Every year, the James Beard Foundation pulls together a slew of important chefs to cook — and to raise awareness of an important topic. The Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp focuses on bringing together civically and politically minded chefs to strategize on creating an effective and sustainable food system. It is these chefs who then go back into their kitchen and implement the change that ultimately benefits their community, and in turn, the world.
Chef Kwame Williams of Montclair’s Vital Dining is one of only 15 national chefs chosen to attend the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp this year, and the only chef from New Jersey.
“I am honored to have been selected to participate in this esteemed program that offers food system policy advocacy training, addressing important issues facing our local communities. I hope to come away with information and tools to help me further become a more socially, economically and health-active chef and affect policy changes in our local and state level,” Chef Williams said. Selected chefs must be recommended by a prior program participant chef, so it is truly an exclusive program. Chef Williams feels this is an important role for him. He will be able to effectively implement change in the community and encourage others to do the same. As he explained, “They cannot change what they do not know.”
Through his participation, Chef Williams hopes to showcase the potential New Jersey has to be a culinary destination on the East Coast. “The Garden State has the means to be great and lead the industry,” he said. Fresh produce, farms, and dedicated programs are all part of what is the New Jersey culinary scene. One place he hopes to implement change is in the school lunch program.
“I have worked with Edible Schoolyards and more recently The Soaring Scholars program. I feel like the state of our school lunch programs is in dire need of major change. We need to get back to cooking fresh food on-site.” His first step in showcasing how easy cooking on-site can be was through a free cooking demonstration and tasting at Williams-Sonoma in Upper Montclair. Chef Williams showcased Vital Dining’s signature coconut curry cauliflower with kale over coconut rice – a vegan dish that speaks to the heart of Vital.
Visit the restaurant and you will most likely hear, “If it’s Ital, it’s Vital.” The Ital lifestyle plays a major role in Jamaican cuisine and is the driving force behind Chef Williams’s culinary point of view. The principle behind ital is food is that will increase life energy and levity. Food at its most natural state is essential to gaining and maintaining life’s energies. Chef Williams’s food isn’t intended to just feed just the body, but the soul, as well.
His goal at the James Beard Foundation’s Boot Camp is to share his culinary principles and to “be the voice for the people’s best interest.” And he’s shared one of his signature dishes with Best of NJ, below.
1 head of cauliflower, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 onion, sliced
1 bunch kale, chopped
2 Tbs vegetable oil
1/3 cup vegetable stock
1 cup jasmine rice
1 can coconut milk
1 can coconut milk
3 Tbs curry powder
pinch of salt
- Prepare the curry sauce by mixing curry, salt, and coconut milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until fragrant and slightly reduced. Set aside.
- Cook rice according to package instructions but substitute coconut milk for water. Set aside.
- Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
- Heat oil in an oven-proof sauté pan over high heat. Add cauliflower and season with salt. Allow to sear and brown in places. Place pan with cauliflower in oven to finish cooking, about 10 minutes.
- In another sauté pan, heat vegetable stock over medium-high heat. Add in sliced onion and a salt to taste. As onion becomes soft (about 5 minutes), add in kale and cook until just wilted, about 2-3 more minutes.
- Remove cauliflower from the oven and pour curry sauce over. Place on medium heat just to warm the sauce through.
- Use large bowls to serve a scoop of rice, topped with curried cauliflower and sautéed onions & kale.