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Spartan foodies talk food trends, farmers markets, grilling mistakes, food safety, food waste, more

Russ White MSU Today
Kurt Kwiatkowski, Sheril Kirshenbaum

A foodie is defined as a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not only out of hunger but due to their interest or hobby. Two of my favorite foodie-related people are here to talk about all things food. 

Sheril Kirshenbaum is executive director of Science Debate and the host of WKAR's Serving Up Science with Karel Vega. And she moderates the Food@MSU Our Table conversations She works at the intersection of climate, food, energy, and politics.

Kurt Kwiatkowski is MSU’s executive corporate chef and is more commonly known as Chef Kurt. He has his hands in just about every initiative at MSU that involves food.

Locally-sourced foods and the rise of farmers markets continue to be trends.

“I enjoy the interaction with local growers and walking to the market to see the same people,” says Kwiatkowski. “It's hearing that story about what they're doing and how they're doing. To me, that's fascinating.”

“You can find me at a farmer's market almost every weekend, sometimes both days of the weekend because just the ability to get to know the people who are producing food in our community, and not just professionally but socially, has been a real treat and something I value so much living here in Michigan,” adds Kirshenbaum. “I really like to support local farms. I know a lot of local farmers.

“From a sustainability standpoint, I like to support things that are always the best environmental choice as well and often it is the local option because there are less transportation and energy costs. Smaller farms can be more efficient sometimes. But sometimes they’re not. It's often product dependent. You wouldn't grow something that needs a really hot climate locally in Michigan in December and expect you're going to have the same energy impact for both of those things.”

Chef Kurt says one of the most common grilling mistakes is people rushing the process.

“They think it's only going to take a certain amount of time whether it's a pork shoulder or a brisket or a beautiful bone-in porterhouse or a pork chop. It's getting the coals to the right temperature and understanding direct heat and indirect heat and how to utilize them - and understanding the wind and the rain.”

I observed to Kurt that many people seem to overcook hamburgers on the grill. And he shares his two rules of thumb for grilling burgers.

“Do not press the meat. You're pressing out everything. And don't stab it or poke it to check the temperature. No poking. No stabbing. No pressing. When you first put the meat on the grill, you've got about maybe 15 seconds where you could press it to get a good hard sear. But on a grill, you don't have to worry about that. The 15 seconds is more for a skillet or on a flattop. But for a grill, don't press it because you're going to end up pressing the meat right through the grills. You're just wasting it away.”

To keep food safe, advises Kirshenbaum, keep things separate.

“Oftentimes we're prepping things and the juices can mix up, and that's a pretty common way people get foodborne illness,” Kirshenbaum says. “Keep your work area as clean as possible because things can stay and linger, and bacteria breeds very quickly. Cook it to the appropriate temperature. You can go to foodsafety.gov and see what that is. Then just remember to chill things. Refrigeration is important, and it can do a lot to keep all those bad bacteria at bay.”

“Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands,” Kwiatkowski emphasizes. “Then along with the chilling process, keep that food flattened out as much as possible and don't wrap it all the way up. If it's hot and you haven't eaten it and then you throw it in a bag and seal it, it's going to be very difficult for that food to get down to temperature within an appropriate amount of time. The bacteria can quickly replicate in a sealed environment.”

Kirshenbaum says the Food at MSU initiative is “a different kind of conversation about food because universities are really good at telling people what to do and putting faculty and researchers in front of groups and saying, ‘Here's how you should think about things, and these are the steps you should take.’ That's not interacting. That's not learning in a way where we're all part of the conversation and asking questions.

Food@MSU and Our Table is an initiative on campus that's going around the state just really having conversations about a variety of topics from how we'll feed more than 9 billion people in 2050 to what's important to know about food safety.

“The estimate is that between the high 30 percent range up to nearly half of the food we grow gets tossed,” says Kirshenbaum. “That accounts for a lot of water and energy and carbon emissions and things we can change today that would have a huge impact on sustainability, efficiency, and the environment. MSU has done a good amount of work in the last decade plus to do more at our dining halls. We have an aerobic digester, and there's a lot we can do personally to make a pretty big difference as well. But it's a huge, huge issue, and we can always do better.”

“I don’t think people realize how much food is wasted on the seconds because people want to see the perfect zucchini or the perfect tomato, and they don't want to see an odd grown tomato. Even heirloom tomatoes, to me, are just beautiful to look at, and I want all the ones that they don't bring to market. Obviously we don’t want rotted food, but if it's blemished, let's work with it instead of tossing it into a heap and then, most of the time, throwing it away. That's just not a good thing. The upside for us is it saves us some money, but the bigger upside, more globally is we're just not throwing it away, and it's really important.”

Kirshenbaum adds that the latest MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll that surveys about 2,000 Americans every six months to track attitudes and preferences on all sorts of food topics says close to 90 percent of Americans are conscious of trying to reduce their food waste.

“At least they say so. Obviously, behavior is always a little bit different than how people self-report, but in surveys, that's a remarkably high number. So at least we're paying attention. There are new technologies coming online that are going to allow us to do even better.”

Chef Kurt tells why he’s not a big viewer of the Food Network and shares his advice for young people who want to be chefs.

“You have to be passionate about it,” he says. “You're not going to get overnight fame. You're not going to be at the top of the pile. You have to work your way through it. You're given the tools in your schooling, but now you have to put them into practice. Now you have to display them and you have to build. It's all about practice, practice, practice, practice and getting it down.

“I have a saying in the research development corporate kitchen, it's ‘just one more.’ Instead of trying to take big leaps forward and big huge strides, it's, ‘Let's just try and put one foot in front of the other to improve and to make ourselves a little bit better.’”

Chef Kurt shares his excitement about allergen-free “Thrive” coming in July to Owen Hall and the grain bowls coming to Spartan Stadium in the fall.

“I think it's going to be called The Lower Bowl. We’re going to be offering a grain bowl that will be allergen friendly. Obviously, we can't control the environment, but we can control the food that's going out. So we'll have different bowl options: a jasmine, wild rice blend, chicken, beef, or vegan - a blend of cauliflower and chick peas that are roasted.

“The biggest trend in the food industry these days is the bowls, like grain bowl options, and looking at going beyond quinoa and looking past that, and what does that look like. We’re looking at other grains, like sorghum, and different things like that. Sorghum's a great grain. It's got texture to it.

“The notion of ‘plant forward’ is another trend I’m watching. It's more about the vegetable. Putting the vegetable in the center of the plate. Our country is one of the last to come around to the idea and the concept where meat is an accent or that that animal-based protein is the accent as opposed to the center of the plate. I see a big shift in that in numerous restaurants. You've seeing it more on the coasts, and it's coming in, which is great to see. But I think the openness to that is here, and it's exciting to see.”

“Overall,” adds Kirshenbaum, “If we're looking to move to a more plant-based diet, it's probably better for our bodies at a time when so many Americans are suffering from the consequences and health issues related to unhealthy diets.”

Kirshenbaum talks about her Serving Up Science podcast/radio series on WKAR. And she tells us what Science Debate is. And Kwiatkowski talks about MSU’s role in the healthy Menus of Change collaborative that's a partnership with the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard Chan Business School.

“I hope everyone has a really delicious summer,” Kirshenbaum says. “There are so many new opportunities as the sun comes out and we can enjoy food outside with friends and community so bon appétit.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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