When Bryan Kelly, the district executive chef for UVA Dining Services, headed up the mid-Atlantic team at the 2011 Aramark Culinary Excellence competition, he knew to expect the unexpected.
Each team is given a mystery basket of ingredients with which to prepare a three-course meal, and this year Kelly and his teammates—Brandon Rudisill of James Madison University and Anthony Baker of Muskingum University—received a pig’s ear in their basket. Although certainly a surprise, the pig’s ear was not a new ingredient to Kelly, who is a member of the Nose to Tail Mafia—chefs devoted to using every part of the pig. After using the ear to flavor some beans, his team won first place, taking home the prized copper pot.
Kelly did not have a chef’s traditional education, forgoing culinary school to apprentice under Master Chef Peter Timmins at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, where “you’re not filleting a salmon and taking a test on it,” Kelly says. “If you’re filleting a salmon, you’re filleting a salmon for the entire hotel.”
The scale and pressure of his apprenticeship helped train Kelly to oversee every aspect of UVA’s Dining Services. One day he might be preparing a 12-course avant-garde menu for a select group of diners, the next tweaking the macaroni and cheese in Newcomb Hall for thousands of undergraduates. He is also responsible for catering, menu development, food safety, and research and development.
“In my position,” he says, “you’re able to switch gears really quickly.”
Kelly’s culinary agility also goes back to his apprenticeship with Timmins, who routinely gave his protégés mystery baskets, just as in the Aramark competition. “It’s a more intuitive way of thinking about food,” Kelly says.
But it is not all intuition. The trick, he says, is to always have a road map, a plan that is detailed but allows for improvisation. “We knew that someone was really going to have to beat us that day,” Kelly says. “We knew we were going to execute it flawlessly.”
The preparation included watching YouTube clips of famous chefs, like football players watching game film.
“[Kelly’s] leadership,” notes teammate Anthony Baker, “kept us composed through all of our practices and competition.”
While there was a time when cooking with this sense of competitiveness would have seemed strange, the growing popularity of culinary culture has changed that. Now, people can root for their favorites on television shows like Top Chef or Iron Chef. “About a generation and a half ago, the U.S. Department of Labor considered chefs domestic help,” Kelly says. “But through the advent of cooking channels, culinary magazines and just general recognition, we now have a bona fide, recognized profession that can now be promoted.”
All this has gone a long way in expanding the palates of a new generation. At UVA, Kelly says, “a lot of things we’re able to put on the menus come from the students, who are going out and experiencing new things.”
“Charlottesville is a great food city,” he continues. “People who eat around this area know good food, so we certainly have a challenge to serve as high quality food as other restaurants in this area.”
WATCH & LEARN
UVA Chef Bryan Kelly’s tailgate recipes: mini cheesesteaks
UVA Chef Bryan Kelly’s tailgate recipes: BBQ shrimp