“Big things in little Rhody.”
That’s the phrase that ACF Rhode Island Chapter (ACFRI) President Ray McCue, M.Ed., CEC, AAC, CHE, says people use to describe Rhode Island — and his chapter.
“We’re a medium-size chapter, but we’ve always been very active throughout the years,” says Chef McCue, who is currently in his second term as chapter president, was ACF’s 2015 National Educator of the Year and works as an associate professor at the College of Food Innovation & Technology at Johnson & Wales University. “All organizations have taken a hit during the pandemic, but in years past, we’ve hosted a number of ACF and other industry conferences with upwards of 500 to 600 attendees. We’re also fortunate to have some great vendors that support us.”
ACFRI’s roots date back to 1969, when a small group of professional chefs and culinary educators from the nearby, highly-respected Johnson & Wales University founded the Rhode Island Professional Chefs Association. In 1974, the group joined the ACF to become ACFRI. The chapter is a bit unique compared to others throughout the country in that it brings in chefs and students from the entire state because of Rhode Island’s small size.
The current membership of between 100 and 150 members stems from combining the Newport and Providence chapters many years ago to form a single chapter, “seeing as you can get across the state in 40 minutes,” Chef McCue says. “We are small, but such a close-knit community that’s very committed to the culinary industry. Having a premier culinary institution like Johnson & Wales right in our backyard also helps.”
Providence has been the site of both national and regional ACF events. In 1982, the Rhode Island chapter hosted the ACF National Convention, and later hosted Northeast Regional conferences in 1995, 2004 and 2014.
Philanthropy has been the key driver of ACFRI’s planning over the years. Even amid an ongoing pandemic, the chapter managed to pull off a holiday party and impromptu fundraiser in December 2021 that raised $850 for a local food bank.
“It was the first time in two years that so many people got to see each other again face to face,” Chef McCue says. “At the holiday party, we traditionally do a ‘Yankee Swap,’ where we put gifts on the table, call out numbers and people can pick up gifts and swap with others. This year, though, we felt so blessed just to be together that we wanted to pay more attention to those less fortunate, so we just literally passed around a chef’s toque in case anyone had a few dollars they wanted to contribute. Literally at the ‘tip of the hat,’ we raised $550 in cash and as a chapter threw in another $300. We donated the money to the Rhode Island Food Bank, where we have volunteered in the past.”
The food bank supplies to more than 40 pantries in the state and has an on-site culinary and workforce training center where ACFRI chapter members have volunteered training.
There have been other fundraising events in years past, including an annual scholarship barbecue named after founding member/Chef Gino Corelli at which chapter members raise funds (upwards of $15,000 in years past) for scholarships for local high school and college students. “We also support our local Skills USA and ProStart students and have paid for them to get to the national competition.”
In October, ACFRI teamed up with its sister chapter, the Epicurean Club of Boston, for a fundraiser at Wachusett Mountain that ended up bringing in $10,000 for culinary scholarships. The groups split the fund down the middle.
Chapter members volunteer in other ways, as well, including preparing meals for families staying at the local Ronald McDonald House. ACFRI Chef Ken Watt, CEC, of Hoff’s Bakery, provided the October and December’s chef dinners. Many chapter chefs also volunteer regularly with One Less Worry to cook, package up and feed healthy meals to local homeless people.
Education is also part of ACFRI’s mission.
In September last year, the chapter welcomed back members for the first in-person meeting in more than 18 months. Todd Snopkowski, CEO of Snapchef, discussed what the company does to help operations with labor shortages and culinary training.
At the October meeting, Scott Nicchia of Ocean State Provisions shared tips for dealing with ongoing supply chain issues and also presented a demonstration using Boar’s Head products.
The November meeting covering bacon pairings was hosted by Jones Dairy Farm and Chef Santos Nieves, a hospitality instructor at Davies Career-Tech High School, who brought many of his students to attend.
In January, ACFRI teamed up with the Epicurean Club of Boston to host an educational meeting at KeyImpact Sales & Systems, Inc., in Franklin, Massachusetts, where Chef Scott Guerin, CEC, research and development chef at Modernist Pantry, showcased advanced techniques for working with plant-based meats and other cutting-edge ingredients.
The past two years have challenged many ACF chapter presidents and board members to stay connected with their members.
Chef McCue has tried to do his best — sending out a regular newsletter always packed with words of support, contact information, resources, chapter news and happenings and even local goings-on. He stays active on the chapter’s Facebook page and keeps the chapter website (acfri.org) updated. And he’s never shied away from simply picking up the phone and calling peers.
In his most recent newsletter, Chef McCue pointed to his chapter and all ACF members as those who can help enrich the next generation of chefs and help connect them with employers who are now hiring again. “Through creativity, understanding of employee needs, and a little generosity, we can create new frameworks that lead to both loyalty and gratitude from the culinary staff — two sentiments that are often hard to come by, but once earned, lead to long-term security for all,” he wrote, ending with, “I’m always a click away at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of the National Culinary Review.