The Fine Art of Haute Cuisine
Paintings were not the only masterpieces at the RU Arts Society reception for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ 75th anniversary exhibition in the Covington Center earlier this year.
Radford University Chef Brian Mann and his colleagues developed a menu that reflected the elegance, stature and creativity of the historic event. The table centerpieces consisted of miniature, edible white chocolate paintings on easels, and desserts were served on colorful palettes.
“I started thinking about what we could do, and the idea of using chocolate as a form of art was an idea I liked,” said Mann, an award-winning chef who came to RU in 2005. He challenged Au Bon Pain Manager Bridgett Bishop, who graduated in 2007 with a degree in art, and Chartwells Inc. Catering Manager Mary Beth Roberts to help make it happen.
“Brian came to me and said, ‘We have a job for you to do,’” Bishop said. “I was going to be creating a centerpiece of white chocolate art.” For the art opening, the three transferred replicas of the paintings from acetate paper to sheets of tempered white chocolate, then painted them with colored cocoa butter.
Bishop, who painted the colorful cow on the wall at Ben and Jerry’s in Dalton Food Court, said she never expected to fall in love with the food business and still get to paint and express that part of her life. Her career success, like that of Roberts and Mann, exemplifies how creativity on campus extends far beyond the fine arts. “It’s great,” Bishop said.
The memorable edibles for that historic event were only one of the challenges the trio faced that week. Just two days before the opening, Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes visited campus as part of the university’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Mann did some research and learned that Dawes’ favorite dish was pizza.
“I took all the individual elements of a pizza, broke them out as separate servings and made the pizza into its own form of creative edible art,” Mann said. Because Dawes has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympics, Mann created a three-color, three-course meal.
Pizza was the gold course, a chicken galantine salad was the silver and a Charlotte mango mousse was the bronze. “I like taking the classics and doing something different with them,” he said. “I like to put a modern spin on things.”
One more challenge faced Mann and his staff on that particular week in January. Homecoming orders were coming in for Chrusties — popular pizza rolls formerly served by a local restaurant, beloved by recent classes of RU students and now a popular catering item. Because Chancey’s Restaurant, which created Chrusties, has since closed, no member of Mann’s staff had ever seen one of the originals.
“We are all post-Chrusties. Anybody who was on staff when they were popular is not on the staff anymore. With a Chrustie, we had to create a feeling instead of a dish,” Mann said. Undeterred, they consulted a recipe in the university’s Centennial Cookbook and produced and served Chrusties to an appreciative crowd of alumni.
Roberts coordinates food for events, making sure each dish is prepared and presented properly and delivered on time. She is also a key player in the creative process. “The client, most of the time, sets up the room,” she said. “We have to set the ambience for the room.”
An 11-year veteran of the food service industry, Roberts is modest about her role, saying she is “just responsible to get the food from one place to another and see that things go smoothly.” Yet she is the stage manager, keeping a close watch on the tables and tuning in to what guests are saying about the food. “I’m also there to prevent any potential disasters and fix them before the crowd knows anything about it,” she said.
The catering team’s forte is transforming what could be conventional and dull institutional foods into masterpieces. Mann says the service never does the same thing twice. “That’s what makes us unique,” he said. “What we do is individually tailored to the occasion.”