Sargent Center chef brings the foods of the world to the woods of New Hampshire| From Commonwealth | By Kelly Horan, Photo and slideshow by Jessica Sharp (COM’08)
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Victor Béguin remembers just one phrase in Tsonga, the native language of the Shangaan tribe among whom he grew up in South Africa: “We eat to continue to eat.” It’s a handy aphorism for any food lover, but since Béguin is also a chef, it’s something closer to a life philosophy.
Like a gifted musician who can play a piece of music after hearing it only once, Béguin, head chef at Boston University’s Sargent Center for Outdoor Education in Hancock, New Hampshire, can re-create a dish just by tasting it. He has no formal culinary education, but a peripatetic upbringing with missionary parents exposed him to a world of cuisines, starting in Lemana, South Africa. “I could literally step outside my backyard and walk across to a row of houses with cook pots going in the yards,” he recalls. “I could just go around and taste.”
Béguin has combined a lifetime of tasting with a food historian’s zeal for understanding the origins of the dishes he makes. He is as likely to reference Julia Child as he is to quote from the Sufi poet Rumi. While a philosophical leaning was not part of the job requirement at Sargent, it does add an unexpected dimension to an easily dismissed gastronomic genre: conference cuisine.
The Sargent Center has been part of BU since 1932; it started as the summer location for Sargent College founder Dudley Allen Sargent’s teacher training programs. Today, it hosts large and diverse groups — corporate and nonprofit organizations, families, summer campers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all types — which use the compound’s 700 wooded acres for conferences, retreats, and recreation. It’s up to Béguin and his staff to feed them, and for Béguin, that means something more than just satisfying hunger.
For a group of Indonesian gamelan percussionists and their students, for example, Béguin researched and created a menu that reminded them of home. “This Javanese dancer came through the crowd like a goddess,” he recalls. “She called to me and said the meal was wonderful. It is pretty amazing when people recognize their culture in the food you have made for them.”
When he took over the menu planning and cooking for the school groups that visit Sargent during the week, Béguin laid down some ground rules. “I said, ‘I am not frying food. No chicken nuggets. I need a license to improve this food so that it is local, sustainable, and healthy, as much from scratch as possible.’”
He also axed the frozen pizza, coming up with a Sicilian-style dough made with whole-wheat flour (he sneaks fresh vegetables into the sauce).
As he has changed the menu options at Sargent, his food has started a conversation about sustainability and health. “I had a kid who would not eat anything but white bread and crackers and sugar,” he recalls. The teachers asked Béguin to address the issue of healthy eating with the children. “I asked all of the kids, ‘Why do we eat?’ They said, ‘We need energy.’ A little girl said, ‘Because we are part of the food chain.’” Finally, he heard the answer he was looking for: we eat for the enjoyment of it. “I said, ‘Exactly. The point of eating is so we can continue to eat.’”