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Diversity, nutrition initiatives top agenda at annual ACF confab

Diversity, nutrition initiatives top agenda at annual ACF confab

By Jack Hayes

ORLANDO, Fla. (Aug. 2) - At the American Culinary Federation's 75th annual conference here in mid-July, females, blacks and Hispanics were among the ACF leaders who celebrated a pledge by president Edward Leonard to build and embrace a culture of diversity awareness within the nation's largest professional chefs organization.

About 1,200 attendees, out of the ACF's 20,444 members, also praised a decision to launch the first Nutritional Hot Food Challenge a competition meant to inspire the search for healthful recipes that also scores high on flavor. Atlanta-based culinary-arts instructor Daryl Shular of the Art Institute of Atlanta won the inaugural event at the Orlando conference.

Diversity, nutrition initiatives top agenda at annual ACF confab"The foundation for change that we put in place a few years ago has brought our focus back to the importance of cooking and the education of cookery," Leonard said. "But the time has also come to instill a diversity culture within the ACF organization and membership."

Leonard, who has been CEO since 2001 and now is in his final year in that post, told how he had felt disappointment upon opening the ACF's monthly publication, National Culinary Review, last February and finding no mention of Black History Month. He said he had contacted ACF's diversity leadership to apologize and promise his commitment.

"It wasn't that we were doing things wrong, necessarily, but we weren't doing things right either," added Leonard, whose term of leadership during the past three years has been labeled "radical, bold and ready with change."

A key focus in Leonard's diversity vision is for the ACF, which already has official partnerships with the Research Chefs Association and the American Personal Chef Association, to forge similar strong alliances with the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and the Black Culinarian Alliance groups.

"The ACF has tried many approaches to diversification, with no success until now," said ACF member Dennie Streeter, chef instructor at Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Birmingham, Ala. But the ACF is "ready to meet [minorities] now for whatever reason and I'm thankful for that."

Streeter commended Leonard's "realness, heart and willingness to try something different. He knows we're part of the diversity solution, not the problem."

Candi Izaguirre, president of the ACF National Latino Chapter, said ACF is "the first organization in the foodservice industry reaching out to help Latinos in a positive, productive way."

Izaguirre added: "They're helping me provide Latinos with the necessary tools to improve and grow professionally. There's never been any history of this happening." She contended that Hispanic cultural and language issues had not been addressed in any substantial way until the ACF came forward.

"Change is what keeps us alive," Izaguirre said. "If you have the same menu for 25 years, you're going to lose customers. The point is you have to change."

Veteran chef Patti Curfman, president of the Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon, said that if it weren't for her love of and commitment to cooking, she probably would have called an early halt to her foodservice career, which by now has spanned more than three decades.

"I was the only woman in the kitchen at the Benson hotel in Portland, and I remember the men there either liked you or hated you," she said. "But I just didn't want anything to get in my way."

Curfman said she's been wearing a houndstooth skirt in the kitchen for 31 years as her trademark. She said: "It's been only two years since uniform makers came out with chefs jackets for women. Be that as it may, a lot of people are happy now with what the ACF is doing."

"We've been a society of separatism for too long," said Fritz Sonnenschmidt, veteran chef and former chef-instructor for 34 years at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Cooking is a global profession, and we must give equal recognition to women, to cultures and to all the branches of chefs. In that way we will finally become one."

The National Pastry Chef of the Year competition is seen as another step toward professional integration for the ACF. Last year, with Leonard's support, the ACF inaugurated a series of pastry and baking skills sessions at its national conference; committed to naming a two-person pastry team to represent the United States at the international culinary-arts competition in Germany this fall; and appointed a national pastry chapter liaison.

"We discriminated against pastry chefs in the past," said ACF chef advisory board director Joe Amendola. "But today we're recognizing them as equal and valuable to our organization.

In capturing the ACF's first National Pastry Chef of the Year title, Tom Vaccaro, who has been executive pastry chef at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., since 1995, is credited with bringing national prestige not only to himself but also to his peers across the country.

Competing with Vaccaro for the title were Tariq Hanna, executive pastry chef, MotorCity Casino, Detroit; John Hui, executive pastry chef, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas; and Stefan Reimer, executive pastry chef, Walt Disney World's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

While in the past ACF was criticized occasionally as an old-boys network, the group now is seen widely as acting commendably toward its minority members.

For example, in 1990, ACF's membership honored long-time member Willie Lewis as the organization's Chef of the Year. Lewis, who retired two years ago from Claridge Casino in Atlantic City, reputedly had been the only black executive chef in the casino industry.

"I joined the ACF 38 years ago, but it took me a long time to earn that notoriety," said Lewis. "The highlight was eight years ago, when I did a dinner for the American Academy of Chefs. After the service, five master chefs came forward and led a standing ovation. But I've also had the 'N' word used against me," he recounted. "That wasn't by another chef; it came from a customer when I was working in California years ago."

The ACF, recognizing the skills of its up-and-coming members, assigned a field of judges to select a champion from among four regional winners in the Student Culinarian of the Year Cookoff, a challenging hot-food competition.

Art Institute of Seattle student Mary Rose Lokar won the title. Her competitors were Kristin Nonnell, a student working toward a bachelor's degree in hospitality administration at Florida State University; Joshua Horne, a recent dean's list graduate of the CIA; and Matthew Matko, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

According to ACF spokesman Brent Frei, the organization's official dietician, Kyle Shadix, evaluated approximately 20 recipe entries for the Good Nutrition Cookoff. Indicating the level of demand by chefs for nutritional training, Shadix also presented an all-day "Nutrition Refresher" during the conference that was tailored to fill eight hours of ACF certification renewal credit.

"This is the best meal I've produced in 10 years of competing," said nutrition challenge winner Shular, who took home a $2,500 prize for his victory. "It will certainly influence my teaching approach. I think that anyone can escape the old, classical cooking mold." Competing with Shular in the Good Nutrition Cookoff were first runner-up David St. John-Grubb, Akron-Canton, Ohio, Cooks and Chefs Association; second runner-up Travis Catanzaro, Cold Stream Country Club, Cincinnati; and third runner-up Frank Constantino, Art Institute of New York City.

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