Associate Director of Culinary Operations
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo
Chilean Pumpkin Pear Empanadas
What was the inspiration for your winning Chilean Pumpkin & Pear Empanadas?
I intentionally had a lot of unique flavors mixed to make it a more unique taste. Pumpkin was used in the dough to compliment the richness of sweet pears, savory bacon, and sautéed onions. All these ingredients have strong flavors that are balanced well. Pumpkin is sometimes used in Chilean sopaipillas. These are fried doughs made with squash or pumpkin purée incorporated into the dough. While I am no expert in this cuisine, I thought it would be fun to have this spin on my empanada.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I decided to become a chef around 2009 when I fell in love with the structure and discipline that a well-operated kitchen provides. I witnessed this sort of kitchen at Grand Rapids Community College. A few years after graduating I took a break from hands-on cooking while I started my family, and at this time I was still directing and managing foodservice establishments. I was always able to sneak some cooking into those positions, which was great. About two years ago, I had the opportunity to do both cooking and leading at WMU. Now, I am the Associate Director of Culinary Operations, and I have a planning role as well as an active chef role in our two campus dining centers, three retail operations, and eight cafes. It’s the best of both worlds, every day is exciting, and it’s a good work-life balance for me. I feel very lucky for the position I am in as well as having a great hard-working staff by my side.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Grand Rapids Community College, Secchia Institute for Culinary Education for my Culinary Associates of Applied Arts and Sciences Degree, followed by a Bachelor of Science from Western Michigan University in the Food Service Administration program.
How many meals do you and your team serve daily. How many people are part of the Dining Services team?
Currently, we serve around 5,000 meals per day from our two campus dining centers. Our team includes dozens of full-time cooks, seven full-time sous chefs, about 20 managers, and hundreds of part-time student employees. We are growing into our newly constructed building called “Student Center Dining” which is a central building on campus loaded with food potential. We are regularly hiring full-time cooks with at least one year of experience, and as we grow in employee numbers, we can open more and more to students, faculty, and staff at WMU.
Where do you get your inspiration for new or updated menu items?
I follow so many food-related accounts on Instagram like @eatcannedpears, which is always idea inspiring. I also watch a lot of YouTube videos featuring chefs and other culinary professionals taking a deep dive into the science of ingredients. America’s Test Kitchen is another great place to find inspiration; they keep doing something until it’s good, tried, and true.
What are some new ways to think about using canned pears? Have you used the juice from a can of pears?
I have not used the juice, but I would most likely use it in a sauce. Pear ice cream might be a good use for the juice. I would also be interested in creating a spiced pear melomel (honey wine with fruit) for the holidays. A rum pear sauce flambé as a topper for vanilla ice cream with toasted almonds and toasted coconut sounds good to me. Fermented pear kimchi would be interesting. It would be interesting to make a unique wing sauce from puréed pears, birds-eye chilies (a little less hot than a habanero), ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and sriracha. In my head it works, the ratio of each would need to be carefully adjusted to taste. A pear-flavored hot sauce might be good too.
What’s your favorite way to eat canned pears?
Honestly, just like my daughter would like them, which is directly from the can.