James Beard Awards 2015: a conversation with Chef Chris Koetke

Last Friday, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Chris Koetke. In case you're not familiar with him, here's a bit of his formidable resume.

Koetke began cooking professionally in 1982, and has worked in some of the world’s finest kitchens, including French restaurants Pavilion Elysees, Pierre Gagnaire, Taillevent, and Pierre Orsi.

I know! Right?!

Currently, Koetke is the vice president of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago, an institution at which he's also taught and served as associate dean, dean and executive director.

Under his leadership, the School of Culinary Arts was awarded the Academy of the Culinary Arts Cordon d’ Or  and named “exemplary culinary program” by the American Culinary Federation. In 2009, Kendall was named the official educational partner of the National Restaurant Association Conserve Environmental Initiative and was the first culinary school in the U.S. to receive Certified Green Restaurant status from the Green Restaurant Association for both the Dining Room and Cafeteria.

On May 4, Chicago will, for the first time, host the James Beard Awards, aka the "Oscars of the Food World." I was invited to speak to Koetke about the Awards, what we can expect from them, and trends that will be celebrated and impact the culinary arts in the near (or, possibly, long-term) future.

The biggest shift  Koetke noticed this year is that there are just four previously nominated chefs in the impressive slate of contenders. Usually chock full of usual suspects, this year's crew is fresh and new.

A study of the nominees' menus provides further evidence of the evolution away from expected standards.

For example, ingredients previously considered supporting actors are now showing up as the stars: carrots as stand-alone mains; charcuterie platters as proud entrees bursting at the seams with house-made mustards, preserves and pickles. 

At this point I interjected to ask about Paul Virant, chef at and creative force behind Perennial Virant (PV) in Chicago and author of The Preservation Kitchen, a beautiful work I snapped up while sitting at the bar, fat, happy and impressed, of PV a couple summers back. As it turns out, Virant and Koetke are pals, and Koetke couldn't say enough good about his friend.

Another trend Koetke noted is that old is now new. Perhaps you've noticed the preponderance of punch, for example, on your favorite cocktail joint's menu. I've been thrilled about this resurgence since discovering The Franklin Bar in Philadelphia's Center City and imbibing their tremendous, old-school punches and drinks.

Lastly, ramen. Koetke sees ramen as a mega-trend with enormous staying power. Remember how pho had a resurgence several years back? It's kinda-kin, ramen, came along and has taken the reins. DC peeps, there are many ramen establishments to choose from now: Daikaya, Sakuramen, Toki Underground... Go forth and eat a trend.

Koetke sees these trends continuing, and I'm in full support.

I also asked about how institutions of culinary education  navigate the potentially tumultuous waters of classic, "old-school" cooking and newer, hybridized, improvisational methods. 

"That's the $100,000 curricular question," Koetke replied. "At Kendall, curriculum is a living thing, and we try to stay current and expose our students to as much as possible while making sure they are well-versed in technique; technique is core." Kendall's program boasts an impressive international component, and on campus are three restaurants from super-casual to formal so as to provide students much in the way of real world experience.

Our conversation sped by, and I wished we'd had more time. But stay tuned. The Awards are two weeks from today!