Q&A with Chefs after NPSA Culinary Workshop
Two chefs share their views on pecans, food trends, and the culinary world.
With another harvest in the books, growers now prepare for a new growing season. Marketing and promoting pecans remains a major task for the industry, with several groups and organizations working together to share pecan’s health benefits and versatility with chefs, nutritionists, and consumers.
The National Pecan Shellers Association hosted a Pecan Chef Culinary Workshop for chefs and dietitians in October 2021 at The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas. The event marked an effort to teach participating food professionals about pecans and their various uses and nutritional benefits. At the end of 2021, Pecan South chatted with two workshop attendees— Chef Ben Carter and Chef Patrick Clark—to get their thoughts on pecans, the future of food, and what growers can do to connect with food professionals.
Chef Ben Carter is a Food Fanatics Chef with U.S. Foods in Dallas. Carter collaborates with chefs and restaurateurs by offering in-depth menu analysis and developing new dishes to help their businesses succeed. He invites current and prospective customers to the U.S. Foods test kitchen, where he then cooks and presents up to 10 to 12 dishes based on their needs. He also consults on-site for menus, trainings, and more.
Chef Patrick Clark is the Dean of the H-E-B Culinary Academy. He started his career in fine dining before transitioning into culinary education at The Culinary Institute of America and eventually H-E-B. H-E-B is a regional grocery chain in Texas and Northern Mexico. With over 400 stores, H-E-B is one of the biggest privately-owned companies in the United States and the 4th largest retailer. As the Dean of H-E-B’s Culinary Academy, Clark develops and executes all culinary and hospitality training for the company.
Sharing different experiences with the culinary world and pecans, Carter and Clark see a bright future for food and a place for pecans on consumers’ plates. Here’s Pecan South’s conversation with Chefs Carter and Clark.
What are consumers looking for in new products and food?
Ben Carter: One of the things we’re seeing is pecans used with fish—a lot more fish and seafood. I love it because I absolutely love pecans, and I love fish. We’re seeing a lot of red wine reductions with pecans and then putting that as a sauce with fish.
We’re also seeing a lot of sides. I did a consultation about two weeks ago with a customer, and they wanted to put pecans with their salads. Typically, you’d do a lot of almonds or walnuts with apples, but I’m seeing a lot of pecans used in that area.
Patrick Clark: I see the consumption of animal proteins going down and plant-based moving forward as a pretty robust trend right now, especially with the price of meat going up the way it is. For instance, I just got a sample the other day for some plant-based shrimp that’s made from seaweed.
What has been your experience with pecans?
Carter: Every morning I eat about half a cup of pecans. I absolutely love pecans. Pecans really speak to my heart; I grew up in Texas. We had pecan trees all of my life growing up. We’d go out into my backyard, and we’d break pecans and eat them as kids, playing.
Clark: My last memorable experience with pecans outside of that event…my daughter was in town with her husband, and we took them up to a small town called Boerne. There’s this big open park with a bunch of pecan trees, and it was the time of year they were dropping pecans. So, we foraged a bunch of pecans and took them back to the house, cracked them, and made pecan pie out of them. I did learn they are a pain in the butt to crack open and get the meat out of them. I’m happy to have someone do that work for me.
Tell us about your experience with NPSA’s Pecan Culinary Event. What is something new that you learned through this event?
Carter: It was a big success. We got paired up in groups. And I’ll be honest with you; it was kind of intimidating because the chef I got paired up with was like a 40-year veteran chef. We got along great; it was just a great cooking experience with him.
[I learned] pecans have a fatness and richness to them. The fat in the pecans is kind of like milk and butter; it will balance out that acidity in other foods. When I was at the Pecan Culinary Workshop at CIA, I did a bok choy salad with kimchi, but I added pecan oil and pecan nut butter to the kimchi with a splash of fish sauce, and it was just amazing. It balanced it out! The richness of the pecans with the acid of the fish sauce and the spiciness of the kimchi—the dis really hit on all cylinders.
We got to see more people do pecan stuff. One of the chefs there was a vegan, and she made some vegan tofu with pecans, which was out of this world. I wouldn’t think of tofu and pecans, you know? And those were delicious, absolutely delicious.
