Bon Appetit chef Michael Delcambre talks about his collaboration with Main Street Project
Main Street Project’s Bridget Guiza sat down with Bon Appetit Executive Chef Michael Delcambre to talk about his collaboration with Main Street Project, sustainable and inclusive food systems, and, of course, tasty chickens.
Can you tell me about how you started working with Main Street Project?
I started working with Carleton College in March of 2009. In the spring of 2010 I attended a Northfield Panel Discussion, and Regi (Chief Operating Officer Reginaldo (Regi) Haslett-Marroquin) was on the panel as well. I loved his story and he loved mine. He told me about his plans and his idea of building modular units, and how he had laid it out from the get-go, from one module, one family producing chickens and how it could be duplicated. He wanted to make sure it was a sustainable system. To me it was fascinating work.
A year went by and Regi and I connected again and this time he was taking another step. He was coming up with a sustainable production facility. I told him that we (Bon Apetit) wanted to be on the ground floor.
It’s great for us. It’s a local product that’s being handled properly. It’s also sustaining the families who are involved in this practice. So we started buying 50 birds here, 100 hundred birds there. From day one we wanted to be a part of it.
Regi has come to talk to some groups here at Carleton, and taken them out to the production facility, the farm. The students were amazed and impressed, ‘wow, really you do this?’ and Regi responded ‘of course we do.’
What do you like best about ‘Our System Approach’?
As much as the synergistic interdependence that we have with our food system right now, we want to make sure we are including our community as well. There are so many people growing a great variety of things. I really want to make sure that we keep up with that energy. We’re all neighbors here. We work and make sure we are contributing to local sustainability.
You’ve heard Regi talk about his modular system. It’s gotta be difficult when you are looking in from the outside to learn everything about the system. Raising the chickens, budgeting, there are all those important aspects. It’s gotta be brand new to some of these families.
The fact that the students are aspiring Latino farmers I think is brilliant because there is such as large Latino community here. And the product could go into any market because it’s going to be a proven system. I mean, the man hasn’t short-cut on anything. He’s made sure that he’s thinking five years down the road to make sure when the system is up and running he is there.
I think it’s being on the ground floor on how it operates, it makes it easier for us to know what he’s put in place and how we can operate within that realm as well, and vice versa, so they understand where we are at. We are just one school. There are plenty of other schools that, as the modulation increases, will be potential buyers for the product. I know plenty of people who have bought the chickens and they’ve loved them.
What’s different about Main Street Project chicken?
Let’s talk about flavor. Bon Appetit purchases only chicken from companies that aren’t using any steroids or antibiotics, or anything like that for growth. Granted, if a chicken gets sick they are going to work on the chicken and make sure it’s a viable product. A lot of times we buy from companies in such bulk that it indeed tastes like ‘bulk’ chicken. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we are buying just chicken breast. We live in a world now that prefers just the breasts: ‘Oh yea, boneless, skinless chicken breast, it goes on a salad it’s great.’ But it really has a lack of flavor to me personally.
With the Main Street chicken, we got the whole bird. We make the stocks, we use the skin, and I’ve made chicharron from the skin and added it to a dish. If I had the beaks I would use those for something, too. You get the entire flavor, you get the skin, you get the dark meat, and we want to utilize the whole product. Nine times out of ten, if you put chicken on a menu, people are expecting the bland chicken breast, boneless, skinless, no flavor, and it’s dry. So we’re utilizing a product that tastes like chicken and we get to use the whole bird. We’ve not once had any negative comments from anything that we are using.
And I know how he’s raising them. That’s a big thing for me. It’s knowing that those who are producing, whether it’s plants, fruits, vegetables, chicken, beef, that they’re sustaining the land. The animal husbandry part, and making sure that they’re treating the earth properly is huge. And Regi is huge about that. But everything, the feed and the land, there’s lately the term in cooking in the food world, is turning towards ‘Terroir’. It used to be that ‘terroir’ was only thought of in the realm of French wines. ‘Terroir’: from the earth. Chicken that is grown here in the Northfield area is going to taste differently when he uses this module in Chicago. It’s going to taste like the Illinois land. It’s going to taste like the berries, the fruits, whatever is in that region. So it’s very particular about where he is at. And that comes through in the flavor.
To me, if food tastes good, I’m all over it. I don’t want to worry about him raising chickens that sit in the freezer for 6 months or a year because they are just mass produced. I can get birds that were killed last week. I can get birds close to a kill, which means, even if they have to freeze them because he’s storing them for a short period of time, the flavor is still there, the ‘terroir’, the earthiness, this area, our area, is still coming through in the bird. I know he is not mass producing right now because I know his style. I know his modulation. They can only produce so many birds.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability to me is more that just the growing of the food. It’s the growing of the individuals. It’s people with children who are going to grow up in this business and decide that they wish to be part of it and continue it, or learn lessons from it and move on and use them in another field.
I want to make sure kids grow up healthy and strong and aware. I wan them to contribute to the food system. You know Regi well enough, the man starts on his dissertation and you get sucked in because he’s thought of every angle. He’s worked on every angle; he’s talked to people everywhere. There are people utilizing his thought pattern on how to process things, or how to do things, because he wants to make sure that everybody, when they’re propped up, that they can learn, and they’re going to be self-sufficient. They are going to be part of the community here, and they will continue to grow in what they process, but they are also going to teach others around and maybe some of those practices are going to benefit others in the area. I think that’s going to make for a stronger food system here in Northfield and the outlying area.
