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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Top Chef Camille Becerra To Cook Up Produce Dishes At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 8, 2010

In planning The New York Produce Show and Conference, we knew that we couldn’t be in a great restaurant town like New York and not do some cooking. More than that, we recognized that much of the challenge for fresh produce, whether looked at from a trade interest or public policy approach, revolved around increasing consumption. In the end, consumption of produce in general can only increase if the consumption of individual items increases.

To us that sounded like recipe redevelopment. We were fortunate to find Chef Camille Becerra. Although known to many from her time on Top Chef Season 3, we found intriguing the way she ran her own restaurant, where the menu changed every day to capitalize on what was flavorful.

She was flexible enough to develop recipes for 14 different fruits and vegetables, and she will demo all of them at the show. More than that, she will make the recipes available so restaurants can use them to woo patrons to try more fresh produce, and retailers can provide them to consumers so they can get their families to eat more fresh.

Best of all, the recipes can all be completed within a half-hour and require nothing more than a sauté pan and a food processor.

Chef Becerra will be with us at the New York Produce Show and Conference all day — here demos will start at 10:15 — cooking, teaching, laughing and sampling. We were fortunate to find someone who shares our mission and who is willing to share the profits of a most interesting life — she has cooked for monks in a Zen Center, prepared macrobiotic food to help cancer patients, had nightmares on Top Chef and, we just can’t leave out her experience moving back to Spanish Harlem and discovering she was living in a building where they were filming gay porn movies!

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Camille Becerra
Chef and Restaurateur
New York, New York

Q: Are you ready to whip up a cornucopia of fruit and vegetable dishes for produce-savvy attendees at the inaugural New York Produce Show and Conference?

A: I can’t wait! I’m doing cooking demos all day. Every half hour, I’ll be utilizing a new fruit or vegetable. I’ve been locked in my kitchen developing all the recipes and will print them out so everyone can have one and can spread the word about how to utilize fresh fruits and vegetables in their cooking. I’m inspired. I have a platform to cook and teach for a full day, which is exciting.

New York is ready for a New York Produce Show and Conference. I think it is high time. As chefs, we understand the importance of fresh produce and that’s what consumers are looking for now more than ever.

Q: What trends are you experiencing?

A: There is a real resurgence in buying locally produced product for restaurants and a lot more awareness drawn for sustainability. With that trend, more restaurants are incorporating vegetables from local farms and featuring dishes devoted to a specific vegetable.

Consumers are becoming more health-conscious and moving away from so many beef-centric dishes. With farms specializing in great heirloom vegetables and specialty items, it gives chefs more to work with. I’m also seeing a shift in menu formations in many restaurants.

Q: In what ways?

A: Coming off of the health kick and spotlight on farms, vegetables are getting their own category on menus. The traditional approach is sectioning appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Now I’m seeing segmented categories designated as seafood, meat, and vegetables.

Q: How important is the produce category for you as chef?

A: Throughout my career, I have showcased vegetables. You don’t have to do that much to them to bring out their flavors. Vegetables on their own are already prepared in a way. At one point in my career, I studied macrobiotic cooking and prepared food for cancer patients to help them on the road to recovery. Eating produce is a way to fight illness, detox and give your body a break. It takes a lot for your body to digest meats.

Q: What you describe goes beyond tasty food preparation to a broader lifestyle approach…

A: At home, I usually make huge Sunday dinners, but we’re a vegetarian family. During the week, I’m a big fan of different grains, I’ll roast some vegetables, prepare a salad of root vegetables and sunflower seeds. I’ll make scallops and couscous and sauté some mixed hearty greens. For Middle Eastern flavors, I like roasting carrots with Nigella seeds or black onion seeds.

As far as Asian food, there is nothing better than a stir-fry. When my daughter’s friends come over to the house, they’ll say they don’t like vegetables. But they think my “go-to” — stir-fry with garlic, ginger, a little honey and soy sauce — is magic. At restaurants, I never order from the kids’ menu. Whatever I’m having, I share with my daughter. Especially in the cities, there are so many parents like me.

Q: Did you have a similar upbringing to inspire you in becoming a chef?

A: I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a lower/middle class neighborhood. As an immigrant, my mom shopped at the supermarket. I thought farms were in the Midwest! As soon as I graduated from high school, I traveled to North Carolina, where I discovered great farmer’s markets. I enjoyed buying fresh produce and finding ways to prepare it. I taught myself to cook.

Q: Were there chefs you admired or tried to emulate?

A: It was the 90’s, but my first cookbook was Moosewood, a hippie, vegetarian cookbook from a little restaurant in upstate New York, which was published in the 70’s. I realized my passion and decided to go to culinary school. I moved back to New Jersey and attended the Academy of Culinary Arts. I lived in Cape May, one of the first resorts in the country, very Victorian and quaint. It’s the last point on the peninsula, and oddly enough, there were farms there, supporting the fresh market.

Q: How did your career progress from there?

A: I traveled many places within the country, cooking in different restaurants. I was a city girl, but I also did stints working on different farms, getting my hands dirty and helping out.

Q: So you really got a feel for all aspects of the produce industry…

A: I did so many different jobs. In addition to my macrobiotic cooking, I lived in a Zen colony cooking for monks with Samurai training. The lineage was so intact. Not much has changed there from the original teachings.

