Plant-Based Opportunity at the New York Produce Show

Each year, the New York Produce Show fills the Javits Center in midtown Manhattan with more than 350 exhibitors and thousands of produce-focused chefs, buyers and industry leaders. This year, JWU culinary students from Providence and Charlotte assisted the demo chefs, spoke on panels, and participated in a live competition where they foraged for their ingredients on the trade show floor. Ashley Cugno '25, a Food & Beverage Entrepreneurship major, called it “one of the best opportunities for both experience and networking that I have ever gotten.”

“There were incredible opportunities to make contacts with people you would never expect.”

Associate Professor Doug Stuchel has made the Produce Show a tradition for his students — and this year, he invited Charlotte Associate Professor Daina Soto-Sellers to bring her students. A total of 9 students took part:

Ashley Cugno (center) and her JWU peers grab coffee before the New York Produce Show. Providence
Josue Cervantes
Ashley Cugno
Sean Holmes
Juhwan Lee
Brianna Pinder

Alexis Dixon
Annika Nicholls
Edwin Pereira
Micah Sullivan

An Excellent Chance to Network

Since this was her first big trade show, Ashley was amazed at the breadth of exhibitors and the trends on display. Because the JWU crew was involved in multiple aspects of the event, from demos to setup assistance, she could network with vendors, visiting chefs, and industry professionals.

“There were incredible opportunities to make contacts with people you would never expect,” Ashley explained. “It was an excellent chance to network, between the ‘welcome’ cocktail hour, setting up our stations and helping others with their booths, vendors offering us extra product during break-down, and during the information sessions and panels.”

Watch Ashley’s JWU Providence Instagram reel from the Produce Show:

Live Demos Showcase the Freshest Produce

Live demonstrations are central of any trade show, and JWU’s team played an integral part, from assisting during the guest chef demos to beating the clock in a timed competition.

During her demo, Soto-Sellers cooked a riff on crabcakes that layered browned mushrooms and shallots (and a bit of seaweed for salinity) to echo the taste of crab (minus the actual crab).

Associate Professor Daina Soto-Sellers demonstrates how to make mushroom “crabcakes” during her NY Produce Show demo.
JWU Charlotte Associate Professor Daina Soto-Sellers making her mushroom “crabcakes.” Photo: NY Produce Show

Brianna Pinder assisted Jessica Pamonicutt, the Native American chef-owner of Ketapanen Kitchen, Chicago’s first Native American pop-up kitchen and catering company. Pamonicutt’s dishes are roughly 90% plant-based and showcase indigenous ingredients where possible. For her demo, she created a pickled blueberry salad packed with superfoods like kale, apples, and golden berries. Ashley loved hearing Pamonicutt’s insights about centering culture, community and food: “She was, quite honestly, one of the best people I met at this show.”

JWU student Brianna Pinder assists Chef Jessica Pamonicutt of Ketapanen Kitchen.
JWU student Brianna Pinder (left) assists Chef Jessica Pamonicutt (right) of Ketapanen Kitchen.

Veggie Treasure Hunt & Cooking Challenge

In the team competition, the Providence and Charlotte teams were given an hour to find their ingredients on the tradeshow floor. Each team produced 3 plated courses, as well as bite-sized samples. They were assisted and coached by two JWU alumni, Josh Klapper and Griffin Valentine, and had limited equipment to execute their dishes. “The students weren’t always able to find the ingredients they wanted and needed to be able to pivot from the original plan to still accomplish in the timeframe given,” noted Associate Professor Stuchel on the many challenges of cooking for an audience.

Ashley and Josue worked on an appetizer course and went in with a strong vision for their dish. “Ultimately, we got about 80% of our ingredients from vendors, with only three or four ingredients having been brought in beforehand,” she explained. “We made a crostini trio, with goat cheese, three different fruits (mango, apple, and strawberry), arugula, microgreens, and a balsamic glaze that was combined with a few other ingredients.”

“It’s clear the ‘Plant-Forward’ movement is here to stay.”

The Providence and Charlotte teams ended up in a tie vote. “Providence got both the judges’ vote and the people’s vote for the appetizer round, Providence got the judges’ vote and Charlotte got the people’s vote for the entree course, and Charlotte got both the judges’ and people’s vote for the dessert round,” said Ashley. “Overall, though, I don’t feel like the results mattered because I had fun just being there.” The real value was in the experience itself.

Brainstorming Ways to Center Produce on the Plate

Brianna and Juhwan took part in a panel discussion examining ways to boost produce sales overall and brainstorming creative ways to take fruits and vegetables to the center of the plate while reducing animal protein consumption. (Other sessions examined consumer trends, sustainability, merchandising, indoor-grown produce and distribution challenges.)

Photos from the Ideation session by Associate Professor Doug Stuchel:

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A post shared by Douglas Stuchel (@dstuchel)

In addition, the entire JWU group led a lunch-and-learn discussion with tradeshow participants to brainstorm solutions to the various challenges plant-centric items face on menus. The students took notes on flipchart paper and reported the group’s collective findings. Their poise and hard work did not go unnoticed, said Soto-Sellers: “Chris Lenza, the executive chef of Wellness & Plant Forward Initiatives for Bon Appétit Management praised them after the ideation session, ‘You are all ahead of the game.’”

Soto-Sellers was thrilled to see so many chefs, buyers, journalists and operators focused on elevating produce in innovative ways. “It’s clear the ‘Plant-Forward’ movement is here to stay, which makes me more passionate about teaching in the Culinary Nutrition Program and CFIT,” she said. Ashley summed it up by saying, “I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”


Chef Demonstrations Encourage More Produce Consumption


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JWU Providence student Ashley Cugno shot this NY City skyline photo from the train.
JWU Providence student Ashley Cugno '25 shot this NY City skyline photo from the train.