Meet the Chef Who Wants to Reclaim State-Fair Foods From the Deep-Fried Abyss

He still likes a good burger, though.
He still likes a good burger, though. Photo: Kelly Barr

State and county fairs have taught Americans a lot about our food: Starbucks coffee can, in fact, be deep-fried. Twinkies are blank, sugary canvases for all sorts of culinary innovation. Glazed doughnuts might actually be improved by grilling. And, of course, bacon pairs well with absolutely everything. But state fairs weren’t always breeding grounds for unchecked gluttony and deep-fried regret; they were originally opportunities for states to showcase their fresh, natural resources, which is why the organizers of California’s State Fair recruited an additional chef, Sacramento food-truck owner and self-proclaimed “Culinerd,” Keith Breedlove to inject the fair with a focus on freshness, simplicity, and locally grown produce. It’s been less than a week since the fair kicked off, and so far the fresh, healthy dishes like watermelon feta salad, fruit and vegetable ceviche, and grilled corn have been holding their own against the fair’s bacon-wrapped, chocolate-drenched offerings. Grub got on the phone with Breedlove to see if he thinks this new health-conscious approach to fair food has legs.

How did you get involved with the California State Fair?
Well, at the state fair, they’ve got all these displays from the different counties and such, so I said one day, “Who’s talking for that beautiful farm out there?” Because we have a fully functional farm on the property, and when it’s harvested, we donate all of the products to the local food bank.

And you’ve been cooking with food grown at the fair?
Yes. One of the things I do is twice a day, I’ll go walk the farm and grab stuff. The head farmer there is like, “All right, this is what you’ve got at the farmer’s market. This is a beautiful, fresh cucumber.” And we’ll make something fun out of it. Or the tomatoes on the farm that are starting to get a little old. What can we do with tomatoes that are softer? So things like that, very much educational. And then in between demonstrations, I’m walking people through the farm. I’ve had people ask me, “Can you show me where a bell pepper grows?” So I’ve been talking to a lot of kids and really going through the local media to let them know, “Hey, there’s more to a State Fair than a Ferris wheel and bacon-wrapped, deep-fried pickles.”

Any guesses about what’s caused such a huge shift toward things like deep-fried pickles in the first place? Novelty items became the norm very quickly.
I think what happened is just we’re more about entertainment now than quality. It’s an amusement, entertainment, because that’s what I think people are looking for. There’s nothing wrong with, “I want to go ride the Ferris wheel until I puke,” but again there’s also the element of, “I want to learn more about the state I live in.” So I think as society moves toward really trying to recapture what holds us together, it’s got to start at the dinner table.

Would you say that these ideologies are shifting?
For sure. There’s nothing wrong with coming and enjoying chocolate-covered bacon. Have some chocolate-covered bacon, but at the same time, walk your kids over to the farm and go, “This is where your bacon comes from.”

I met a young lady yesterday who had never seen a garden. She’d never been to a farm. She didn’t realize that rice grew in little paddies. She’d never seen tomatoes on a vine. She’d never seen that tomatoes don’t always look perfect. That’s what’s missing a lot, especially with our youth: Where does your food come from? It doesn’t come from Safeway. It comes from a farmer. It comes from the land, and it’s really important that they see that.

Have there been any dishes at the state fair this year that have pleasantly surprised you?
We found a booth the other day that’s doing grilled corn. They’re grilling it in the husk and when the customer orders it, they peel the husk back and that’s your handle. And then you can get it topped with Parmesan cheese, chili powders, or butters and different toppings. We also found a place that’s doing steamed artichokes. There’s some great options there.

So what kind of dishes have you been making so far? Any favorites?
Let’s see. Well, the U.S. Postal Service just put out these new summer harvest stamps that feature cantaloupe, watermelon, tomatoes, corn. So the past few days, I’ve been doing a lot with those four. A chilled cantaloupe soup, a watermelon mint salad, grilled tomato fritter — a tomato, mozzarella patty if you will, that is a nice vegetarian option instead of a hamburger. And I’ve got a roasted corn salad, a corn fritter. Then a salad with all four of the ingredients. And then for media day, I actually walked the farm and pulled out eight different fruits and vegetables that are growing right now. We put them all together in a salad to really show the harmony of seasonally grown vegetables and that if it grows together, it goes together.

Yesterday we did some pizzas on the grill. The station that I’m working on is out in the farm. I’ve got this beautiful grill. One burner, so everything I’m doing, I’m cooking on the grill. We’re only three days in and I’m doing fresh hamburgers tomorrow. So I’m sure that will change the place of my favorite.

How will you be doing the burgers?
Well, I’m going to grind the meat fresh. I’m going to grind and sauté the mushrooms, blend that into the meat, which adds an essence of umami to the meat as well. But it also cuts the fat content of those burger patties by 25 percent. An eight-ounce patty would have two ounces of mushrooms and six ounces of beef, but still be a big, meaty, steak mouthfeel, burger patty. Actually, it’s really a juicier burger.

It seems like you’re leading the initiative. Do you expect other state fairs to catch on this summer?
We really hope so. The plan is to see how this is going and so far, just a few days in, it’s been really well received. So we’re hoping after the state fair here is over, maybe I’ll go and visit other state fairs and help them develop programs.

Do you have a state fair guilty pleasure?
You know, I do. I have to admit a fondness for corn dogs and good ol’ French’s mustard. I have to have at least one, and then, funnel cakes.

Meet the Chef Who Wants to Reclaim State-Fair Foods From the Deep-Fried Abyss