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Inside out: The chef's perspective

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In the last 15 days I have spent an enormous amount of time with some of the food industry’s finest individuals as well as some special foodie people. The character, intelligence, insight, warmth, humor and egos of each of these chefs & special foodies have brought big smiles to my face not to mention an entirely different perspective than most understand.

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This is the first article of a series of articles that will publish from various perspectives: the inside out and the outside in perspectives of the food industry.

Being a chef is harder than it looks on television and I am pleased and honored to see this profession gaining more attention. Being a chef is much more than just a person who cooks in the back of our favorite restaurant. I love the pictures in the background of Haracz twitter page which shows exactly that- "what people think and what is actually happening." Chefs have many of career paths to take once they have mastered their skills and found their niche in food, as is the case with Chef Mike Haracz who has a fabulous story to share with us.

It was mid-morning one early December day when Chef Mike Haracz and I got on the phone for our interview. His energy and spark made it easy to chat with him, not to mention the character, just in his Chicago accent.

This chef has a broad perspective on the food industry as a whole not to mention a highlighted educational background, that not every chef has the chance to experience.

Chef’s background:

Chef Mike Haracz was born and raised in Chicago, IL.

“I have been a professional chef for 15 years. I started cooking with mom and grandma, as most of us do. I have worked in many restaurants and country clubs but now I am a Research and Development chef in Chicago for a specialty food company. I love my job. I get to be creative, create recipes, play in the kitchen and have nights, weekend and holidays off, ” says Chef Haracz.

What many people don’t realize is that chef’s schedules can start at 9 AM and not end until 10 PM, pending the schedule of the kitchen. There is more to it these days than just going in and cooking up great meals. Many executive chefs are responsible for menu development, purchasing, sourcing, employee training, protocol development, being the face and name of the restaurant, paperwork, e-mail returns, scheduling, kitchen organization, cleanup- just to name a few. When the general consumer is off work is when the chef is the busiest because they are catering to those off work.

Chef’s Culinary Education:

Chef Mike attended school at Johnson & Wales and has an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts and a Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Nutrition. While in culinary school he developed an interest in food science and nutrition along with his already developed passion and love of cooking.

“Culinary school gives people a 10,000 foot view of food. I learned the most in my medical nutrition therapy and food sciences classes. I was shown things I would not have known if I’d just learned how to cook in the kitchen with hands on training. I think that having both perspectives (hands on training and professional education) are very important to being a great chef.”

Chef’s favorite dish to prepare:

Upscale American Comfort Food
While Chef admits he is now on a diet that limits his ability to eat what he loves to make, he thinks that “Healthy” and “Comfort” food can be combine.

“It is just as important to be physically active as it is to eat well. Today more than ever we are more aware that we need to get off the couch and get moving just as we need to be mindful of what we are eating. I’m at the gym more these days and I have lost weight. It’s a combine effort.”

Side Note: A recent accomplishment of this Chef was that he ran the Chicago Marathon and completed it!

What trends do you see? What do people want? Or do you care?

“I do care what people want. I am developing products on behalf of the consumers. Gluten Free is huge and more than just a trend. All natural, locally sourced is also really big. The allergen labeling is important.”
Was being a chef one of your lifelong career dreams?
“Yes, it was either being a chef or being a Rock Star.”

So do you play an instrument? “Yes I do. I play the guitar. I’m in a couple of independent bands in Chicago. It is fun but being a chef is what pays the bills.”

Do you have a hero or person you think is the top influencer in food?

“That is a really good question that I haven’t thought about in a long time. My inspiration really comes from the average person versus the celebrity chef. My friends, family and the consumer inspire me.”

What do you think the most important thing to know about food is?

“Food Safety is one of the most important above cost and taste. The kitchen can be one of the most dangerous areas, if you don’t know what you are doing. If we (chefs) don’t consider food safety and are not educated about it we can harm or hurt someone and that can lead to a deadly incident.”

Do you think there is enough training provided on food allergies and other special dietary needs?

“Top Chains have a broader understanding and more accountability but the smaller local restaurants could do a little better job on food allergies and understanding how their products or processes might impact their customers. I think the consumers need more information on labeling and ingredients. Just because gluten free menus are offered, doesn’t mean it is safe. “

Have you ever received training on food allergies? How much of your career was spent on training for this topic?

Chef Mike graduated in 2006 from Johnson & Wales culinary college. He says thru the ServSafe program he learned about cross contact & cross contamination and a little on food allergies but he admits, “ I got more education on this subject than most chefs because of my Culinary Nutrition courses and degree.”

Who do you think should be the most educated about this topic in your business?

“Consumers and operators should have a broader knowledge base than they currently do.”

Could you modify your favorite dish to accommodate someone with multiple food allergies?

American Comfort Food can be modified for any person with special dietary concerns. I need to be able to cook for the cost conscious or special dietary needs person, it’s a lot like customizing food based on regional availability or preference. I need to understand how to make food I love in multiple ways, but I have the luxury of being able to do that because I am not in a restaurant now, I am in a special development kitchen and I don’t have 100 orders to fill. I get to play and take my time.

What most customers don’t understand is restaurant chefs either don’t know how to do this as much because they have a set list of ingredients or recipes to make so making changes on the fly is much harder. So unless restaurant is really able to handle food allergies and promotes that they can, it can be quite difficult to handle these needs on a customer to customer basis.”

In today’s Federal Food Code Regulations as well as state specific laws, part of their safety initiative is to post the top 8 food allergens in the United States in kitchens. Some are taking it a step further to learn and understand the top 10 food allergens, especially in food manufacturing. Can you name the top 10 food allergens in the U.S?

Chef Mike laughs and says, “After I mention all the special education I have received on this matter, I should know this. I say with a smile, “Go ahead and take a guess at what you think and no cheating.” He says with a pause before jumping in to list, “Shellfish, Nuts, Tree nuts, Gluten, Peanuts, Wheat, Soy, Milk/Dairy.”

He got most of them correct but the top 10 food allergens in the United States are actually: Dairy, Eggs, Shellfish, Wheat (not gluten), Fish, Sesame, Corn, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, and Soy.

While knowing that is important when thinking of menu items to create that are a little more universal, each person will have a special list of their own unique set of allergens and Chef Mike and I both agree, it’s more important to know how to cater to someone with their special set of restrictions rather than knowing just the top 8 or 10 allergens. While a poster may be helpful, it’s not a great solution to fixing the real issue.

Last words from Chef Mike: “Gluten Free Diets are more than a trend, it’s a specialty diet because it’s a medical illness- so it’s much different than Atkins- it will last longer. It’s a lifelong illness so it’s not going away. While there are people working on cures, there is none today. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to develop a cure, but in the meantime, with a large portion of the commodities being wheat based I think it will be interesting to see how this changes things over time.”

Stay in touch with Chef Mike Haracz

Follow or Subscribe to Lara Holland, Food Allergy Gal to get the next story or view: Part 2: Outside In: Food Perspectives is now available: www.examiner.com/article/outside-consumer-s-perspective-part-ii

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