens and transport it all to the museum.
Late last week, Cody Snyder and her teammate Virginia Pitts tested their contest entry, in preparation for ordering enough carrots, parsnips, apples, and other ingredients to feed an army. Initially, a parsnip-apple foam lacked structure. On the advice of upperclassman Mark Whitelock, Snyder melted a sheet of clear quivering gelatin into the foam and blended everything together. She poured it into a whipped cream canister and shook it vigorously. Then, ever so delicately, she squirted a white poof onto a plate and spooned some into a shot glass, where it floated on top of a layer of carrot-ginger soup. One of those cigar-sized rolls of goat cheese-filled phyllo dough served for stirring and a leaf of fried kale added crunch. A willing guinea pig—a City Paper reporter—tasted the final result. The consommé had morphed into soup, the students had been reprimanded for using powdered rather than fresh ginger, and the phyllo dough roll was plumper than desired. But the taste? Exquisite.
For more information visit baltimoregreenworks.com/ecoball.
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