SIOUX CITY | In a few weeks, Casey Benton and his crew will be making a truly memorable Christmas meal for students at Morningside College.
"Many of our students are from different parts of the country or, even, from different parts of the world," he explained. "Whether they're able to go home for the holidays, we want to share the holiday spirit with the students."
Since Benton is the general manger for Sodexo, the food service provider for Morningside, that "holiday spirit" will mean a feast of epic proportions.
"Yeah, we go all out for Christmas," he said, inside a large kitchen at the college's Olsen Student Center. "It's our way of showing off a bit."
An executive chef with more than 30 years of experience, Benton has held positions at country clubs across the country. Since coming to Morningside nine years ago, he's responsible for food service inside of the Wikert Dining Hall as well as for the college's Mustang Grill and Spoonholder Cafe.
Increasingly, the Rockford, Illinois, native is turning his attention to catering events, both on and off campus.
"I think it is important to be a part of the community," Benton said. "Catering for special events allow to be more active and more visible."
UNDERSTANDING THE THREE 'F's OF FOOD
Such endeavors will allow him to follow the three rules of food.
"I always say keep things fresh, keep things flavorful and keep things funky," Benton said with a smile.
He achieves this by making cuisine that has a boldness that balance out with other flavors.
"We're always looking for meals that have complex flavors," Benton explained. "But in order to achieve that, the flavors must have a contrast."
In other word, a spicy dish can benefit from a sweet element. Something meaty might require a note of acidity to change up the flavor profile.
THE YIN AND YANG OF FINE DINING
Benton puts his theories to the test by creating a fruity and flavorful mango and black bean salsa, pairing it with tortilla chip that have been dusted with ancho chili powder.
"The salsa has no real heat to it," he explained. "The heat comes from the chip. That way, it has a complex flavor."
Benton continued with a plate of thyme and Dijon mustard-crusted lollipop lamb chops.
"The mustard crust give the earthy flavor of the lamb chop a nice tang," he said. "Adding a rich veal sauce completes the meal."
Benton then paired the lamb chop with truffle duchess potatoes.
"The truffles give the potatoes a saltiness that works well with the meaty lamb chop," he said.
So, there's a real science component when it comes to food, right?
"I think so," Benton said. "It's all about knowing the flavor components of your food."
THE SECRET LIFE OF A CHEF
A cook at home as well as one at work, Benton admitted he hasn't prepared a Thanksgiving meal for his family in years.
"We always celebrate Thanksgiving at the home of my wife's parents," he explained. "I get off easy because they make the turkey. the only thing I have to bring is the gravy and deviled eggs."
Christmas dinner, on the other hand, is a big production at the Benton household.
"Our meal can consists of anything from prime rib to crab cakes to lobster tails," he said. "It may not be the most conventional of holiday meals but it tastes really good."
Which is actually all that matters to Benton.