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'I Want to Hug the Guy Who Made This': An Unforgettable Dinner at Drexel

November 18, 2013

Chef arranging salami slices
Drexel senior Edward Green arranges a charcuterie plate, the first course at last week's dinner.

As Marta Lopez-Flohr ate the butter-poached lobster popover in front of her, she decided others needed to know how delicious it was.

“I want to hug the guy who made this!” she exclaimed.

That kind of effusive praise was the rule, not the exception, for the 40 people lucky enough to take part in the Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner held Thursday night at Drexel’s Academic Bistro. They enjoyed six courses, five beer and wine pairings, attentive service and detailed exposition on the food and drink placed before them, straight from the mouths of the chefs and sommelier responsible.

It was enough for Lopez-Flohr, a chef who traveled from Maryland for the dinner, and others to shout their gratitude and offer several rounds of applause. And it was enough for Diane Harris Brown, the representative present from the James Beard Foundation, to call Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management (HSM) a “hidden gem” in the culinary world.

“The students did themselves proud,” said Brown, the foundation’s director of educational and community programming. “The service was lovely. The ambience is just warm.”

The event featured the work of six young Drexel alumni chefs, all from Philadelphia restaurants, each of whom was paired with a student to develop and prepare a course. And the $150 tickets raised money to benefit students.

The James Beard Foundation, created in honor of the famed chef and culinary advocate, offers scholarships for students entering a number of culinary programs. Until now, Drexel’s HSM program wasn’t on that list. That was a problem for Jonathan Deutsch, the center’s director and one of the hosts of last week’s event.

Financial aid is especially important for culinary arts students, Deutsch said, because culinary education tends to be expensive and the culinary field is not always lucrative.

“It’s really a labor of love,” Deutsch said. “And anything we can do to make it more affordable for students, we’re going to do that.”

After Thursday’s dinner, Drexel will have a James Beard Foundation scholarship of its own, which will go to a Drexel HSM student with financial need.

The event also offered an experience for the culinary arts students involved that they would have been hard-pressed to find anywhere else, Deutsch said. The students, enrolled in a class taught by chef-professor Michael Traud, spent about two weeks working with their chef partners and visiting them at their restaurants to create and prepare their courses.

“It’s really a unique Drexel experience,” Deutsch said.

Students from a fine dining service course taught by adjunct professor Paul O’Neill, a manager at the restaurant Vetri, provided service for the dinner.

The list of chefs who chipped in, all young Drexel HSM alumni, is also a tribute to the program’s strength, Deutsch said: Nick Macri of Border Springs Lamb Farm in Reading Terminal Market; Greg Garbacz of Sbraga; Brian Lofink of Sidecar Bar, Kraftwork and Kermit’s; Josh Lawler of The Farm & Fisherman; John Taus of The Corner; and Angela Park of Park Ave. Cakes.

“They’re some of the best chefs in Philly,” said Deutsch, himself a Drexel HSM alumnus and former honors student.

Each chef offered an introduction to his or her dish, breaking down the components in fine detail for the room. Garbacz noted that he added just a bit of squid ink to the olive tapenade in his spin on a Nicoise salad, providing an opaque black hue.

Sommelier Bob Barrett, also an alumnus of the hospitality management program, also explained his pairing choices, including the tidbit that the Saison Dupont beer served with the lobster dish gets its distinct flavor from its strain of French yeast, usually used to ferment wine.

All in all, it provided for a warm and delicious evening, said Brown, who made the trip in from New York to represent the Beard Foundation. And it left her impressed with Drexel’s culinary offerings.

“They deserve more public acclaim,” Brown said.

Food fans who missed last week's event can take note: Another HSM dinner is on its way to the Academic Bistro this week. A mentor/mentee meal Thursday will feature one of the city's top chefs, "Top Chef" winner Kevin Sbraga. Tickets are available here.