Rave On, Ülfet!

10661668_10152797799164138_4351733427046094454_oWavelengths are funny things. Weird squiggly lines that are running around us at all times that we never see, coursing through our bodies, bouncing off of everything around us, redirecting their energies. We are amongst them at every second of our lives but rarely give them a second thought.

I think they are fascinating because I love sound. Music, specifically. I love when sounds and notes come together, matching harmonies…these are all frequencies of those squiggly lines, vibrating through the air around us in different shapes and resounding against a membrane focused on interpreting them and sending them off into the inner workings of the brain…

Wait. I’m nerding out here. This isn’t what I’m trying to say…

Have you ever felt a sort of comfort with another person that defies explanation? I don’t mean love here specifically, but a comfort where everything seems to fall into place: the pace and tone of conversations, the relaxed movements, the syncopation of your steps, perhaps. Those moments where experiences start to elevate moods simultaneously and everything seems to swell and crescendo in some cosmic synchronization. It’s a great feeling, a really unique moment in the human experience. Making a connection with someone, a kindred spirit, is very much like falling into sync with a wavelength. I think I’ve heard a cliché about it somewhere…

The first time I met Ülfet Özyabasligil Ralph was at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. She had just returned from Istanbul. I had been on vacation there several weeks prior to our meeting, so we had a lot to talk about right from the get-go. I immediately felt comfortable with her. When we spoke I knew that she had an incredible passion for knowledge and food and as we seemed to talk at increasingly louder volumes about flavors and cuisines over the sounds of the music in the kitchen, I realized she had a deep and dedicated appreciation for the sounds of techno. It was constantly on and at rave-level volume in the kitchen. We were instant friends.DSC_7127

As our friendship continued, Ülfet became a mentor to me. The more we spoke and worked together in the kitchen at the CVI, the more I felt comfortable exposing my weak points as a chef, and without judgement or ridicule, she was quick to step in and correct my movements or offer an idea, forcing me gently to change my perspective and tighten up my techniques. Always with a smile and a hint of mischief, and to the ever-present pulsing thumps of techno, she started to build up my skills and my confidence in the kitchen one day at a time. Our wavelengths had come together, and we were one fluid squiggle, sounding the same note.

Fast forward a few months and the same wavelengths were resonating, only at a faster pace. I learned her methods in the kitchen and tried to be standing by with an ingredient or a utensil before she knew she needed it. This is the chef equivalent of finishing someone else’s sentence. I mimicked her movements, her style, her techniques. Her mentorship continued and my confidence grew. We learned a lot about each other over simmering pots of stock, flying feathers of plucked geese, soft breathing mounds of unshaped bread, and strong cups of hot coffee in the mornings. We became a team, alongside our chef, Jamie Simpson.

But, and you can enter whatever cliche you’d like here, things don’t always last forever. Ülfet is leaving the CVI to take the message of the Institute out and into the world. The CVI has truly been a place that she loves dearly, and she glows with pride when she talks about her experiences here.

“When I got here I had a goal to learn,” she says, “but everything totally exceeded my expectations. I got to work with all of the great chefs, and work for the ROOTS conference, and just being part of that, it’s like a fairy tale. It’s like every cooks dream.”

“I admit that I am very young in the culinary industry. It has only been 5 years since I finished cooking school. But literally in this one year here, I have learned what people would spend 20 years of their lifetime trying to learn. I compressed all of that into one year and I am  very fortunate in that sense.”

Ulfet started her work at the CVI when Executive Chef Jamie Simpson called his old schoolmate, Ülfet, to ask if she could come help with the growing workload that he had taken on alone.

“I am very honored to be the person that he called for help, and I am very grateful and humbled by the experience.”

Since her time at the CVI, Ülfet has helped spearhead and promote several projects with chefs and interns, taking the most pride in the Bee Sustainable project and helping raise her beloved Mangalitsa pigs. Looking to the future, she can see many more projects connected to the kitchen.

“My dream for this place would be for this kitchen to be the best Research and Development kitchen in the world, like NOMA or Nordic Lab,” she beams, talking about the potential of the CVI, “I mean, this is the Culinary Vegetable Institute. I think we need to combine ourselves with that world. Cookbook writers, they can come here and test their recipes and take pictures. This is a perfect place for that. We need to continue to bring chefs here to see the CVI and to taste products from Chef’s Garden.”

She adds, “This is a place for chefs, like a monastery for chefs, and the kitchen is heaven. I see chefs coming in every week and there is food, of course, but there is also laughter and joy and intelligent conversation about food. Thats what this place should be. Thats what I would like to see.”

Ülfet will be back for the ROOTS conference this fall and will be doing some work off-site for The CVI, but before she leaves, she has planned a Mediterranean themed Earth-to-Table Dinner with her Executive Chef, Jamie Simpson. The dinner, she explains, is an homage to her home in Istanbul, Turkey.

