From NUI to NYC - Catch Up
Updated: Apr 16, 2019
Blog by Maria McNeela. Sodexo Chef at NUI Galway.
When we conjure up thoughts of visiting New York, you wouldn’t be wrongly accused of assuming that it was a small state! (Coming from a small island like Ireland! Ha). However, geography was never my strong subject at school, and I’ve since discovered the difference between New York (State) & New York-New York (City).
When I was nominated to represent the Sodexo “Taste of Ireland” in New York for the lead up to St.Patricks Day, I had indeed conjured up thoughts of shopping on Madison Avenue, watching the parade on Fifth Avenue, Eating my way through every deli in East village, and of course the obligatory selfie with the naked cowboy (mind you, it’s a bit nippy out there for him in March).
However, notions of this idealistic trip I’ve dreamt up of, was soon quashed when I finally realised that it was a WORK related trip to New York “State” (2.3 hours up-state to be precise)
To give the students and staff of the University of Albany & SUNY Oneonta an authentic cultural and culinary experience of Ireland for the lead up to Saint Patricks Day (Paddy’s Day to us mere Irish)
The Irish Connection
With boat loads of Irish emigrants making a mass exodus during the famine in 1847, the states soon became the land of opportunity! It would be strange if we were to discover that we (the Irish) had no relations in the US of A.
In FACT, as I have discovered, almost everyone I met on this trip had an Irish connection! With names like Murphy, Sweeney & McGuinness, I almost felt like I was at home!
When asked how we celebrated our Paddy’s Day, a feast of Bacon & Cabbage, green ice-cream, watching the parade in the rain, drinking ourselves silly and going home to watch Darby o Gill & the little people with one eye open came to mind. However our ex patriots (Irish-American Ex Pats) have their own unique version of St.Patricks Day and celebrate by eating Corned Beef & Cabbage. I guess the assumption that this was the national dish of Ireland had them disillusioned, although, did you know that corned beef and cabbage came about when the Irish arrived in America and found it difficult to buy cured Bacon as was the norm back home. This shortage of cured bacon had thus lead to the discovery of Corned beef. But alas, this was THEIR culture and a culture that builds communities amongst our ex patriots. Thus making them uniquely Irish-American.
Irish Local Food Producers
How could one possibly offer an authentic Irish food experience in America without providing local Irish food products? Thankfully a quick email to our local food producers in Galway, Ireland and they could not have been more forthcoming with a delicious range of locally made produce to complete the experience.
Céad Míle Fáilte (A hundred thousand welcomes)
Thankfully I’m a well-traveled woman and while the thought of heading off to the big Apple alone may scare the bejesus out of some, for me it was an opportunity to escape the mundane.
Prior to my departure I received a lovely email from Lauren Mancuso (Marketing manager) saying that she will collect me from the local airport in Albany, and true to her word there she was waving her little Irish flag so that I would notice it amongst the crowds in the baggage reclaim area. (it was so cute! Just me, my 2 big bags and no assumed crowds! and Lauren waving her little flag). This was my First Céad Míle Fáilte, my big welcome to America and the welcomes snowballed from there on for the rest of my trip.
Albany is known for its rich history, commerce, culture, architecture and institutes of higher education. It’s of no coincidence that Albany has one of the highest ranked premier public research universities in America, with over 17,000 students in enrollment.
I was immediately shocked at the sheer size of the catering operation which Sodexo ran at UAlbany. With 4 food halls, a downtown deli, a catering hospitality division, 518 market store and a retail market hall offering various food offerings from halal shack to sushi bars, kosher kitchen to sub-connection, Argo Tea, various pizza and chicken concepts to whet the appetite!
The university along with most universities in the SUNY (State University of New York) system offer their students a pre-paid meal plan which gives exceptional value for money to students. Each Dining hall offers a diverse range of menu choices which students can avail from 7am till 11pm and can eat as much as they like.
During my three day visit (work) at UAlbany, I had the privilege to work along with the most amazing team of management, chefs and staff at the university. Little did I realise that I was somewhat of a celebrity chef visiting the college. Everywhere I looked there was Irish flags, bunting, pictures of Ireland, Irish novelties and posters announcing my arrival. Of course I had to play up to my reputation and have a fun week offering an authentic experience of Irish food & culture.
The chefs had previously received Irish menus along with recipes which were to be prepared for the students in each dining hall nightly. With dishes such as bacon & cabbage, Irish stew, Fish & Chips (Irish style), Beef & Guinness pie, Baileys cheesecake and bread & butter pudding to name a few, the students were well impressed with their Irish fare and found them coming back for seconds! We even got the students to join in some fun “dress up for Paddy’s day” Instagram frame photo shots.
The adrenaline of working with such amazing chefs had me awake every morning at 5am, egging on the time on so that I could start the day with them again. There was so much to see, learn and do at this university! It opened my eyes to various opportunities that we could implement into our University in Galway, Ireland.
My three day experience had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye to the amazing team at UAlbany. I had felt like I had known these guys for years, I would lie if I said I didn’t shed a tear. Hopefully I can someday return the favour and show the same hospitality to these guys when they visit me in Ireland (Lauren, Terrilyn & Co…).
