Gridiron Breakfast Challenge: 9am April 25. EverBank Field.

Gridiron Breakfast Challenge - logo200

(map) EverBank Field

Saturday, April 25th

9am - 11am Free breakfast
10:15 Competition begins
10:30 Cooking demonstration
11:15 Competition ends
11:45 Winner announced

Competing teams

1. Central Hamilton Elementary
2. Hamilton County High School
3. James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory
4. Bunnell Elementary 

This coming Saturday, April 25th, the Dairy Council of Florida is teaming up with the Jacksonville Jaguars and celebrity chef Hari Pulapaka to sponsor a Gridiron Breakfast Challenge. This annual Challenge will see 4 teams from local schools pair off in a one hour cooking championship. Admission to the event is free of charge and will include a complimentary breakfast and cooking demonstration. Attendees will be able to interact and take pictures with Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, Jaguars mascot Jaxson de Ville, members of The Roar cheerleaders and MerryMoo, the mascot for the Dairy Council of Florida.

We sat down to with Chef Hari Pulapaka to learn more about the Gridiron Breakfast Challenge

1. Can you tell us about the Gridiron Breakfast Challenge?

The Gridiron Breakfast Challenge is a co-operative effort between the Dairy Council of Florida and the 3 NFL teams in the sponsor cities of Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville. The goal is to bring the excitement of cooking to young, aspiring chefs who are in schools, with dairy being featured as the centerpiece for a healthy breakfast. The events are fun competition-style challenges that ask competing teams to prepare a featured dish that uses dairy and is judged onsite during the competition.

2. What’s your role?

I’m doing two things: I’ll give a cooking demonstration to show how to prepare some easy dairy based dishes at home, and I’ll also be judging the dishes made by the kids. I’m the chef judge and I’ll be joined in the judging by quarterback Blake Bortles, a Florida dairy farmer, and a student, who is the Fuel Up To Play 60 ambassador.

Gridiron Challenge - Hari and Blake

3. What advice would you give to the kids competing?

Pay attention to the time, be methodical and be organized. Don’t try to be this great chef coming out of your school looking to suddenly launch into a TV career. Instead, they should practice the recipe they’re proposing as their signature recipe - don’t try to do something you haven’t done before - beware of the time, and have fun.

4. What will you look for during the contest?

The actual process itself really matters - attention to sanitation, organization, and attention to detail - actually executing what they’re proposing to do. Having everything their dish describes on the plate, in the way it’s stated - if something’s supposed to be roasted, it should be roasted, not boiled. Those are the technical aspects of cooking. Then it’s about the taste - if it doesn’t taste good, everything else can be great, but as a dish it’s not good enough. If I had to pick between taste and presentation, I’ll pick taste every time. If someone’s clumsy and unsanitary, but produces great tasting food, that won’t be enough. You need a balance of both sides. All things being equal, taste will be the deciding factor, but it’s not the only factor.

5. How does the competition play out?

There are four teams of four. Each will produce a single dish in an hour.

6. Do the kids know what they’ll be making?

Yes. They’ve already submitted the recipes for the dishes they’ll be making. 

7. What are the goals for the day?

We’re hoping to instill some excitement into cooking and also into Florida dairy - to raise people’s awareness of what the dairy industry is doing here locally. Young kids are very influential in the decisions their families make regarding whether to visit a fast food drive through or a mom and pop local diner. We’re trying to make things better, one generation at a time, so these young kids today will have a say in how families eat in the future.

With this specific event we hope to encourage kids to consume low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and achieve at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

8. Who’s the intended audience?

It’s an open invitation to everyone in Jacksonville and attendance is free. We’re trying to get a large audience to observe and cheer on our local talent.

9. What will you be doing for your cooking demonstration?

I haven’t decided on everything, but I’ll be making fresh ricotta onsite and using that to make a spinach and ricotta gnocchi. It’ll be light, fluffy and pretty healthy.