Q: How intriguing… please elaborate.

A: It was Mount Baldy Zen Center, 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. I was about 19 or 20 years old, around 1993. The monks would go into town to what Hunts Point Terminal Market is here to get donations of produce that was close to its expiration date. They would present me with boxes and boxes of two different things. I might get seven boxes of oranges and three of avocados.

When your choices are limited, that’s when creativity sets in! I’d make granola yogurt, tofu, all with recipes they’ve had for a hundred years. I cooked for the Zen Master, who was 100-years-old and from Japan. I was adventurous, but I grew up in a not-so-nice neighborhood, so this was paradise for me.

Q: Did your life in paradise continue after you left the Zen environment?

A: I moved from this ultra peaceful environment to a refurbished building in Spanish Harlem, New York. To my dismay, I discovered they were filming gay porn there! Needless to say I went crazy. What am I doing in the mid 90’s as a young cook in New York City? I’d have Sous-Chefs tell me, you’re a woman; this will be your first and last job.

I decided I didn’t like the high-end, old school. I took a job working at Angelica Kitchen, a woman-owned-and-run establishment. The owner took me under her wing, but I couldn’t afford living in New York City. I started working in the front of the house for better pay. I went from hostess to cocktail waitress to a managing position.

And then I got some investors to open my own restaurant, Paloma, in Brooklyn. We would develop our menu every day based on what was fresh at the market and promoted sustainable living. It was a great neighborhood, and I had established a comfortable life for myself.

Then the unimaginable happened. [Editor’s note: On November 4, during this interview, Becerra remembered the importance of this historic date]. Exactly two years ago on this day, Paloma went up in flames. Obama had just won the election and McCain was giving his concession speech, and someone called out, “The whole second floor of the restaurant is on fire!”

Q: That’s terrifying. How tragic…

A: I knew the firemen. They regularly came to Paloma to have burgers and beers. One of them hugged me and said, this was meant to be. God put this challenge in front of me. I’m meant to do something more. I lost everything, all the money I had invested. We were under-insured. I decided to take a year off from restaurant work and become a full time mom.

Q: Did you keep your contacts in the business?

A: I was doing benefit farm dinners using all their produce and meats, and the proceeds advanced educational projects. I also created a concept of Pop-Up Restaurants, where I capitalized on under-utilized restaurant space to throw underground dinner parties this spring and summer.

Q: That sounds resourceful…

A: It’s a great business, and has always been very profitable and attention-receiving, but it’s hard to pull off. You have to deal with temporary staff for four-day time periods, and there are complicated licensing agreements. It’s extremely demanding.

Q: What’s in the works now?

A: I’m a chef at a new restaurant that’s slated to open in December on Orchard Street, the lower east side, called APL. It stands for apple, but it’s spelled that way. It’s a project I’ve been working on for quite some time.

Q: Will the dishes be produce-centric?

A: It’s New American Cuisine, very seasonal, and including a lot of vegetable dishes. Everything will be really fresh, with a great selection of different grains. Meats are all sustainable, no antibiotics or hormones, and the dishes will incorporate global influences. They may contain Middle Eastern or Asian spices, but all will use local ingredients. I’m Latin so I love chili to build flavors and dimension.

Q: Where will you procure your produce?

A: We get a lot of our produce at the Union Square Market, and also have a great relationship with Baldor. They have a great reputation for their specialty vegetables.

Q: We can’t complete this interview without learning about your experience on Season 3 of Top Chef. How did you find yourself on this popular reality show?

A: I had opened Paloma recently. One of my friends, who ran a night club, loved the show but I had never watched it. One night I got a phone call from him at 3:00 in the morning, alerting me that the casting people and producer from Top Chef were at his club and they wanted to meet me.

From the time I met them to when I was in front of the camera was less than three weeks. Then I’m told you’re completely sequestered. They take your drivers license and credit cards. I started having bizarre nightmares. In one I was walking a pig on a tight rope in France. In another, serpents were coming out of the ocean to get me. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Now I had to figure out a way to get out of this on national television without losing my integrity.

Q: And were you successful?

A: I decided to make a cake without a recipe and they kicked me off! Five episodes later I was out and very happy. I made some great friends in the process. I developed a bond with Tom Colicchio. It turns out that we are both from Elizabeth, New Jersey. He’s become my mentor, mostly from a business standpoint. There are a lot of sharks out there and I’ve been burned. It’s great to be able to go to Tom for advice.

Q: Your new restaurant venture sounds like a breath of fresh air after some of the trials and tribulations you’ve undergone…

A: I’m excited to be back in the kitchen, where it’s not so much about the other intricacies of owning a restaurant. Now I can just be a chef. My job is going to be making beautiful food.

The New York Produce Show and Conference really does touch on all facets of the industry. The trade show, the conference, the networking events and, of course, the cooking and the recipes.

Although Chef Becerra is running the official demo program, many booths have brought in chefs of their own.

We hope you will decide to be at The New York Produce Show and Conference and to sample a little something Chef Becerra has prepared and, like an evangelist, take home one of her recipes so you can spread the word about the myriad ways of enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables.

You can learn more about the event here.

To save on waiting in line, register online here.

Or just come on by and register at the door.

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