Fine dining: UVA tests its chefs

How do you distinguish a cook from a chef? Are chefs the only creative cookers, the only true artistes, or can cooking quickly and efficiently with impeccable consistency– in, say, a diner or school cafeteria– also be called an art?

And what if a cook also happens to be an innovator who considers the virtues of health, variety, and gourmet appeal as important as speed and bulk?

Merging the talents of the chef and the cook seems to be the primary goal of UVA's executive chef, Brian Murtagh. If he has his way, students will soon opt for dining hall cuisine over the offerings of the many restaurants on the Corner Meal Plan.

Sound like a stretch? It did to me at first, since my best college memories don't tend to include food (except for that semester in Rome). But even if you're not a regular diner on Grounds, take the inaugural 2004 UVA "Chef's Challenge" Murtagh orchestrated as proof of his devotion to upping the quality of UVA dining.

"Over the last several years in our commitment to improving food quality, menu selection, and customer service, a sense of competition arose between O-Hill, Newcomb, and Runk," Murtagh explains. "Our main goal [with the Chef's Challenge] was to showcase the vast culinary talent of our staff and to come up with some new menu items that could be added to our menus on a regular basis."

Inspired by the Food Network's infectious Iron Chef, this competition gave each dining hall chef and his or her team three hours to prepare and present three dishes based on regional themes (Mediterranean, Latin, Southern) to a panel of judges made up of students and administrators. Just like on TV, (4) challenge ingredients were assigned at the last possible moment, ranging from garbanzo beans, tomatillos, and black-eyed peas to barley, brown rice, and bananas.

Though many of the resulting dishes could find a home on the menu of a hot new restaurant in town, O'Hill's Latin creation was declared the official 2004 Chef's Challenge winner on March 4.

Here's what these "iron chefs" created in a crunch: "Quinoa and Roasted Corn Salad," "Spiced Chicken Chimichanga," "Tomatillo and Green Chile Rice," "Fresh Tomato Salsa, Guacamole, and Cilantro Sour Cream," and a "Cinnamon Banana Flan with Coconut and Mango." All such a dinner needs is a great cup of coffee-­ and as Dish reported previously, Fair Trade coffees have been a UVA option since last Fall.

What's Murtagh's definition of a chef? "A chef is a person who is at ease to communicate the fact that he/she loves (and lives) to cook," he tells Dish. "Artist, creator, organizer, and educator, a chef must have a complete understanding of basic cooking techniques and the ability to apply these techniques in any given situation."

Clearly Murtagh has already won this particular challenge. As they sharpen their knives in preparation for the 2005 Challenge, his growing fleet of university chefs will likely follow his ambitious lead.


Crozet Pizza changes hands but not families

 As Cocina del Sol prepares to heat Crozet up with Southwestern spice, the always-hot oven at this town's original destination restaurant, Crozet Pizza, is changing hands. But not families.

Owner and pizza-maker Bob Crum, who started this cozy, carefree, characteristic little pizzeria 27 years ago, is selling to his daughter Colleen Alexander and son-in-law Mike Alexander. The 63-year-old self-declared hippie will continue to make pies two days a week, while otherwise relaxing into retirement. Regulars can relax, too. Things should stay the same for the time being, though the new owners will likely aim to serve more hungry customers.

As it is, Crozet Pizza turns a significant number of customers away thanks to a reservations-only policy for dining in and the owner's preference for keeping things small and low-key.

 "I never wanted this to be a giant place," Crum tells Dish, "but now that I'm retiring, I'm sorry I've been such a hippie."

Brian Murtagh