10. Are kids becoming more sophisticated and aware of their food options or are they mostly drawn to fast food?

Kids do have influences such as network television and globalization that expose them to more food options. However, and I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but it seems to me that as much as there’s a certain awareness and desire to do better, there’s an equal amount of the same old-same old attraction to fast food and less healthy options. I don’t want to sound fatalistic but it still seems like a wash to me - there’s a lot of awareness around gourmet food and preparing food in a thoughtful way, but that awareness is up against a lot of inertia that favors the status quo.

11. With so many food options available to them, are kids today exploratory, or are most of them still picky eaters?

It’s a mixed bag, but I’m seeing more and more adventurous palates with younger folks. It’s not overwhelming, but I’m seeing the influence of network television and the celebrity aspect of chefs is inspiring some young people to reach beyond pizza and fast food.

At the college level I’m overseeing an honors class in which the students are teaching themselves about the issues surrounding our food system. This class is something the kids are doing on their own that’s not required. Seeing that interest in learning about the wider issues is encouraging to me.

12. What advice do you give to kids who ask you about a career as a chef?

I start by asking them questions to get a sense of what it is about being a chef that attracts them to the profession. I ask about the shows they like to watch on TV, the foods they like to cook, where they like to eat out with their families, and about their favorite dishes. When I know more about them as a person I’ll know whether they’re trying to be a chef because they think it’s cool, because they’re just naturally good at it, or because they think they can make a burger better than anyone else. I want to see where they’re coming from. If I think they’re doing things for the right reasons then I’m happy to give them all sorts of real world advice. 

13. What sort of real world advice do you share?

I’d never try to scare someone out of the profession by telling them about all the hard work involved, even though there is a lot of that. I try to paint a realistic picture about what’s involved with being a chef. I may invite them to spend a day in our kitchen to see what we do. 

14. What are the right reasons for becoming a chef?

There are two types of young students who are interested in becoming chefs: those that are really reserved and find solace, peace and a way of expression through food; and those who are really gregarious and want to be a bad-ass chef who’s going to show everyone how good they can be. It’s like two ends of the spectrum. Beyond that, some people are just really thoughtful and want to do the right things to help people like using better ingredients and minimizing pesticides.

15. Why did you want to be a chef?

I’ve been an academic my whole life. At the age of 39 I had a professional mid-life crisis and decided I wanted to do something else in my life. I didn’t go from there to wanting to be a chef. I thought I’d go back to school to get another PhD. I thought I was missing the discipline of working towards something major like that. That didn’t pan out, thankfully. One afternoon an infomercial caught my attention - it was for the Cordon Bleu program in Orlando. I couldn’t give up teaching - I was still doing that full time. I was looking for something else to do, not something to do instead of teaching. The Cordon Bleu program was run in the evening, which was perfect for me. Being a chef was as far away from what I’d envisioned as I could imagine, but I also thought it could be the most exciting thing I could do - and it’s turned out to be just that. I put everything I had into it, and here I am today at the age of 49 as a full time chef and a full time professor.

16. How do you manage to fit it all in?

It’s not easy. My wife is extremely supportive - she’s a full time physician. We’re pushing each other - not intentionally, but we’re both equally busy and committed to what we do. Beyond that we’re just always going. The nature of being a chef is that when others are relaxing and celebrating, we get to work. Initially it was difficult. My wife and I were used to having an active social life and giving that up wasn’t easy. But now we’ve taken a different approach. As my wife says, we now think of every night as our own private little party that we’re hosting at our restaurant. It doesn’t take away from the fatigue - I’m always exhausted and want to sleep. That aside, the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s also been nice that a lot of positive press and accolades have come our way in the short time we’ve been around. That keeps us going in certain ways.

17. For someone starting a career as a chef so late in life, how did you get to be, not just a James Beard nominated chef, but nominated 4 times?

