I was privileged to have the opportunity to attend the preparation for one the exclusive Cork & Fork dinners at last year’s St. Croix Food & Wine Experience. This particular dinner was held at the breathtaking Estate Belvedere, and was served on the patio overlooking St. Croix’s beautiful North Shore. I’m sure that the 14 guests attending the Cork & Fork dinner were eagerly awaiting the elegant, gourmet four course dinner prepared by world-class chefs Todd Gray and Gary Klinefelter, complete with complimentary wine pairings. However, I was there to talk to Chef Gray and Chef Klinefelter about their wonderful work with the St. Croix Culinary Junior Team and to watch them prepare this amazing meal side-by-side with these inspirational students.
The St. Croix Culinary Junior Team included Junior Chefs Daralin Acevedo, Jade Bryan, Rider Odom and Sevon Washington, all of whom are local 7th and 8th graders that were chosen based on a two round culinary competition. In the first round of the competition the students submitted an original recipe, all of which were each tested by Chef Gary Klinefelter. Then, those students that made it through to the second round competed in a ‘Top Chef’ style cook-off at last year’s AgFair. The competition included a blind ingredient identification, cooking trivia, and then each student had to create a dish using local ingredients.
Not familiar with Chef Gray or Chef Klinefelter? In addition to owning, while also being the Executive Chef of several successful restaurants and a catering company in Washington D.C., Chef Todd Gray has partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama for the ‘Chefs Move to Schools’ program. In fact, Chef Gray spoke on the South Lawn of the White House to 800+ chefs about getting involved with their local schools, as well as sourcing locally for their restaurants and businesses. It was Chef Todd and Ellen Gray’s involvement in the ‘Chef Move to Schools’ program, and their passion for locally sourcing as many ingredients as possible, that prompted their invitation to the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience. Following their first year at the Food & Wine Experience, it was a comment made by Ellen Gray that prompted the committee members to have the local students more involved in the cooking for the following year’s events.
Chef Gary Klinefelter was the Executive Chef at The Terrace at the Buccaneer until 2014, when he moved to Florida and became the Executive Chef at Diplomat Resort & Spa. Chef Klinefelter has over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry, including working in some of the finest restaurants St. Croix has to offer, as well as working with many celebrity chefs. Leading up to the Food & Wine Experience week, on Saturday mornings Chef Klinefelter trained the Junior Chefs as they practiced preparing and cooking the dishes chosen to be served at the Cork & Fork dinner. When I complimented Chef Klinefelter on his willingness to give his time and talent to mentor the Junior Chefs he responded very sincerely: ‘I’m just paying it forward. I love teaching the kids. Maybe someday they’ll be my boss, or even own the restaurant I work in.’
The team of chefs and junior chefs worked non-stop preparing the most delightful menu items chosen from Chef Todd and Ellen Gray’s cookbook The New Jewish Table including Heirloom Tomato Greek Salad, Mediterranean-Caribbean Style Fish Stew, Pistachio Crusted Loin of Lamb and Upside Down Pineapple Cake. As they cooked, Chef Gray talked to the students about the importance of using local, sustainable ingredients and knowing the people who provide your food, including the farmers and the fisherman. In fact, the meal for this particular Cork & Fork diner was being prepared with local sustainable produce and meat provided by Art Farm, Ridge to Reef Farm, Sejah Farm, and responsibly fished seafood provided by Hiram Maldonado, Juan Serrano and Ryan DePasquale. It was obvious from watching the interactions between the Junior Chefs, Chef Gray and Chef Klinefelter that the students were very inspired and eager to learn, and that the chefs were happy to be teaching the students as much as possible and fostering their passion for the culinary arts.
What an experience for these lucky students to get an opportunity to work alongside such culinary masters! It also seemed that chefs Gray and Klinefelter were pleased to see such excitement and eagerness in the students that may become the culinary future of America. I, for one, can’t wait to see what these students do in the future…I’m sure whatever it is, it will be mouthwatering! For more information on the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience events, including the Cork & Fork dinners, please visit our Event Page.
– Jennie Ogden, Editor
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