Shelton from the Storm
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Long out of the limelight, chef Craig Shelton marshalls his talent and intellect in a think tank focused on the precarious future of food.
In the wee hours of a frozen Monday, seven years ago next month, a water pipe burst at the four-star Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station. The basement flooded, knocking out heat and electricity and casting its celebrated owner, Craig Shelton—the first New Jersey chef to win a James Beard Award (2000)—into a sea of financial woes that culminated in losing the property through foreclosure.
Since then, Shelton has seemed to drift, surfacing in various promising, if short-lived, projects. He created a line of brilliantly complex dessert-in-a-bite chocolates and another of site-specific coffees with names like Aviation Blend and Yachtsman’s Blend. He developed a TV series melding his passions for sailing and food; and spent an ill-fated season as executive chef of a luxury Texas resort. The one constant has been consulting, notably for Constantine Katsifis, whose properties include the Skylark and Americana diners.
Last March, without fanfare, Shelton launched a new venture, the Princeton Center for Food Studies, with veteran food journalist and New York Times New Jersey restaurant reviewer Karla Cook. Funded by Katsifis and occupying a third-floor, one-room office on Nassau Street, the two-person think tank is not part of the university, but its mission is similarly educational, also environmental—and ultimately political.
“We want to influence public opinion to alter policy to heal America’s food supply,” Shelton told me in November as he and Cook were wrapping up the first PCFS project, a series of dinners, called Flavor Labs, for Princeton University freshmen.
As he, Cook and a helper prepared the meal in the kitchen of professor Harriet Flower’s home, Shelton fired off critiques of the American diet (“Our bodies were not intended to consume that much sugar”), corn-fed beef (“The Number One thing we could do to reduce healthcare costs is put all cattle back on pasture”) and seemingly agriculture itself (“The plow is the worst thing man ever invented—worse than the A-bomb”). For a couple hours, I did little more than ask questions and scribble notes.
This was the 13th of 14 small-group dinners Flower, the master of the university’s Mathey College, was hosting to introduce Mathey’s 200 freshmen to each other and to college staff. The buffet dinners are a first-semester tradition. What was new was Shelton and Cook. Their Jersey-themed menu was part of their overall goal of “communicating through food,” in Shelton’s words. Donning his chef’s jacket, he introduced the newcomers to “a sense of place on the plate—the healthy, incredibly delicious produce, cheese, meat and seafood right here in New Jersey.”
Introducing the menu dish-by-dish, Shelton drew a laugh with a comment on the stir-fried Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and thyme: “Stir-frying doesn’t give it that, you know, bad flavor.”
Before the first dinner in September, Shelton and Cook had wondered what college students eat these days. “We worried,” Shelton said, “if we should bring chicken nuggets.”
Not to worry. “A lot of them are picky eaters at this age,” admitted Flower, who teaches classics, “but we haven’t had a lot of leftovers.”
Little wonder. The students piled their plates with food from nine diverse platters, among them Moroccan chicken with sautéed onions and lemon; monkfish with nicoise salsa; couscous with sausage, almonds and parsley; warm kale and Swiss chard salad with bacon, pomegranate and feta; and several Jersey cheeses. For dessert there were individual sweet potato pies with maple whipped cream.
After the students helped themselves, Shelton, Cook and I filled our plates and sat down to eat in the kitchen. “These are children entering adulthood,” Shelton said, nodding toward the dining room. “How can you say you’ve prepared them unless you educate them about public policy issues like health, water, and food. We’ve spent so much time yabbering about secondary issues. We have a tendency in America to treat symptoms rather than root causes, and we’re running out of time.”
Just warming up, he continued, “We want food to be as welcoming as it can be. Not intimidating. The effort should be to keep food true to itself–no synthetics, no chemical engineering, as little manipulation as possible, and see what they think of it.”
As they finished their meals, several students popped in. “Thank you so much,” said a tall young man, first name Grant. “That was fantastic!” Indeed it was.
Shaking one student’s hand, Shelton said, “We believe you will have the ear of the administration. However you voice it, in a letter, or in person, let your thoughts be known.”
A young woman came in and introduced herself as Rachel Schwartz, a freshman from Los Angeles. “I wrote my Princeton essay about food science and Alton Brown,” she told Shelton enthusiastically. Getting into a conversation with the chef, she said that in an evolutionary biology class this semester “we studied how we are not adapted to this diet we have and especially its density.”
“It comes down to two principles,” Shelton responded. “We eat too much grain, and we feed too much grain to animals, especially corn. The knee-jerk is to blame Big Agriculture. But they’re big only because agriculture and science, which includes academia, went all in to fulfill a government dicta to produce more.”
“What do you think of GMOs,” Schwartz asked.
“I’m not a Luddite,” Shelton replied, “but I think we should be eating 100 percent natural, grass-fed meat.”
Shelton and Cook first met several years ago after she reviewed the Ryland’s casual bistro. Shelton had long wanted to do a book, and they decided to collaborate on it. (Cook then recused herself from reviewing or writing about him.) They suspended the project when he left for Texas in 2010, but revived it last year under the new PCFS banner.
“It started as a cookbook, but has morphed into a statement of his principles,” Cook said, adding, “It will be targeted to the Young Adult market.” That makes sense, given the participants. Shelton, Cook and their backer, Katsifis, are parents.
“The three of us are pretty idealistic,” Cook said. “We all have gifts, expertise and children, so we’d all like to do our part to change things for the better for future generations.”
Shelton said he wants the PCFS to be “a place for people to go for primary information and analysis.”
“It’s in its infancy,” Cook cautioned. “We want to do a website and videos to return Craig to the public eye. He has so much knowledge, and he puts it in a broad context. He needs a platform that’s steady.” It’s too soon to say whether the PCFS will provide that. But as Cook said with a smile, “So far, so amazing.”