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June 26, 2019

Cooking Up Accomplishments

Award-winning Executive Chef Larry Gattens opens up about KU, his bronze medal and his second year at the NACUFS Culinary Challenge.

Bronze medal and certificate won by Chef Larry

Entering his 15th year at KU this June, Executive Chef Larry Gattens was ecstatic to find out that he would be representing the university for the second year in a row at the 2019 National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) Northeast Regional Meetings. During the conference’s opening event, the Culinary Challenge gives eight university chefs a chance to demonstrate the true talents of the dedicated staff members in college kitchens.

Selections for the challenge consist of a two-stage process, the first being submission of a recipe and photo based on a predetermined primary ingredient. The judges, all of whom are chefs from the American Culinary Federation (ACF), then participate in a blind picking to select the eight finalists. The blind picking removes the names and schools of the chefs to ensure there is no bias. Luckily, Chef Larry was one of the eight finalists.

“What really excited me this year was the ingredient: a saddle of venison. Once you break down the venison and cut it into its primary portions, you’re free to make whatever dishes you’d like. There are endless possibilities. Plus, part of the challenge is picking something that the judges will want to see, which is always fun. You learn a little something every year about expectations to help you for the next challenge,” Gattens said.

The second stage of the challenge consists of the actual competition. Chef Larry made a trio of venison dishes instead of just one to use as much product as possible.

Chef Larry’s first dish was a deconstructed hors d’oeuvre that consisted of a pepper-crusted tenderloin with fig jam & Boursin cheese. The second dish was a coco-crusted loin over a micro-green salad with wild cherry vinaigrette, red currant and pistachios. The third dish was a rib chop marinated in herbs and garlic served with venison demi-glace, sweet potato and celery puree, wild mushroom ragu and truffled Brussels sprout leaves.

All contestants dishes are judged on a point scale, and the winners are selected based on high scores. Contestants who received a high enough score were awarded with medals. This year, Chef Larry came in fifth and his score was high enough to secure him a bronze medal.

“This challenge was a great accomplishment for me, not only because I scored higher than last year, but also because the judges were forthcoming in helping me prepare for next year. We received a lot of critique at the end of the competition. While you’ve got to have thick skin because they tell you what you need to do better rather than what they liked, it’s actually great because they’re giving you tips on you how to score higher next time,” Gattens said.

Chef Larry

A Passion for Cooking

When asked what sparked his passion for cooking, Chef Larry explained that he loves the culinary field because it’s enormous and allows for versatility in many areas. Becoming a chef allowed Chef Larry to go wherever he pleased and cook what he loved, held back only by his own inhibition. He also took pride in explaining how the food world has expanded in the last 20 years, which allowed for a variety of new food options and collaborations with other chefs. At KU in particular, Chef Larry notes that the old stereotype of food service in higher education doesn’t fit anymore, especially in his regular domain in South Dining Hall.

“The cafeteria style is gone, and the people on our dining team are always looking outside the box. I frequently get to meet with other schools and compete with them to recharge myself and the KU menu. I’m always thirsty for knowledge, and I love that I never stop learning in the higher education culinary industry. It always keeps me looking for more,” Gattens said.

Having spent 20 years in hotels and restaurants before coming to KU, Chef Larry notes that while he loved the fast-paced environment and freedom to create in hotel and restaurant work, he decided to join KU after going on a journey to find a kitchen setting that would respect his desire to be part of his children’s youth. Luckily for him, KU did just that and still allows him the freedom and creativity to keep doing what he loves on the dining menus.

“While I and the dining team have created an everyday core menu, we also have the flexibility and area of creativity to design new menus and create new featured dishes as we think of them. Everything we do is structured through student, faculty and staff feedback, so they have occasionally helped guide us in our freedom to design what we like over the years,” Gattens said.

Of all the interesting, creative dishes that the KU dining team has come up with over the years, Chef Larry’s personal favorite dish to make is still good ole chicken parmesan.

“It can be done so many different ways. If you take the time to do it right, you can give it an edge, or you can just thaw out a chicken patty and slap sauce and cheese on it. It’s simple but has depth to it.”

Chef Larry has found that butter chicken is a student favorite. He also commented on recent student dining trends, with one of the biggest recent crazes being sushi and the most popular dining station being the made-to-order pasta. Chef Larry takes pride in knowing that students line up 15 minutes before the dining stations open for food, and it is part of what’s kept him here at KU.

Higher education gives me so many opportunities to work with and learn from great people, both from a culinary perspective and in general. KU is flexible, always improving its dining program and looking to extend its possibilities. It’s great to contribute to that firsthand. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else,” Gattens said.

By Smanatha Koller M'20, Communications Graduate Assistant

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