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A gourmet makeover for Folkmoot’s food

There are certain things that are nearly exclusive to cafeterias. Mystery meat. Square pizza. Chicken rings, presumably to go on chicken fingers.

Such foods and their compatriots — tater tots, anyone? — have long been the staples of institutional eating in America.

In recent years, there have been movements to bring some healthier, or at least more recognizable, selections onto lunch lines in schools, hospitals and the like. Think Jamie Oliver crusading against chocolate milk in the UK. Or Beyonce doing the dougie in a school cafeteria for Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.

This year in Haywood County, there’s another cafeteria that’s hoping to take a few giant steps away from those stereotypes, as well.

Folkmoot USA, the international celebration of song and dance, serves 20,000 meals over about a two-week period, catering for dancers, musicians, staff members and volunteers. The devoted catering staff deliver four meals a day — that’s 52 in total if you’re counting — and this year, they’ll be taking their culinary cues from a new playbook.

“The idea is that local chefs come in and they can do something as simple as creating one dish to help train our cafeteria staff how to be flexible and creative and learn to work with what they have in the kitchen,” said Karen Babcock, the festival’s executive director.

The goal, said Babcock, is to make the meals local, nutritious, enticing and possibly even aspiring to gourmet. So, in addition to the kitchen workers, most of whom have experience in food service settings ranging from school cafeterias to more upscale eateries, she’s bringing in a couple of ringers to help them along.

Chris Hall, executive chef for the MedWest health care system, and Josh Monroe, chef and owner of The Chef’s Table in Waynesville, have signed on to assist in the effort.

It’s not that what they’ve been serving in festivals gone by was inedible. On the contrary, Babcock said in years past, Folkmoot’s performers have given the food positive reviews. But good can always be better, and not just in taste but in principle.

In recent years, festival organizers have connected with Buy Haywood, a program that supports local growers and encourages local buying. This year, Babcock estimated that about 50 percent of what is served will be fresh produce, most of it local.

That portion of the initiative started last year, when a salad bar and fresh fruit station made their way into the cafeteria. Now it’s growing to include the main courses, too.

When you’re serving meals on a large scale with little time, however, upping the nutrition and taste factors is a much greater challenge than it is on a restaurant level.

That’s where Chris Hall comes in. His role in the plan is to plan. He’s currently putting together menus that combine low cost, local ingredients, solid nutrition and great taste. It’s a challenging directive, but not a new one for Hall, who has worked at doing the same thing for cuisine that’s gotten a bad rap over the years: hospital food.

“It’s kind-of the last frontier in cooking,” said Hall. “If you can make hospital food taste good, you can make anything taste good.”

And the key isn’t spending more, it’s paying more attention to the process itself. Hall said he focuses on naturally flavorful foods and old-fashioned cooking techniques that create richer flavors with fewer additives.

That’s why Karen Babcock wanted to bring in experts like Hall and Monroe, who could help school her staff in techniques for better cooking.

“The idea sparked in my mind that we need some training, we need some folks that can teach about the science of how to make a good meal,” she said. “I thought, ‘it can’t be that hard to improve what we serve to these performers. They need nutrition, they need carbs, they need quality food to keep their engines running.’”

So while Hall will provide menu direction, Monroe is coming in to give on-the-line input for a few meals during the festival.

“It challenges how the things hold on the line,” said Monroe of the fresh food concept. That very problem is why you’re more likely to see processed food over farm-fresh offerings on buffet lines. Fresh is, by definition, a short-term state of being.

But, said Monroe, challenging is far from unattainable.

“It’s possible, you just have to know what you’re doing,” he said.

His plan is to make some trips to local markets, look at what’s available and devise some creative ways to incorporate that into Folkmoot’s mealtime offerings.

Plus, he’ll have some of his signature fruit carvings out at the fresh fruit station, which he hopes will be both appetizing and aesthetically pleasing. That’s part of the shift, too, towards better eating. As any foodie, or foodie reality show, will tell you, presentation is a key ingredient in a quality dish.

This new approach, said Babcock, isn’t meant to change the world, or the festival, overnight. It’s a staggered process that she hopes will, each year, make Folkmoot’s food better. Right now, she’s still welcoming chefs who would like to try their hand at one or two of this year’s meals.

She’s excited about the changes because they’re not just better for taste buds or waistlines, but they’re healthier for the festival’s books. Babcock said they’re saving a hefty sum by buying local, fresh food. And overall, she said, it’s about being good stewards of Folkmoot’s resources, good partners with their neighbors and good ambassadors to the performers who, for two weeks, call the brick building on Virginia Avenue their home.

“We’re trying to be socially responsible and responsible community members,” she said. “With Folkmoot being such a big consumer, we have a lot of opportunity to make a difference.”

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