We were doing some Mexican dishes; we were doing some Italian dishes. We did homemade pecan tortellini with pecan nut butter. Being at that Culinary Workshop in San Antonio just kind of opened up a new world for me.
Clark: When I did the Pecan Culinary Workshop at CIA, I made a pecan milk and tried to solidify it or curdle it. There wasn’t enough protein to make that happen, so I continued to reduce it down until it thickened into almost like a ricotta consistency. Then I made a pasta with the pecan pieces in the pasta and then filled the tortellini with the cream.
[The Culinary Workshop] was fun for me. I had a good time at the event. I learned quite a bit about pecans that I didn’t know, especially some of the nutrition characteristics that I found interesting—the fact that pecans have one of the highest protein quantities of nuts and have no cholesterol.
It has elevated my appreciation for pecans and also the versatility of pecans. I have my go-to nuts, and pecans were generally not one of them in the past, but now I’ve definitely worked them into my work more frequently.
After the event, how have you been incorporating pecans into your work?
Carter: [Combining my love for pecans with my professional work] really didn’t blossom until I went to that pecan workshop in San Antonio several weeks ago with [the National Pecan Shellers Association]. You always think about how pecans are great in sweet dishes. I’ve always loved pecans, but my imagination is for savory. That side of pecans really blossomed when we were there because everything we did was savory.
Since then, I’ve done about 6 to 8 cuttings where [our customers] come into my kitchen. In each one, I’ve incorporated pecans. We did sliders with some chorizo and added some pecan pieces with the chorizo. You tasted the spice of the chorizo and the crunch of pecans. It was just absolutely amazing!
Every week I send out a newsletter to about 140 people in Dallas, and since the workshop every week, I’ve been highlighting pecans and their application. The one I sent out this week [in early December] was a maple and pecan glazed salmon filet on a bed of lentils.
Clark: I’ve been using pecans on salads more and more, and in some of the stuff we’re developing for the training programs we’re doing and also utilizing pecan milk. I used to do almond all the time, and now I’m using more of the pecan milk as the dairy substitute.
How do you see pecans fitting into the future of food?
Carter: A lot of this plant-based stuff is gaining traction. It’s huge! I think with the plant-based stuff coming along, pecans are just going to have a bigger presence. I’m a fan of pecans over almonds, over walnuts, over anything. I think pecans have the best flavor.
I think it’s special with pecans, personally, because you don’t get that depth of richness with anything else. With pistachios, you get a hint of it, but pistachios are only good for just very few things. Walnuts—it’s a love or hate relationship with walnuts. But pecans just have that subtle richness, and there’s a hint of sweetness. I think people like that.
Clark: Dairy substitute is one of my main go-tos. Pecans are also a good textural component when roasted and used in salads or as a garnish. Obviously, they’re big here in Texas. I’m not a big sweets person, so I stick mostly to savory stuff.
It would even be interesting to try [pecans] as a partial filling with ground beef. We do something like that with mushrooms where we chop and caramelize mushrooms really, really well and then add them to ground beef.
I try to encourage people to do plant-forward versus plant-based. So, not eliminating meat totally. Because once you start using terms like plant-based and vegan and all that, it becomes a really militant thing. Whereas if you’re just plant-forward and trying to eat more and more plants and not as much meat, then you still have that opportunity to go back and not feel pressured having to stick with some insane regimen.
What would you recommend to pecan farmers or industry professionals looking to connect with chefs and restaurants?
Carter: I think the biggest thing is getting pecans in front of people’s faces, getting in front of chefs, and saying, “Have you thought of this?” Because I’m telling you right now, they have not thought about it. With the labor shortage and restaurants, they haven’t thought about pecans. Just be an advocate for them and get them out there.
Clark: At the end of the day, you got to get the product in the customer’s hands. That’s the bottom line. But how do they go about doing that? There are multiple levels. Chefs are busy and not always amenable to having visitors. For me, it was getting the product in my hand and having someone really explain the ins and outs of pecans. So, I guess it’s more information and getting the product into the hands of the right people. That [NPSA Culinary Workshop] has a lot of value in terms of moving the product forward.