Student Spotlight: Lucy Valena – Inspired. Totally Wired.

Ever wonder what being a Gastronomy student is like? Unfortunately there is no easy answer, we all approach it a little differently. Some of us are full time students, but most are part time; some work as interns, while others maintain full time careers; many students are from far away, but some are Massachusetts natives – simply, our backgrounds are as diverse as the foods we study. In an on going mini-series, we will hopefully give you an idea of who some of our students are and just how unique this program is to bring us all together.

DSCF9170-2by Sarah McKeen

Lucy Valena is the lucky first Gastronomy Student Spotlight. Most know her as the owner of Voltage Coffee & Art in Kendall Square, but this first semester Gastronomy student is much more than simply a coffee connoisseur with a penchant for great art.

Lucy grew up on an old farm in Durham, NH with her folk artist father, museum curator mother, and little sister. The natural progression from this upbringing was a life of art, which she pursued through a BA in Studio Art from Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. After graduation and a brief stint in Seattle, Lucy made the trek back to Boston with a renewed appreciation for high-quality coffee. With a lot of hard work, plenty of caffeine, talented friends, and some self-admitted luck, Lucy opened Voltage Coffee in 2008. It first started out as an espresso catering service in Jamaica Plain, which eventually evolved into a full-blown cafe, Voltage Coffee & Art, by 2010. As the owner, barista, and dishwasher, Lucy has created a haven for the caffeine-deprived artist in all of us. One can find her between Monday and Saturday behind the bar, in the vibrantly-painted kitchen, or holed away in her closet-sized office. 082

This past January, Lucy decided to up her culinary prowess by joining the Gastronomy Master’s program at BU where she is focusing on history and culture. Finding time to devote herself to academics while owning and operating a cafe is sometimes challenging, but Lucy maintains that the part-time, night classes of the program make it manageable. 

While every day is different, a typical day in the life of the student, cafe owner, and Jamaica Plain resident is as follows:

6am:
Wake up.

7am to 3pm:
Work behind the counter at Voltage (make coffee, wash dishes, take orders, and have silly conversations with the staff).

3 to 5pm:
Either in her tiny office doing bookkeeping stuff or at a meeting.

6 to 8pm:
Homework time! If her brain is too overloaded from the day, she tries to work on some art instead.

8pm:
Boyfriend, John, and Lucy start shaking cocktails and cooking dinner. While cooking, they typically blast the B52’s and play with their kitten, Tiny Henry. They either eat by candlelight (how romantic!) or watch something on their projector. This winter they have been especially into the X-Files, but they also have an ongoing goal to watch the entire AFI 100 list… Someday!

IMG_1535As the first Student Spotlight, Lucy shows that with a bit of caffeine and a lot of passion, one can find a balance between a career and graduate school. Next time you find yourself in Kendall Square, make sure to check out Voltage Coffee & Art and say hello to the owner/student behind the bar.

Sarah McKeen is a Boston native who has studied Gastronomy at BU since 2014. Her focus is on entrepreneurship, technology, and culinary tourism.

Outside of the Classroom: The Shortest Distance Between Two People

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

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by Briana Witt

On October 26th of last year, I received an unusual envelope in my mailbox. It was not addressed.  It was not postmarked.  The only thing written on it was my name.  Inside the envelope was this card: Screen shot 2014-03-26 at 1.43.34 PM  

"Pack your suitcases, it's time to visit a friend!"
“Pack your suitcases, it’s time to visit a friend!”

Along with the card came money enough for a plane ticket.  It took me a while to work through my confusion, but I finally realized that an anonymous person was sending me on a trip to Italy to visit my best friend, Brie, who had moved there for graduate school.

Brie and I have been friends since we were eight.  We lived near (and sometimes with) each other from elementary school through college. When we reached the age of twenty-seven, we both decided to attend graduate school. For the first time our interests took us in very different directions.  I moved to Boston to attend the Gastronomy program, and she moved to Italy to study International Relations.

Brie and I
Brie and I

Brie was just as excited as I was about the mysterious gift, and it wasn’t long before I booked a flight to Italy for Spring Break.  The trip began at her home-base in Bologna.  Bologna is commonly referred to as La Grassa, or The Fat.  My first meal in Italy was a sandwich featuring one of Bologna’s most famous food items – mortadella.   Meat is a big deal in Bologna.  Some of the markets and butcher shops that we walked past had meat hanging in layers so thick that we couldn’t see the walls.

Bologna, Italy
Bologna, Italy

While in Bologna, there was a short period of time when Brie had to attend class.   I used the opportunity to hang out at a local bookstore and learn about Italian writers.  As a lover of books, I like to link authors with places that I visit.  I found out that Italy has what is known as the Tre Corone, or Three Crowns of Italian literature.  These authors are Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante.  I had yet to read anything by Dante, and since I usually don’t leave a bookstore without making a purchase, I bought The Divine Comedy.  Reading was a great way to pass time on the train rides to Rome, Venice, and Florence.