That’s something I pinch myself about every so often. My friend Art Smith, who was Oprah’s chef at one time, wrote to me to say that he couldn’t believe I was running this James Beard nominated restaurant in DeLand, FL. Even he was surprised by that. Now, after all these years, I’ve tasted food all around the country and tasted food from many great chefs. Through that exposure I’ve come to believe that you don’t need to be in the industry for 30 years to be a good chef. You don’t need to be in New York City or have a million dollar restaurant to be a good chef either. Being a good chef requires a few things and as long as you have genuine commitment, anyone can become a James Beard nominated chef.

18. How did you get nominated?

There’s a process, but I only discovered through an online post that I was on the list. I suspect someone came by and did a review, but I’m not entirely sure how it happened. If I worried about it too much it would get in the way of what I really want to do, which is to cook good food.

19. Can you tell us about your restaurant, Cress?

Cress (map) is a modern, global brasserie that serves a small, manageable menu - no more than one page - with a variety of dishes - small plates, large plates, sharing plates - of globally inspired and flavored dishes using as many local, sustainable and artisanal ingredients as we can get. That’s it. We don’t have a theme. We’re not a Greek restaurant. We’re not a French restaurant. We’re not an Italian restaurant. We’re none of those things, and we’re all of those things, at the same time. Our specialty is good cooking techniques using big flavor profiles. I come from India and have a huge palate. My food is not subtle - it’s bold, and big, and we use good ingredients.

There are only two of us at Cress - myself and my sous chef. Every night I’m on the line. After the Gridiron Breakfast Challenge in Jacksonville I drive back to DeLand, prep like crazy and then cook all night. My sous chef has that day off, so it’s just me in the kitchen. It’s crazy sometimes. That’s the life of a chef. 

20. Can you recommend one dish that’s worth driving from Jacksonville to DeLand for?

The quintessential dish for us, after all these years, is our simple herb-crusted fish of the day on our version of grits, served with a little bit of local citrus beurre blanc. It doesn’t sound like much and it’s something that’s probably on a million other restaurant menus around the world, but we do it really well and it’s probably been our singularly most popular dish from the day we opened. I’ve done all kinds of creative stuff, but day in and day out, what sells the most is our fish.

Cress Restaurant - Lion Fish and Shrimp special

Lion Fish and Shrimp special at Cress Restaurant

21. Two full time jobs, all your other commitments, and you still have time to write a book! Can you tell us about it?

The book is titled Dreaming In Spice. It’s written for anyone who’s interested in learning how to create flavor. I’m ultimately a teacher and am always trying to teach about how to create flavor. It’s not just a cookbook, it’s also an autobiography and memoir of sorts. I try to recall how and why food has become such a big part of my life today. I never thought it was, growing up. As I thought back it started coming to me and I could easily find an instance, almost every day of my life, where food had some role to play. Whether it’s how I felt, how I enjoyed something, how I celebrated, or whatever I did. Through that storytelling I try to encourage the audience to dig into their own lives to see how food plays a part. It is a cookbook though, so I do include some recipes. These days I’m fairly active in food advocacy so at the end I’ve got a slew of short blogs that have been published on Huffington Post - I do that to give people a sense of who I am - I’m not just a working chef but I’m also a thinking chef.

Dreaming In Spice book cover

22. Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

There’s probably two. I like braising. There’s a braised lamb recipe in the book that I really like. Lamb used to be heavily favored on our menu but once I stopped getting good local lamb I took it off the menu. Even though it was a very popular dish I just didn’t feel comfortable using the lamb I was getting on a consistent basis. Braising, in general, is a very therapeutic way of cooking for me - it celebrates lesser cuts of meat by making them palatable and enjoyable for people and I’m a big fan of using lesser cuts of meat to get flavor - it’s one pot cooking that anyone can do at home. 

Then, our crusted fish recipe is also in the book, and it’s one of my favorites.

All of our popular dishes over the past 7 years are in the book - there are no favorites.

23. Do you have a favorite Jacksonville restaurant?

I don’t get to go to Jacksonville very much, although I have a dear friend who lives there. I’ve enjoyed Orsay and Bistro Aix.

Chef Pulapaka

Chef Hari Pulapaka

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