At the end of the day, we need to make sure that we purchase a product that has the proper nutrients. The sustainable movement for me is that we make sure we go above and beyond. It’s just not about what we buy, it’s how we produce it, to make sure we are getting the most out of it.
What is Bon Appetit’s relationship with Carleton students?
This college is pretty diverse, so there are students from all parts of the world. We did a Jamaican dish and this girl from Jamaica asked, ‘do you mind if I call my mom and ask to get her recipe?’ and I told her, ‘Yea! Tell your mom to call me!’ We’ve gotten to that point, as a company, here that more and more people are comfortable coming and exchanging ideas. We ask: ‘What are some traditions? We’d be happy to do these things for you.’
Getting back to Main Street Project’s product, we can use a product that is full flavored and we know from start to finish the work that went into this product. We know who’s raising it, the families, where it comes from. We know that they are being sustained, we know the land is great, we’re doing the processing, we know how we’re cooking it, we get to go from the land to the fork. There aren’t many items we get where we know the product from the land to the fork.
‘Farm to fork’ is a great program that we have but it’s usually plant-based. It’s nice to have something that we know where it’s walking around, we know what it’s eating, we know it’s being taken care of. It’s not like everybody eats steak. The humble chicken, they use it all the way from the beak to the feet.
Students are loving it. It really adds to international cooking. For example, with Asian food, they don’t just use chicken breast. They’re using the chicken thigh, they’re using the leg, they’re taking the inbone off, the feet. Go to Mexico and eat at a traditional restaurant and you’re eating the whole bird and that’s where the flavors are.
How can the Chefs at Carleton’s Bon Appetit connect more with the Northfield community?
We’ve been talking about connecting more with the community. If we can teach the children how to use what’s here in creating a traditional Mexican food, they can be excited about going home to the parents and teach the parents. Now there’s an excitement that the parents can learn from and it’s not because they turned on the food network or they got a flyer.
I think we could really approach the family through the children. I don’t know how we do that, that’s something we can work on. I don’t know if it’s in our kitchen or if it’s in a church kitchen or a home kitchen. I’ve got some Latino workers who are from near Mexico City, I’ve got a couple of people from Veracruz. If there is a national thing that also happens, maybe there’s a bonding. Create a circle there. They can come in and have lunch. We can be that neighbor. If we can teach some kids how to use local products, maybe it’s something they are not used to having, maybe it’s something traditional.
The parents are learning but they aren’t being taught. It’s not a book, not a recipe. People would do it their way. We can come up with something to be useful and fun. I think that’s something that we are all dedicated to. We are all connected to our roots of who teaches us. If we can get a little bit of those roots going on, we have ‘comfort-ability’.
What makes cooking special to you?
Cooking is simple. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years. We just make it difficult by how we write it. I’m a big proponent of ‘play with your food’. If I mess something up I’ll make it into something else. I’ll still eat it. I won’t destroy something to the point where I can’t eat it.
When we were kids, my mom always said, ‘don’t play with your food!’ I’ve been on various television shows and sometimes I say, ‘look mom I’m playing with my food!’ and I get paid for it, and she just thinks it’s the hoot.
We are very excited about the younger generation being able to fend for themselves. I noticed that cooking is one the most unappealing aspects for young people. There are so many people who don’t know how to cook. It’s by no reason other than it wasn’t passed down the line. There’s no blame, it’s just the world changed and moved on.
Back in the 1950s after the war, with fast food and TV dinners. That’s when things started changing for families. We’ve lost some of that interconnectivity of just bringing the family together. It should start with one parent and one child. From there, we can be well on our way to make sure people are growing. When you were a child and you would visit a relative, eventually everyone would go to the kitchen, because that’s where all the food is at, that’s where all the life is. Nowadays, I know that two parents are working and it’s very hard, but even if its just once a week, try to get everybody in the same room and play. That’s all cooking is, it’s simple, it’s just time spent together.
There’s a commercial out, it’s about two ladies and they look at each other and then they start laughing, and they’re in the kitchen. It makes me laugh every time I see it. It’s so heartfelt. I think this is what we miss. I think we need to make sure that the generation past me, everybody’s gotta get back to that.
Look at all that stores now that are selling local goods, look at the farmers markets. It’s coming closer and closer to home. While we aren’t going to buy fresh tomatoes in Minnesota in January, when they are here, we need to understand our food options in our area. We need to get back in the kitchen. And the kitchen can be in the backyard over a pit, or open flame. It’s where we all gather to produce a meal. Sometimes it’s a little bitty kitchen; sometimes it’s a big home.
I had the opportunity to be in Morocco a few years ago. I saw several people walking around with goats, and you already know it’s going to be part of the meal. They always gather at the house that has the largest kitchen. The whole community shows up. I’m from the South and it’s also like that in the South. Everybody goes to the big house. It could be neighbors or family, and everybody’s invited. Those units are always the most cohesive; they are always closer because they do everything together.
Do you have any last comments for our audience?
Being part of the food chain, it’s almost a necessity on our part to make sure that we are contributing to more than just buying and cooking food. We have to teach some of those things that make me passionate, that make you passionate. Everybody’s got a passion and it’s part of our duty to pass those things along. Without choices you can’t learn, you can’t become independent. If you only have one food choice or type, then you are just part of the mass. If you have more choices, healthier choices, you become a clearer individual within the mass, the team, the family.