The most memorable food experience of the trip took place in Florence.  I read in a National Geographic travel book that trippa, or tripe, is a traditional street food in Florence.  It is usually served on a roll and topped with a green or red sauce.  For some reason, I assumed that tripe was a type of fish.  It didn’t even occur to me to look up a definition.  By the time I was a few bites into the sandwich, I realized that tripe didn’t smell, or look, like any fish I had ever eaten.  It turns out that it was actually the stomach of an animal.  What animal?  I will never know.

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy

All in all, it was a great trip.  I recently found out that it was Brie’s boyfriend who left the anonymous envelope and funded the flight.  It was such a sweet, thoughtful, amazing gift.  After twenty years of friendship, Brie and I have a lot of memories but I never expected that one of them would be roaming together through the streets of Italy.  

Briana is a first year Gastronomy student interested in food writing and culinary studies.  She works as a cook for Whole Foods Market. 

Outside of the Classroom: Searching for the New Mofongo

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

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By Andrea Lubrano

As a Gastronomy enthusiast, learning the nuts and bolts of the field is an all time job for an MLA candidate in the program. In an effort to broaden my journalistic skills while complying with homework duties, I chose to focus my spring break, in Puerto Rico with my husband, on the culinary narrative of the island, specifically on the unofficial national plantain dish of Mofongo.

I quickly learned that this well liked meal is made from frying unripe plantains or plátano verde, then pasting them with a mortar and pestle while adding chicken stock, chicharrón (pork crakling), olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. This mash is then molded with the mortar and given a concave shape to leave space for a stew filling of seafood, beef, or pork that accompanies the dish, along with an edible garnish of lettuce and tomatoes. This traditional way of preparing mofongo varies in size and style according to how many are being fed and in what setting the meal is being served.

Mofongo at Donde Olga Restaurant
Mofongo at Donde Olga Restaurant

In an effort to learn quickly about this local fare we ordered mofongo everywhere we went. It was not easy, especially with all the fresh fruits around, but my homework required I eat the grub until I knew it so well that I spoke of it like a native. We ate our way from colonial Old San Juan to the beaches of Piñones where families gather on Saturdays to bbq on portable grills while their children run up and down the boardwalk in a game only they understand. By the tail end of the trip I had more anecdotes and restaurant recommendations for the main island in my notepad then I had time to try them.

The journey continued onto the small island of Vieques where we promised ourselves a break from our smart phones and, therefore, missed on a thousand and one picture opportunities – imagine wild horses galloping around deserted white sand beaches, caves, sea turtles and the world’s best bioluminescent bay – that’s Vieques. This ex-U.S. army base is an enchanting addition to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and therefore to the United States of America.

Mofongo at El Quenepo Restaurant
Mofongo at El Quenepo Restaurant

Here we ate more of the same, but quickly realized by chatting with local bartenders and chefs that modern Puerto Rican cuisine is changing. Although this region is Latin in temperament, due to an almost 400 year rule of the Spanish, its cultural exchanges with the U.S. are abundant. This mostly takes place through the education of Latin chefs in haute culinary practices, who return home to open more creative restaurants, as is the case of Chef José Enrique and his restaurants: José Enrique, Capital, Miel and El Blok, which is opening soon in Vieques. The opposite also takes place, Chefs like Scott Cole of Raleigh, NC, ventured south to apply his cooking techniques to Caribbean ingredients.

Throughout Puerto Rico different styles of mofongo are taking on the post of culinary ambassadors. From the unpretentious at Donde Olga Restaurant ($20) in Piñones, to the more exotic cooking of El Quenepo ($35) in Vieques. Mofongo and its mother the plantain are so significant to Puerto Rican identity that even those living their lives in prison have reported making the mash for mofongo out of bagged plantain chips, which is as close as they can get to the real deal.

Andrea is a last semester Gastronomy student interested in the intersection of food as medicine and food as art within cultures and societies. Follow her at: http://essenessenuniverse.tumblr.com/

Outside of the Classroom: Cheese, Beer, and Life on the Farm

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

Me, way too excited about all the cheese and looking oh so stylish.
Me, way too excited about all the cheese and looking oh so stylish.

by Mary Chapman

One of the highlights of moving back East from California (aside from the Gastronomy program!) is being just a few hours drive from Windhorse Farm, my aunt and uncle’s parcel of land in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. My last visit there, a whopping 7 years ago, provided me with some of the culinary memories that fueled my passion for food; I couldn’t wait to make more.  After delaying our trip by a day due to Vermont’s biggest storm of the year, we hit the road before dawn on Friday morning.

One exciting change to the area since my last visit has been the addition of the Cellars at Jasper Hill to Jasper Hill Farm, which has made some of my favorite cheeses since 2003. “The Cellars” are a series of caves where cheeses are aged – a process called affinage. We were lucky to score an insider’s tour.  Our host, Vince, showed us from cave-to-cave allowing us to taste cheeses at varying stages of the aging process. When we were done, Vince sent us on our way with a box of cheese and tips on how to accomplish our next task: hunting down Heady Topper IPA.

One of the Cellars at Jasper Hill caves.
One of the Cellars at Jasper Hill caves.

