Cooking Up a Sustainable Storm

By Leah Aulisio-Sharpe ’22, February 12, 2020
The first-ever Ugly Food Challenge highlights creative ways to make delicious food from overlooked produce.

If you stumbled upon Ithaca College chef Ryan Richards in Emerson Suites on Tuesday, February 4, you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d wandered from the Ithaca College campus to a mystical laboratory from another time.

Surrounded by liquid-filled beakers and plasma globes, Richards prepared a delicious gluten-free, vegan sweet potato cake, using produce that normally gets thrown away in grocery stores without a thought.

Chef Ryan Richards working

Ithaca College chef Ryan Richards was cooking up a storm at his station.

Richards’ dish wasn’t made with bad ingredients, of course, just misfit or “ugly'' produce that, while perfectly safe to eat, is often ignored by consumers. It was all part of the college’s first-ever “Ugly Food Challenge.” Chefs from Ithaca College, Cornell University, and Maines Paper and Food Service Inc. competed to make the top plant-based dish, complete with an edible plate.

“Sustainability is the whole reason we are doing this,” Richards said. “To bring light to what food can be and to change the game up.”

The emphasis on sustainability is a component of the college’s strategic plan. A second tenet — the importance of partnerships — was also front and center. The event was put on by Jessica Valicenti ’19, with the help of the college’s Center for Civic Engagement, Offices of Energy Management and Sustainability, and Dining Services.

As an Americorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) member, Valicenti works on campus to address food insecurity at Ithaca College and within the Ithaca community.

Maines Corporate Executive Chef Jonathon Merrick won the challenge, taking home the coveted Golden Jackfruit. Merrick created a beet tartare, playing off the traditional steakhouse beef tartare. Ithaca College chef Jack Applegarth came in a close second.

“Sustainability is the whole reason we are doing this. To bring light to what food can be and to change the game up.”

Ithaca College chef Ryan Richards

“It’s always good to be a part of this school and the community,” said Merrick. “With our partnership between Maines and Ithaca College, we always jump at the opportunity to be involved, especially for a good cause."

The event was also an example of IC’s goal of serving a public good. Local sustainable food organizations and campus partners The Pantry, Friendship Donations Network, Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, and Regional Access were on hand to provide information on their missions, and encourage students to get involved.

“This was a perfect event to highlight some of those community organizations, and we are so happy they could join us and share their stories,” said Valicenti.

Video from the day’s event can be seen below.