The first weekend had arrived the amazing organisers were taking me off to visit Niagara Falls (it was on my bucket list to someday visit this amazing place). Having formed a close bond with the UAlbany team, I was a little saddened to be handed over to the Oneonta team after being shown such an amazing hospitality. How could they ever top this experience? Or so I thought!
Then along came Kelly Shimkus and Pamela (wait for it…) Murphy!! Well let me tell ya, I got such a big hug from Ex Pat Pamela and immediately felt at home. We were all heading off to visit the Niagara Falls for the first time and let me tell you, what was an eight hour car trip felt like 3 hours, we laughed all the way to Niagara, until, we got to the border of course! It’s all serious business crossing over into Canada let me tell you! The border officer was quiet stern, Passports? How long are you staying? Reason for your visit? And finally…..have you got any alcohol in the car? Well poor Pamela being a good honest catholic, closed her eyes and shock her head silently in case he knew that she was lying about the 2 litres of whiskey & Bailys we had in the boot (lols & giggles).
Having arrived at the Marriot Hotel, I had to double check that I had the right room. There was a bed fit for a queen plus some, along with a Jacuzzi and fireplace in the middle of the room. Not only that but I had a bird’s eye view of the Niagara Falls from my window (WOW!!). Well I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
The days that followed were full of laughter as we visited the main attractions in the area such as the butterfly conservatory, Indoor Botanical Gardens, Niagara on the Lake and of course the Falls itself! As it was St.Patricks Day, the falls did, in true Irish fashion, turned Green!
Being true foodies, we had to make the obligatory stop to the largest Wegmans store in the United States which was located in Rochester, NY. For anyone like myself who never heard of Wegmans, it’s like a foodie mecca supermarket, including the largest cheese counter iv ever seen along with a mouth-watering self-service food court with a choice of over 100 dishes to choose from. Well worth a visit! And notable it recently won the 100 best companies to work for in America.
Located in the center of New York State, approx. 274km from New York City, you’ll find the city of Oneonta, nestled in the hills in the most northerly Appalachian region in Otsego County. The meaning of the native word “Oneonta” is city of the hills.
SUNY Oneonta is a mid-size public college rooted in scholarships across the liberal arts, Economics & Business, Education and sciences. With over 6,000 students in enrollment, it offers its students a strong foundation to pursue advanced degrees.
Oneonta felt a little more country, with its sweeping hillsides, prominent wildlife- deer & squirrels roaming free! Just like UAlbany, SUNY Oneonta also has a meal plan with a diverse food offering to their students in their dining halls.
I was particularly impressed with their amazing bakery which turned out over 200 products on a daily basis and also catered for the local community. Head baker Chris Wood Conslers' creative innovative flair had no boundaries! Having given Chris recipes for Irish breads and desserts, not only did she provide baked goods just like my mother would have made, she also smoked Irish soda bread prior to baking, which conjured up memories of my grandmother baking bread in a cast iron pot over an open turf fire.
SUNY Oneonta also has a café named seasons which is purely dedicated to supporting & selling local produce from a 50 mile radius.
Of the many courses that Oneonta teaches, it also teaches food science which is ran by Mr. Collen Engle. I was lucky to have been afforded the opportunity to work along with their chef students in cooking a selection of Irish dishes. It’s fantastic to see such amazing enthusiasm from their students.
Alas it was now time to leave and what better way to say “Slan” (Goodbye) than hosting an Irish inspired Gala dinner for the dignitaries of SUNY Oneonta. Having been asked the previous day, “if I had my speech ready for the Gala dinner? “ I shuddered at the thought until I realised the manager Jimmy Hamm was not joking! Well I was never one for long speeches – keep it short and sweet i thought! But when I began to thank all the management and staff for the amazing work and commitment, I could have gone on forever, and I did!! SUNY Oneonta holds a special place in my heart and I vow to someday return (if they’ll have me of course!) I also look forward to the management and staff coming to Ireland to visit me also someday.
The core of the business which ties both UAlbany and SUNY Oneonta together is sustainability!
Having spent time in both premises, the biggest thing I had noticed is there is zero policy of single use plastic in their dining halls. Cereals came in dispensers, drinks were obtained from machines rather than bottles, and reusable plastic crockery and glasses was used. In an era where the use of single use plastics is frowned upon, this drives a hard message to the future generation.
Fresh produce was locally sourced from sustainable suppliers, for example, meats were sourced from Purdy’s and the fish was purchased based on what the fishmonger had caught the day before. It is practices like these that support local people in local communities. All too often we find large corporations cutting costs in a bid to save money, which leads to mass production and intensive farming practices from our suppliers and thus had an impact on local communities and unsustainable food. It’s great to see Sodexo’s commitment to sustainability.
Having met such wonderful people during my trip to New York, it’s imperative that we continue our communication and form a commitment to forge alliances in a bid to share ideas. Perhaps St Patrick’s week is an ideal opportunity for us (Irish) to showcase not only our cuisine but also our local producers.
Perhaps collaborative Alumni between Ireland and the Universities of America could forge a bond between both countries. Having briefly met with the president of UAlbany, Mr Havidán Rodríguez, he had expressed his interest in visiting our the National University of Ireland, Galway someday.