Chef Abby McAllister
Chef Abby McAllister- Local Resource Specialist at Schenck Foods
Abby is the Natural Food and Farm to Table Specialist assisting in Schenck Foods transition to showcasing local food resources available to restaurants and the consumer here in the Blue Ridge.
“My goal is to educate both the locals and our consumers to the world of food here in the Blue Ridge Shenandoah Valley.”
Your favorite ingredient: Zest, any variety really. I enjoy the freshness it brings to both sweet and savory dishes.
Favorite dish to cook at home: If I’m cooking for myself, I like a steak. Usually I’ll splurge on a nice big cut from a local farm, and cook it to medium-rare in my cast iron skillet. I prefer either crispy roasted brussel sprouts or fingerling potatoes on the side… and a glass of Irish whiskey, of course.
Most essential kitchen item: I love my cast iron collection. I was fortunate enough to work at Le Creuset for a short while. So, I stocked up while I had the discount! Aside from that, my chef’s knife and small offset spatula are essential!
Guilty pleasure snack or dish: On the rare occasion that I visit family in Chicago, the first stop I hit after getting off of the plane or out of the car is White Castle. Yes, they have burgers in the freezer aisle anywhere now, but they’re just not the same.
Meet Chef Abby McAllister
Explain your background and how you got into the culinary scene
My first job in food was when I was 16. A coffee house/café opened close to my house, where I was a barista and cook. A typical day consisted of baking pastries (unfortunately not from scratch) and preparing café sandwiches, soups, and salads. From there, I continued to work in cafés and eventually went to culinary school to study pastry arts.
A passion for food …
Who influenced your love for food?
My grandmother, first and foremost. I remember baking all sorts of holiday cookies with her. We would spend all day in the kitchen. In hindsight, I’m not sure where she thought those cookies were going— seriously you would have thought we were cooking for an army, and most of them were the size of your palm! Though she wouldn’t consider herself much of a cook, my mother certainly shares the responsibility of introducing me to cooking.
My favorite holiday to this day is St Patrick’s Day, not only because we are a very large Irish family, but because I can remember my mom cooking dinner for everyone. Almost like a second Thanksgiving, there’s no gifts, just family time and great food.
What do you love most about food?
I love that in cooking, when you want to create something originally from another culture, you are forced to learn about it. If I want to cook something that is outside of my customs, I need to pick up a book and learn about it. I need to understand the history of those ingredients, so that I may use the correct ingredients, and the history of how it was cooked so that I might cook it correctly. It’s all done that way so you can properly pay tribute to that culture and do the dish justice. To me that’s really something unique.
Working for a food distributor …
How has Schenck Foods Co. challenged you?
I think I’ve been challenged in two different ways. First, learning this other side of the restaurant industry. Who do we buy from? Why do items cost what they do, and vary vendor to vendor? Why do restaurants and other foodservice businesses buy from us? I had been a customer before, and was always very intrigued by the way Schenck’s did business differently than all of my other vendors. Ultimately, that’s what brought me here.
Secondly, I have been working tirelessly to bridge this gap in our system; the bridge from local producers to food service establishments. Direct has always been the way, but how do we use our resources to put the money into the hands of small, family-owned farms and producers instead of the commercial farmers and big-name vendors? Honestly that’s a question that everyone in this business should be asking themselves. On the whole, it doesn’t do our economy good and it certainly doesn’t do our environment good to do business the way the food industry has been doing it.
What is your favorite thing about working at Schenck Foods?
I was accepted with open arms when I first came here, by everyone from the warehouse crew to the CEO. Everyone has done what they can to learn more about my personal mission and my background. I just love that everyone can enrich everyone else’s lives by engaging with one another, and respecting the roles we each play at the company.
What is the local movement behind buying local …
How do you feel about locally sourced, home-grown ingredients and the movement behind buying local?
I’m sure it’s clear by now that I feel pretty good about it, haha!! In short, I would say that in this region we each have a responsibility to support the abundance of agriculture we have access to. Go to the grocery store and then research your local farms and tell me you couldn’t have purchased a better product for the same price!
Yes, it may take some time for all of that research and footwork at first. But, eventually you’ll shop at the farmers’ market like a pro and spend LESS money. Partner with your neighbors, buy a full cow together, and invest in a chest freezer. Maybe that cow share also includes milk every week!
Purchase a CSA share from your local produce farmer, and share any extra items with your neighbors and family. You just don’t know until you try to live that way. I think there’s a preconceived notion that buying local is always more expensive and only well-to-do people can afford it. It’s just not true. Your products last longer, and get eaten because they’re delicious! So in turn, you cut down on food (money!) wasted, and you’re doing what’s right for your local economy and farms.
How to move forward with buying local?
A step that may be more approachable at first; support restaurants that use local ingredients. Does every ingredient have to be local? No. But if they have even one item on their menu that’s local, order it! Show them that you support that direction.
It’s easy to point fingers at your elected officials to ask what they’re doing for our nation’s farmers… but what are we doing in our own backyards?