Thomas Keller and Rohini Dey honored at the Chicago gala

“It is very rare to see a profession evolve and I am lucky… to have seen this profession grow since its beginnings”, Thomas Keller told participants of the 25and MenuMasters annual celebration as he was inducted into the Drake Hotel Hall of Fame in Chicago on Saturday.

He said he didn’t start cooking because he wanted to be a chef.

“Nobody wanted to be a chef,” he said. “If you were a cook, you were someone who didn’t do well in school or in your social life or whatever and you were stuck somewhere in a kitchen sweating to death, working with a broken sauté pan or on a burner that didn’t work and all these different things that we went through in those days. … I did it because I couldn’t play baseball.

The legendary chef and owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., Per Se in New York, and other restaurants, and mentor to an entire generation of chefs said he found the same kind of camaraderie and d collective effort in the kitchen that he found in a baseball team.

“For me, it was wonderful.”

The turning point that made him decide that cooking was his career was when, as a 22-year-old cook, he worked for chef Roland Henin at a private in Narragansett, RI, “whom I greatly admired because he had the most beautiful girlfriend and a Jeep that he drove around the beach with her, and I was like, ‘I want to be like this.

“He said cooks cook to feed people, and that moment…I had that epiphany and felt deep down inside that I was a nurturer, and I became a chef that day in 1977 , and I’ve worked really, really hard my whole career to try and make a difference and nurture people, and it’s wonderful…to be here and still feel uncomfortable…to stand in front of you to accept this price.

Keller was one of eight honorees at the celebration, organized by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods, which honors culinary innovation in restaurants, from quick service to fine dining.

“For Ventura Foods, this embodies our core work as a company,” CEO Chris Furman told the crowd. “You see, we work every day to partner with our customers to help them create the kind of culinary innovation that delights their customers, and we’re truly proud and honored to be a part of this evening tonight and for the whole duration of MenuMasters.

Another winner, Rohini Dey, PhD., founder of the Indo-Latin restaurant Vermilion in Chicago and the support and networking group Let’s Talk Womxn, also shared her motivation to enter the industry.

“The only reason I got into the restaurant business was to dispel any notion of ‘ethnic’ cuisine. I can’t stand that term. Who said gastronomy was confined to the West, and who said that all but a few of the world’s cuisines belonged to the “ethnic” category? “, she said. This is what led her to found Vermilion, a showcase for Indian and Latin American cuisines, 18 years ago.

Dey and his team served the crowd slices of tandoori steak with mango slaw and mango mung jicama, which the staff at The Drake paired with a Tamarind Whiskey Sour.

Subway, which won the Best Menu Redesign award for its “Eat Fresh Refresh” initiative which is an ongoing overhaul of the chain’s menu, served its new Turkey Cali Fresh, which was paired with local 312 beer.

“Everyone loves a good comeback story, and I think this is one in the making,” senior vice president of cuisine Paul Fabre told the crowd.

Bruce Eckmeder, Aramark’s Resident District Manager, accepted the “Healthy Innovation” award on behalf of Michael Gueiss, Senior Executive Chef of Carolina Dining Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was awarded for its low-waste bowls, which incorporate items that would otherwise be thrown away or composted, such as roasted carrots, braised celery with herbs, celery leaf salad, pickled watermelon rinds and chimichurri made from radishes and carrots, as well as grains such as brown rice and sorghum.

It was paired with a Meiomi Pinot Noir wine from California.

Eckmeder said Gueiss is “a true visionary – to create a product that is not only healthy but uses products that would typically be thrown away is just magic.”

The best new menu item went to Noodles & Company for its range of tortelloni, which was served in a roasted garlic cream sauce and was paired with Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

“I’m lucky,” Noodles Vice President Culinary Nick Graff told the crowd as he accepted the award. “I have some of the best people in R&D on my team. These guys are so good at what they do.

IHOP won Best Line Extender for its burritos and bowls, which were paired with a Burnt Orange Breakfast Margarita.

“I’ve waited over 20 years to stand on this stage,” said Scott Randolph, vice president of cooking for IHOP. “We’re all about flavor, we’re all about quality, and we want to bring joy to everyone here in this room and in our restaurants, and we’re excited to launch bold, innovative dishes.”

First Watch won Best New Menu Item for its short rib omelette, which was paired with a pink grapefruit mimosa as well as the chain’s own drink Purple Haze, a butterfly pea flower lemonade and with lavender.

Senior Vice President of Kitchen Shane Schaibly thanked his team, saying that while that night they had to make the award-winning omelette dozens of times, “these guys and girls do it a lot of times. thousands of times”.

The Trendsetter award went to Austin, Texas-based Loro Asian Smokehouse, which combines Uchi’s modern Japanese cuisine with Franklin Barbecue’s barbecue.

His team served marinated shrimp with a melon and cucumber salad accompanied by a Lychee Martini

Jack Yoss, culinary vice president of parent company Hai Hospitality, said the concept was an instant hit.

“We opened Loro thinking we were going to do 500 covers a day. We quickly grew to 2,000, and by quickly I mean within a week. We weren’t prepared for it. It wasn’t me at the restaurant that got us through this. They were line cooks, just like at Noodles & Company…line cooks and prep cooks and eses and bartenders and dishwashers. They all had to figure out how to do this on a large scale.

Echoing other winners, he said, “It’s easy to make one or two of them look good. It’s really hard to make it look good 365 days a year, over 2,000 covers a day. This award just validates our heart of home and validates the people who are there 40, 50, 60 hours a week in the restaurant preparing this food.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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