Acclaimed chef Joanne Weir returns to her roots to share her love for food with the UMass community

The chef made a guest appearance at Worcester DC on Friday night

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(Collegian file photo)

By Lily Robinson, Collegian Correspondent

Joanne Weir, a chef, teacher, author, TV host and University of Massachusetts alumna made a guest appearance at the Worcester Dining Commons on Friday night where she shared her experiences with cooking and teaching the craft of various international cuisines.

As she prepared a Mediterranean buffet and led a hands-on pasta making demonstration, Weir shared stories of her passion for food. As a child growing up in Northampton, her mother was always in the kitchen. Her mother, grandfather and great grandmother were all professional cooks. It was while sharing meals with her family that Weir said she, “really learned the love of food.” It wasn’t until after college, however, that she found her own place behind the counter.

As an undergraduate at UMass, Weir studied fine arts and teaching. After graduating, she began teaching art in Boston. That was where she was introduced to new kinds of international cuisine, started practicing cooking and began to wonder if art was what she truly wanted to do.

After some contemplation, Weir decided to go to France where she spent a year studying cooking and earned a Master Chef Diploma. When she came back, her career was on a new trajectory.

“I decided what I wanted to do was, yes, be a chef, but I wanted to teach cooking. So I took what I learned at UMass in terms of teaching, but I applied it to cooking,” Weir said.

Since then, her career has taken off. Weir has authored multiple cookbooks, opened a restaurant, is host of her own cooking show and has taught internationally. She also developed the concept of the Mediterranean cafe, Tavola, located in UMass’ Blue Wall and acts as a consultant.

Despite her more visible accomplishments, Weir is proud of UMass and her contribution through Tavola. “I care that for the last four years we’ve gotten the best food of any college in the United States,” she said and noted that her recent stay here has been a, “really amazing, amazing three days.”

Alexander Ong, director of culinary excellence at UMass and a longtime friend of Weir, described her return as her having come full circle.

“She’s gone out there, conquered the world, you know, worked with a lot of amazing chefs and she’s very successful,” Ong said.

Ong added that the University invited her both because of her history as an alumna and local but also because of what she can teach the school’s current community.

“She’s very experienced unlike a lot of TV chefs who look good in front of a camera but have no real-world cooking experience. Joanne is highly respected in the food industry,” Ong said. “She is legit, for lack of a better term.”

Caleb Pham, head cook at Hampshire Dining Commons, and Adam Aust, head cook at Berkshire Dining Commons both worked under Weir during her stay at UMass and both agreed that it was an experience they valued.

“She is really energetic, really enthusiastic, and she’s…like a teacher to me and to everybody else [here],” Pham said.

Aust was impressed with the breadth of her knowledge and the attention she gives everything and everyone around her, saying, “she [Weir] has got like a mentor mentality…if you have a question, she’ll stick with you until you’re well aware of…a concept.” He added that in comparison to other guest chefs he has worked with, Weir is “wildly more attentive and…very vocal and passionate about everything that she does.”

UMass students who participated in Weir’s recipe demo made garganelli pasta with tomato ragu and a basil chiffonade. They learned to make the pasta from scratch, mixing, rolling and shaping it before garnishing with their own tomato sauce and herbs.

Kanon Kobata and Hung Pham, both sophomores studying food science, were enamored by the experience. “We got to learn the whole process,” said Pham, adding that he liked the way the event seemed to be, “building a community.”

“I just genuinely love cooking,” Kobata said. “I’ve never made garganelli before so that was a good experience.”

The two lined up as the finishing touches were put on the dishes, ready to taste their hard work. “So fresh,” said Pham after a bite, “very homemade.”

Lily Robinson can be reached at [email protected]