By Colleen Reynolds
I never thought of myself as an adventurous eater. I’m the type of person who finds something they like on a menu, and then I rarely order anything else.
So, it’s surprising how much I enjoyed the wide variety of menu items at the most recent Illinois State University Cultural Dinner.
The cultural dinners began in the 1980s as a way for University Housing Services to expose students to cultural diversity and expand their knowledge of the world. They began in residence hall conference rooms, and the food had to be hauled from the kitchen in the Bone Student Center where it was prepared. Now, the dinners are held in what is typically a packed Brown Ballroom at the ISU.
Executive Chef Phillip Cade says the most popular was last year when Chicago native and hip-hop artist Common was guest speaker. There were 600 guests. Cade says he experienced a first when he ran out of food that night, but University Housing continued to sell tickets for the seats only.
The allure of the Cultural Dinner has grown with the booking of some national opinion leaders and artists such as actress America Ferrera (TV's Ugly Betty) and country music singer/songwriter Chely Wright.
The dinners are open to the ISU students, faculty and staff as well as the Bloomington-Normal community and at $15, they are a bargain! If you have never been, you must make it a point to attend the next one in February. The guest speaker and date has yet to be announced, but I’ll keep you posted in this column.
I don’t know where else you could get a buffet with multiple items including desert, an address from a well-known keynote speaker and entertainment specific to the culture being celebrated. As my friend Maria who is from Lima, Peru would say, “That is A-MAHHH-ZING!”
The Cultural Dinner with America Ferrera last year was my first and I couldn’t get over how good everything tasted. Chef Cade is a master. How he can prepare such flavorful food for so many is beyond me – talk about a Top Chef challenge!
Cade tells me that it takes 60 hours of student labor and an additional 25 hours from his support chefs to prepare for the cultural dinners.
“Nothing is purchased pre-cut or pre-packaged,” he said.
So how does Cade come up with the menus that include such exotic items?
“I get on the Internet and look at the menus of hotels in the countries that are being highlighted,” he said. “They usually have nice, high-end menu items and it works.”
“I take the hotel menu and make it my own way. Sometimes, I look at three or four recipes,” he added.
From there, he creates a hybrid. That’s his favorite part of the job. Sometimes he finds what he calls, "Betty Crocker" recipes. That means they include canned items. So, Chef Cade then researches the raw ingredients and sources them to make sure the items taste fresh.
For the fabulous meal I enjoyed recently at the dinner featuring ISU Alum and actress Cecelia Suarez., Chef Cade challenged two newer chefs to come up with the menu. (Kudos to Theater Professor and former WJBC Forum Commentator Kim Pereira for his “Inside the Actors Studio” approach to interviewing his former student on stage.)
The chefs had spent several years in Campus Dining Services making meals for residence hall patrons and recently moved to Catering. The menu items are listed below along with the recipe for the marinade that was on the pork dish. It is excellent and could be used with other meats.
According to Cade, most Cultural Dinners include a buffet with two meats, two vegetables, two starches and desserts. He almost always has gluten free items and often presents at least one main entrée that can be served with or without meat. Cooking for the cultural dinners certainly provides a unique challenge; different from the standard buffet fare he often served up as a chef for a Hyatt Hotel in San Diego for many years.
“Eighty percent of what you make, you make all the time," Cade said. "So, I really enjoy trying to make an entire event authentic.”
Chef Cade also doesn’t dumb it down.
“We did a Russian meal with a liver dish and borscht. People complained, but we want them to come and experience the culture," he said. "We don’t want to do Mexican and have it taste like Moe’s or Chipotle. I like those places, but it’s not authentic. It’s an American version of Mexican.”
Menu for Latino Cultural Dinner featuring Cecilia Suarez
Recipe for Marinade Cochinita Pibil
(Roasted Pork Shoulder with Habaneros, Achiote Paste, & Onions)
Pork shoulder butt 3lb.
Achiote paste 3 tablespoons
Orange juice from concentrate ¼ cup
Lemon juice 2 ea
Habaneros, fresh, finely chopped 1-2
Cumin 2 teaspoons
Chili powder 2 tablespoons
Coriander 1 tablespoons
Red wine vinegar 2 teaspoons
Red onions, sliced ½ cup
Mash together the achiote paste, garlic, orange juice, lemon juice, cumin, chili powder, coriander and vinegar.
Pour the mixture over the pork and marinate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Char the onion slices in a dry (no oil) medium high tilt skillet until slightly blackened on both sides.
Line roasting pans with banana leaves. Arrange the pork in an even layer and top with the onions and all the marinade. Cover with more banana leaves and wrap the pan tightly in foil. Bake for 2 1/2 hours or until the pork is tender and moist. Remove from oven and let sit 10 minutes. Unwrap and slice.
Colleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.