“The menu reminds me of Spring and the sun, like the sun rising over the Aegean Sea or the Bosphorus River. Spring is always a celebration in Turkey.  Everybody is outside because they are done with winter. They go get some fresh fish, all the farmers markets are busy, and everybody gets together outdoors. Its a celebration of sun and getting together.”

Getting together… I think this is a good  place to go back to the wavelengths. It seems that many of us at The Culinary Vegetable Institute and The Chef’s Garden have at some point fallen in line with the wavelength that Ülfet emits. She has a way of getting everyone together as a leader, a teacher, and a friend.  It is near impossible to escape her enthusiasm and her love for the farm and the Institute. As she moves on from here, I am sure that wave will continue to be felt by everyone. You know,  it takes a wavelength of light 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, but it seems to only take an instant for Ülfet’s wave to pick you up and take you along for the ride.

IMG_9626-2You can purchase tickets to Ülfet and Jamie’s Earth to Table dinner by calling 419.499.7500 or visiting http://www.culinaryvegetableinstitute.com




We like to think of the CVI FoodLab as a think-tank of ideas. Some of those ideas are good, some are not so good, some are just really weird. But we are always thinking, testing, experimenting, and always willing to work with the results.

For the last few months we have been focused on how we can utilize our natural resources around the Institute to come up with something unique and delicious. So, armed with a hand drill, spikes, buckets, butcher’s twine, and a hammer we set out to start tapping the Black Walnut Trees scattered around the woods on our grounds in search of sap.DSC_8450

According to the Carry Institute of Natural Science, all trees produce stockpiles of sugar during their growing season to be used in Spring to regrow their leaves. Some of those sugars are stored in the tree’s trunk in what are called rays.

If you look at the stump of a tree, you will see the unmistakable multicolored rings. Perpendicular to the rings, the rays, or sugar cells, run from the center of the tree to the bark. These rays consist of living cells that hold sugars that trees use for building new cells or for repairing damage from a woodpecker or other pest. These rays are also the source of the sugar for making syrup.

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The cell configuration in sugar maples is just right to allow sap to flow in the Spring. However, not all species of trees are so easy to give up the goods. For a sugar maple, the ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1, which by way of quick math means that it would take 10 gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup! Now take a Birch tree, for example, and the ratio climbs to 80:1! Our Black Walnut trees fall in at about 67:1.DSC_8473

Once the tree is tapped, physics and nature are what drain the sap from the tree. Nights with temps below freezing followed by days with temperatures in the 40s and 50s are what make the sap flow. The freeze-thaw cycle causes changes in atmospheric pressure, which forces the sap to move. At night, when the temperature cools, gasses dissolve into the sap fluid, causing a decrease in pressure in those cells. The fluid in the wood freezes, compressing the gases in ice. As the temperature increases the next day, the ice melts, the sap beings to warm up, and the gases expand, forcing the sap to run out of the tree and into the collecting bucket. If the temperatures remain below freezing during the day or well above freezing at night, those pressure differences will not occur and the sap will not flow. As you can see, there is obviously a window that needs to be met for maximum sap retrieval. We may have missed it by a few weeks this year, but we will know for next year exactly when to get started. Even though we got into the trees a bit late, we are still collecting about 6 quarts a day! The sap is thin and watery and tastes sweet with a hint of walnut skin in the finish.

photo (2)Once the sap is collected it is boiled down. This is where chemistry is important. As the sap boils, pure water evaporates and the sucrose concentrates. This produces a lot of steam. During the boiling foam will rise to the surface every few minutes and must be skimmed off. This foam is the product of a chemical reaction that occurs as the sap heats, it’s an impurity that is harmless but doesn’t taste so great. It is called niter, and will make your finished product gritty and unpleasant. It is mostly made of potassium, calcium, silica, magnesium, sodium, and other minerals found in sap. The proper temperature should be about 219 degrees F and 66 brix on a refractometer. 

Once the skimming and boiling is done, usually after about three hours, you are left with a rich brown and delicious syrup, somewhere in color between honey and maple syrup, with a slightly nutty flavor and a natural sweetness.

DSC_8749_2Overall we collected five gallons of sap from the walnut trees around the CVI, and cooked it over open coals to boil the sap down. What we were left with was slightly more than a pint of incredible walnut syrup! The syrup is dark in color, almost like a thin molasses. The flavor is sweet and nutty with hints of smoke from the fire we built to boil it down.

Even thought we got a late start in tapping the trees, this project was an enormous success for us. This syrup is completely unique and has left us wondering what other trees we need to tap next season. Rest assured you will see this luxuriously nutty treat on dishes at the CVI this spring, summer, fall!


Clear Walnut Sap. Walnut Cracker. Walnut Powder. Nocino Gelee. Thyme. Walnut Syrup


—Ülfet Özyabasligil Ralph

                         April 2015