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Chefs Discover Pecan’s Story & Versatility at NPSA’s 2019 Pecan Chef Summit


A group photo from the NPSA Pecan Chef Summit

The chefs, food bloggers, food service planners, and pecan industry representatives gather for a group photo after a successful Pecan Chef Summit at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo courtesy of NPSA)

When so much goes into growing, processing, and marketing a food product, we can easily forget the other side of the equation: actually eating the product. For pecans, this other side is simply that our industry produces a food that’s full of taste and nutrition and has so many uses from a gourmet kitchen to a down-home cook. In addition, the pecan has a story ingrained in the culture, families, and taste buds of many, but just as many consumers don’t know about pecans’ nutrition benefits and delicious flavor, many don’t know that story. And so, that story still needs to be told to many consumers.

The National Pecan Shellers Association (NPSA) shared pecans’ story at another one of their Chef Summit events on May 1 through 3 by bringing chefs, food service planners, and bloggers from different industries including travel, healthcare, universities, and food suppliers to San Antonio, Texas. NPSA has hosted several successful chef summits and recently partnered with the American Pecan Council for sponsorship, but this is the first summit in Texas. The May event took chefs and food industry representatives from farm to fork and through the many chapters of the pecan story.

On the evening of May 1, the Summit kicked off with introductions and a pecan-filled dinner near San Antonio’s famed River Walk. The following day the group headed to the John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc. plant in Selma, Texas. There, the group—wearing the always glamorous food safety gear—toured the facility. Hairnets aside, the group enjoyed an in-depth lesson on processing pecans and the types of pecans offered on the market, from halves to meal.

The group then made a quick hop over to New Braunfels, Texas to Comal Pecan Farm owned by Mark Friesenhahn. A fifth-generation farmer on his family’s land, Friesenhahn shared the history of his family’s farm and an overview of growing pecans. He expressed the challenges growers face every day in their operations, as well as the triumphs. A quick trip into the orchard, a Texas-themed pecan video, and a beautiful lunch among the trees rounded out the morning. Friesenhahn and the orchard stop were a crowd favorite, whether the attendees have experience with farming or not.

For the rest of the day, the group was treated to some of the best of what both pecans and San Antonio had to offer. NPSA gave a brief presentation about their organization and projects. Nutritionist, author, and media expert Carolyn O’Neil then gave a presentation about the health benefits of pecans and current food trends. O’Neil noted that pecans can have a place in several popular health trends, including plant-based meals and using a food’s nutrient profiles to reap the particular health benefits. Look for an article from O’Neil in a future Pecan South about the trends and tools growers can use to promote pecans.

With full stomachs, but always willing to try more, the group spent the next day at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for a tour of the stellar facility in the Pearl Brewery district and chef demonstrations using pecans and pecan products. Many of the demonstrations focused on pecan products other than halves, such as pieces and pecan oil. Donations from John B. Sanfilippo and Sons, Kinloch Plantation Products, among others, meant there were plenty of pecan products to go around.

The pecan demonstrations and taste testing started with Marie Ostrosky, who was the Culinary Director for the event and has worked in development with the Food Network and large food companies. Ostrosky demonstrated how to make pecan milk, which was then used to make ice cream. One of the participants asked about using pecan milk in sauces, which Ostrosky and other chefs expressed excitement about. The pecan-themed demo continued with pecan butter, pecan popcorn, and crowd-pleasing pecan stuffed bacon wrapped dates. Meatless pecan tacos were the final dish because, well, we were in Texas.

It had been twenty minutes since the group had last eaten, so we were, of course, famished, and the demonstrations moved on to focus on pecan desserts. CIA Pastry Chef Lilla Bernat showed and shared her tips for making two different types of pecan pralines and a pecan crème brûlée. Some of the visiting chefs were eager to roll up their sleeves and help with the preparation.

Many of the participants had rave reviews for the NPSA Chef Summit experience, even with a couple of chefs being repeat attendees. One chef said he was not sure what to expect and did not know if they would get anything out of the event, but ended up being excited about pecans. He went on to say he left with “so much valuable information to bring back to our test kitchen.”

Even as someone who has been in the industry for 15 years, I too learned something new from the Pecan Chef Summit. Though I am not a chef, more of a home cook with a love for forcing pecans upon my friends and family, attending the Chef Summit gave me a chance to learn new pecan cooking tools as well as gain valuable insight from the chefs and food industry people attending. I did not want to pass up the opportunity to ask the group about their opinions on a few of the things I have heard around the pecan industry.

First, I asked about the terms used for categorizing pecans to consumers. The term ‘Pecan Pieces’ is often used in marketing, while some businesses have begun referring to the product as ‘Chopped Pecans.’ The Summit participants agreed that the perception and marketing of the term ‘Chopped Pecans’ is preferable. One member then brought up the term ‘Pecan Meal,’ thinking that a different term would be better received by consumers.

The group also noted that they can see a number of great opportunities for using pecan meal and flour. CIA Pastry Chef Bernal spoke of her love for using pecan meal in pastries. Other chefs suggested different variances of pecan flour, like coarse or fine, could open up new usage opportunities in cooking. While not brought up as part of the Summit, copies of the magazine edible San Antonio were at the CIA facility and the chefs were excited and eager to learn more about the pecan truffles featured in the magazine.

We also discussed some of the advantages pecans have as a food and the group again brought up a couple of great points that could be put to use in pecan marketing. The first is that pecans could logically be used at every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This creates a real opportunity to vary the nut’s uses and encourage creativity when cooking with pecans. Another Summit attendee remarked that pecans have a further advantage. By putting pecans into a dish, the cook elevates the dish to make it something special and premium. For instance, something like a plain chicken salad transforms into a fancy chicken salad when pecans are added.

The group left the Pecan Chef Summit with full stomachs, a package full of pecan information and products, and a head full of ideas for pecans. The event helped to spread ideas on what pecans have to offer, particularly in areas of the country not as familiar with pecans. It might have even taught this lifelong Texan and devout pecan promoter a few new tricks and tools to use in the kitchen and when promoting the pecan’s story. I can see my friends and family rolling their eyes now but enjoying another delicious bite of their pecan tacos and pecan-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates.

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