Chef Tom Martoccio is an “old school” chef, but a recent assignment brought him way back – like, to medieval times.
Chef Tom partnered with Washington University professor Hayrettin Yücesoy to deliver an educational experience unlike any other offered on campus. The two collaborated to build an authentic 10thCentury menu that was indicative of life and times in the Middle East during that period. Professor Yücesoy teaches a class entitled,“Of Dishes, Taste, and Class: History of Food in the Middle East.” Much of the class is centered on lectures about the culture of the times. A highlight for the past few years has been a cooking demo conducted for the students that bring the era to life, right before their eyes (and stomachs).
“As an instructor, I try to give my students a feel of the life and cultures of premodern societies,” Professor Yücesoy said. “I try to make them aware of the universal human condition, and point out things that bring us together and separate us so that we can all collectively become better human beings. The chef helped me in this endeavor in bringing to life, so to speak, something of the past.”
As part of the class assignment, the professor had his students conduct research about meals and foods that were common during that period of history. Each student submitted a recipe they felt was representative of the era. The professor consulted with Chef Tom, and the menu was narrowed to four items. Due to dietary concerns, chef made vegan and gluten-free versions of the items, where possible. He was able to add a modern twist, using Beyond Meat to produce a vegan version of the meatball, for instance.
Preparing for the class demo was a labor of love for chef, who has cooked for dignitaries like the Queen of England, U.S. Presidents, Hollywood celebrities, rock bands, and sports and business moguls during his 30-year career as a chef. He also worked as a chef in a Persian restaurant, so many of the ingredients used in the class demo were familiar to him.
“Preparing this meal brought me back to my roots as a chef because it reminded me of the simplicity of the processes used back then. It was very personal for me as it brought me back to the times of watching my grandmother cook authentic recipes – delicious recipes – using very simple ingredients,” he said.
The students were impressed.
“I was dazzled by Chef Tom’s wide-ranging résumé, and his apparent level of accomplishment,” said senior Henry Greenstein. “I appreciated that, despite (or perhaps because of) that experience, he was eager to immerse himself to such an extent in our little old class project. Not only did he prepare such a delicious meal, he helped inform our lesson with his own independent knowledge of medieval cooking, which certainly shined through in the food. The chef’s artful preparations and full buffet made for a surprisingly glamorous experience.”
The menu for the class was simple, yet it captured the flavor profiles of the day. Students enjoyed Goat stew with mint, meatballs with coriander and sunflower seeds (as well as a vegan version using Beyond Meat); pistachio empanadas, and saffron rice.
Chef Tom worked diligently down to the last detail to present a truly authentic experience. While wine was the drink du jour back then, he substituted it for a mulled tea that included cinnamon sticks, ginger and other ingredients.
The class demo was one of the semester highlights of Professor Hayrettin Yücesoy’s class on Middle Eastern culture in the 10thCentury. This is the third year he has worked with Washington University Dining Services chefs to conduct the class. He said the cooking demo brings in many elements he has lectured about in the classroom. This included the foods that were available only to nobility and peasants, to the ways these meals were meticulously prepared – usually over open flames using just coals and hot embers.
“And you must remember, those who were chosen to cook were afforded a certain level of respect as they were preparing meals for hundreds, if not thousands of guests,” Chef Tom said.
Yücesoy agreed, adding that the types of foods that people ate was indicative of their class in life. Finely prepared, flavorful foods were reserved for upper nobility and those of status, while commoner foods were thrown together using ingredients that were wildly available at the time. Chef Tom used the example of salmon, which was not plentiful and was generally reserved as a delicacy for noblemen. Further, if a commoner was found hunting or fishing on the “king’s land” without authorization, it could mean certain execution.
“This was the first time that my WashU dining experience intersected directly with what I was learning about in a course,” said Greenstein, the senior. “I’m so glad I got the chance to participate in something like this in my last semester at the school.”
“Food was such an integral part of life back in the 10thCentury,” Yücesoy said. “Food plays a fundamental role in how humans organize themselves in societies, differentiate socially, culturally, and economically, establish values and norms for religious, cultural, and communal practices, and define identities of race, gender, and class. Food has also been one of the most vital part of many movements of political and social reform and transformation. Food has been a major question in trans-regional, international, and recently global cooperation and conflict as well.”