Alumni Spotlight: Nina Quirk

nina-headshotFinding the perfect career path can be a struggle for some Gastronomy graduates. Throughout my time in the program, my friends and I would discuss matters such as balancing hospitality industry schedules with families, low pay and menial incentives, endless hours of kitchen drudgery, and many more unappealing aspects common to a life devoted to food.

While pursuing my degree, I worked as a personal chef, specializing in cooking for people with cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and food allergies, using advanced diet therapies to help address those conditions. This offered flexibility, hands-on experience and decent pay, but clients came in waves. I found myself craving the social atmosphere of a kitchen and wondering what foodservice management might be like.

My husband works in elder care, so I conducted various studies with the senior population he served as I worked toward my master’s degree. I researched nursing home and assisted living gardens, taste loss and aging, and Grandmother Cuisine, among other topics. That new interest in senior food systems led me to pursue a career with SALMON Health and Retirement, a housing and healthcare organization in Central Massachusetts.

In June 2015, I took the position of Director of Dining Services for SALMON’s Natick campus. Our building houses 66 residents in assisted living apartments (including memory care), 54 residents in a skilled nursing center, 50 children in the SALMON Early Education Center, and 45 Adult Day Health Center clients. All in all, the kitchen I manage feeds 200 people daily.

When I arrived on the scene, there were obstacles to overcome. In my first few weeks on the job, we went from using an outside contractor to being a Salmon-managed kitchen. As the first manager of this new operation, I saw boundless opportunities to create a wonderful, gastronomy-friendly system for a superior dining program. I started by teaching my culinary team to cook menu items from scratch, saying goodbye to the frozen and canned past they knew. I hired a talented pastry chef to elevate the baked goods and treats on campus. Now, most of our food items are homemade, including salad dressings, breads, pizza and desserts. Our residents grew enthusiastic and happier with the new dining services over time, and the positive impact good food had on the whole community became obvious.

This acceptance allowed me to host a variety of programs to engage our residents around food:

  • We formed a traveling group, visiting foodie destinations like the Boston Public Market or the Boston Public Library for afternoon tea, and various local farms.
  • We established a Solarium for residents to grow plants—both edible and flowering. The space is solely dedicated to the garden craft; it’s also been widely accepted by our residents with dementia.
  • Each month, we host interactive cooking demonstrations where residents handcraft ethnic specialties. So far, we’ve made ravioli, pierogi, tomato tarts, pickles, jams, and much more.
  • We partnered with a group called Brain Wellness to conduct a three-part seminar on brain-healthy eating where I cooked the foods and served them to a full house.
  • Our most recent endeavor is a program called Heritage Cuisine. We’ll gather recipes and food traditions from our residents’ families to create a varied and unique campus cuisine.

We have a lot of fun at work building community around food, and I feel very fortunate. This position has provided me with the perfect application of the Gastronomy Program: food infused with meaning.

Smörgåbord Nordic Food Festival

by Alex Cheser

Gastronomy student Alex Cheser shares his experiences from last weekend’s event

image While the crowd might not have outnumbered the one at the Boston IKEA on a Saturday in September, the very first Smörgåbord Nordic Food Festival debuted with great success. The event is one of many new efforts by The Scandinavian Cultural Center in West Newton to highlight Nordic culture and offer a place for Nordic peoples in Boston to meet and celebrate their heritage and, most importantly, the food.

Scandinavian cuisine, new and old, could be found across the grounds of the Center from the prinskorv station with pølse (sausages) and Swedish meatballs to yellow pea soup served by a man dressed as the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. As a ticket holder, you could also sample the scrumptious pastries from The Danish Pastry House and Crown Bakery including coffee breads, macaroons, and the irresistible kringle – that Danish treat of puff pastry, marzipan, butter, and almonds.

image_3By far one of the most exciting parts of the festival were the tasting stations where four Boston area chefs presented their interpretation of New Nordic inspired cuisine. Offerings ranged from vodka cured salmon blinis, the favorite of the other Gastronomy students who attended, to birch smoked Norwegian cod served with a cauliflower puree and finished with a smokey barley-dulse-mussel sauce.

The winner was a dish of salmon two ways by Chef Peter Hansen from The Cottage in Newton, which consisted of hot smoked Norwegian salmon with pickled beets, mustard glaze, and juniper and peppercorn cured Norwegian salmon belly. This was served on a potato pancake with horseradish cream and caramelized apple. According to Juliane Dybkjaer, a new Gastronomy student from Denmark, this dish stayed more in line with older, Nordic home cooking styles while the others were more high end.

Gastronomy students Abigail Clement, Jessie Hazzard, and Juliane Dybkjaer

The sold out event also hosted several local vendors selling a range of Scandinavian and Baltic products like nøkkelost, sausages, Estonian chocolate, soup mixes, and various troll inspired knickknacks and Christmas ornaments.

If you purchased a Nordic Foodie ticket there were even two more grand events. The first was a book talk by Chef Sami Tallberg, a Finn who is noted for his use of wild herbs in his cooking. His new book, aptly titled The Wild Herb Cookbook, highlights ways to use wild plants like Japanese rose, sorrel, and others. Foraging is a huge component to New Nordic cuisine, and some of the chefs from the tasting stations had even foraged herbs and pine needles for their dishes.

image_2The last event of the day was a salmon cook off between Peter Hansen and Tim Fahy, two of the chefs from the tasting stations, that was judged by Chef Tallberg and two representatives from the Norwegian Seafood Council – a major sponsor of the event and the reason salmon was the biggest ingredient of the day. It was great fun, and Chef Peter Hansen won this competition as well, walking away with the biggest bragging rights of the day.

Hopefully this event becomes a mainstay for the Scandinavian Cultural Center, and more people in Boston can tune into the amazing food inspired by fjords, forests, and marzipan.