I’d never tried Heady Topper, but we had requests from friends back in Cambridge to bring back as much as we could get our hands on.  Why? It sits at the top of Beer Advocate’s Top 250 Beers in the World. At 2:15 we arrived at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier and were told by the circle of men already collecting in the beer aisle that Heady Topper would arrive at 3:00.  We queued up and waited alongside people from as far away as Virginia. My favorite part was the response from the locals, who couldn’t understand the fascination and stared at us like a bunch of loons. All this for beer? For them, it wasn’t exotic or exciting; they had access to world class beer all the time.

My boyfriend, Will, carrying our haul.
My boyfriend, Will, carrying our haul.

Finally, we were off to the farm where the chores that would become routine by the end of our visit awaited; giving water and hay to the cows, horses, and donkeys, feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs, and my favorite chore: mucking. If you’re lucky enough to not know what mucking is; it means shoveling poop. Good thing the animals are cute, and the view was amazing. Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 2.34.25 PM

The beer hunt continued on Saturday at Hill Farmstead Brewery.  If we’d thought our 45 minute wait for Heady Topper was something, it was nothing compared to two hours at Hill Farmstead. Brewmaster Shaun Hill produces some of the most balanced beers I’ve ever tasted. Once I’d had a taste, the two hour wait felt completely worth it.

The line at Hill Farmstead Brewery and the worth-the-wait brew.
The line at Hill Farmstead Brewery and the worth-the-wait brew.

Five full growlers of beer later we headed back to the farm to help my aunt and uncle make butter and mozzarella cheese. I left most of the duties to my cheesemonger boyfriend as I sifted through old family photos.

Draining the butter milk from the butter; stretching the mozzarella; an old photo of my grandfather I found - it all makes sense now!
Draining the buttermilk from the butter; Stretching the mozzarella; An old photo of my grandfather I found – it all makes sense now!

That night, as we sipped on Heady Topper and munched on Jasper Hill cheeses, my uncle Rob grilled porterhouse steaks that had come from their herd, and Aunt Kate made mac n’ cheese. It was the meal that I’d been craving throughout my 6 years living in California and now, thanks to my experiences out there and with the Gastronomy program, I had so much more to add to the dinner conversation.  Kate and Rob are passionate about regulations placed on small farmers like themselves and Aunt Kate was excited to learn that there are people like us (Gastro students) who are aware of issues they deal with. For instance, how it was fine for them to serve us their beef, raw milk, raw cheese, and butter, but it would have been illegal for them to sell it to us. When we hit the road the next morning, we had a car full of beer, cheese, and butter, and a brain full of inspiration to continue my studies with a focus on farming policy.

Heady Topper; Grilling in the Snow; Delicious mac n' cheese
Heady Topper and cheese; Grilling in the Snow; Delicious mac n’ cheese

Mary is a first year Gastronomy student. Before joining the program, she spent 6 years making wine and selling artisan cheeses in Sonoma County, California.

Outside of the Classroom: Finding Food in the Ocotillo Wells SVRA

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

My family's camp at Ocotillo Wells SVRA
My family’s camp at Ocotillo Wells SVRA

By Karen Given

As Gastronomy students, we read about food, taste new foods during class breaks, chat about new restaurants with classmates, and dream about days when we’ll have time to try all the new recipes we’re discovering in historic cookbooks. Sometimes, we try to get away from the subject. This spring break I tried…and failed.

I spent the first three days of break at the Ocotillo Wells SVRA in Southern California. What’s a SVRA? Basically, it’s a big chunk of desert where people camp — mostly in dusty but comfortable motor homes and travel trailers — and drive around in dirtbikes, quads, and all-terrain 4-seat vehicles called RZRs. Ocotillo Wells is 100 miles northeast of San Diego, near the increasingly toxic Salton Sea. It’s hot out there, but it’s not exactly a hotbed for gourmet food.

Navigating a very narrow desert canyon. (I'm in the back seat on the left.)
Navigating a very narrow desert canyon. (I’m in the back seat on the left.)

Yet somehow, out in the middle of the desert, where scorpions outnumber kitchen utensils, I found myself surrounded by food. Suited up in motorcycle helmets and goggles and holding on to the roll cage for dear life, we drove out to a place called the Peanut Patch. We didn’t find any peanuts, but instead discovered oddly shaped rocks that had been stacked by previous visitors. I couldn’t help notice the giant pear and a small circle of toadstool mushrooms.

The pear and mushrooms in the peanut patch.
The pear and mushrooms in the peanut patch.

We continued on to a place called the Pumpkin Patch. There, we found dozens of rocks that had formed in the shape of overgrown pumpkins.

The next morning, my dad got up early to make bacon while my mom prepared eggs-in-a-frame. I’ve heard other names for this simple combination of toast and a fried egg, including: hen-in-a-nest, toad-in-the-hole, and cowboy egg. A friend from undergrad even called them one-eyed-Egyptians.

My dad and his bacon.
My dad and his bacon.

But none taste more delicious than those cooked and eaten outdoors, glimmering under the sun and covered with a very fine layer of desert dust.

My delicious breakfast.
My delicious breakfast.

Karen Given is a part time Gastronomy student and full time reporter and producer for NPR’s Only A Game, produced at WBUR, Boston.