When the recent NACUFS Culinary challenge ended, one chef was left standing. His name: Anthony Jung of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Dining Services.
Jung is a rising star in UMass's award-winning dining program (including the 2008 FM Best Concepts Award for Best of Show — see p. 44), and not just for his culinary talents. As chef in the department's showcase Berkshire Dining Commons residential dining hall, he is responsible not just for the menu and production operations but administrative tasks like ordering, training and employee relations.
It is quite a position for someone only 32 years old who never went to culinary school. But Jung is a natural talent who was fortunate enough to land in a place and time when his innate talents could best be cultivated.
He joined UMass dining seven years ago, just when the program was beginning its ascent into the first ranks of college dining operations under director Kenneth Toong. Starting at the bottom, he learned and worked his way up, soaking in the advice and instruction of the veteran chefs he worked with until he was able to stand on his own.
How did you start in this business?
When I was 10 my parents bought an Italian restaurant and I had to work there growing up. Because they didn't speak English very well — they had emigrated from Korea when I was one — I took on increased responsibilities fairly quickly. By the time I was a high school freshman, I was doing all the ordering, for example.
Why would Korean immigrants buy an Italian restaurant, and did they know anything about Italian cuisine?
Very little, actually, but it was an opportunity to own a business. The restaurant was actually well established, so they only had to maintain what it was already doing.
…but you didn't stay in foodservice…
No, when I went to college — at UMass-Amherst, by the way — I majored in political science. However, I left with a semester and a half to go becasue I realized I didn't want to go into politics. I had an uncle who had a restaurant and also worked at UMass, where they encouraged me to get a job here while I decided what to do.
You really learned this business from the ground up…
There is a great value to knowing how the “gruntwork” is done because it gives you a better perspective when you're in charge. As someone who is now responsible for all the different aspects of a kitchen and dining hall operation, it really helps to know what goes into the basic prepwork or even the pot scrubbing.
How did you get involved in chef competitions?
My first experience was as part of a team at an ACF sanctioned competition following a Taste of UMass event. We didn't do very well that year but it was a great learning experience because it gave me a chance to see what you have to do to be competitive in these events.
Chef competitions require not just great skill but imagination. How do you come up with your recipes?
I look at classical flavors and dishes and see what I can do to make them a little different without changing what makes them great in the first place. Or I look for classical flavors that pair well.
So basically you're a traditionalist…
Classic dishes have stood the test of time and are enjoyed by every generation. What tastes good tastes good.
You also strike me as pretty competitive, being a golfer as well as a chef…
I don't know if it's being competitive so much as liking to learn to do things that are not easy. I like golf because it is a difficult sport to be good at. That's probably also why I like fly fishing. There are a lot easier ways to fish than casting flies, but there is also great satisfaction in learning how to do it well.
What are some of the recent food trends that you're incorporating into the dining program at UMass?
We've made a big push to serve smaller portions without sacrificing flavor. In fact, smaller portions emphasize flavor because you don't have the sheer volume to make up for any lack of flavor. It's part of a commitment the department has made to reduce waste both as a way to deal with rising food prices and as something that is environmentally the right thing to do. In terms of reducing our “carbon footprint,” we've also increased the amount of food we buy locally — about a fifth of our fresh produce is now sourced locally — and we compost all our waste.
How have the students reacted to the reduced portions?
We haven't had any serious negative backlash. Of course, some reductions are often not very noticable, such as substituting a four-ounce filet for a five-ounce one, so we rarely get a comment. On some other items, such as baby back ribs, where we've limited the amount they can get at one time to a couple of bones, we explain that they are free to come back up if they want more. Most students are very accepting of this.
Favorite Movie: The Cider House Rules
Hobbies Other Than Cooking: golf, fly fishing
Favorite dish: Roasted Chicken With all the Fixin's, Especially Classic Mashed Potatoes
Most Memorable Restaurant Experience: A Lamb and Beef Stew one cold January evening in Paris with his sister (who lives there) at the Alsace Restaurant off the Champs-Élysées.