[Photos: Phil Mansfield]
This past weekend, the Culinary Institute of America's chef castle in St. Helena played host to the 16th annual Worlds of Flavor conference, bringing in over 70 chefs from 15 different countries to show off their gastronomic skills and promote culinary innovation. Over the course of 12 general discussions, 23 seminars, and 18 intimate kitchen demonstrations, there was a particular emphasis on the youth, with sessions dedicated to discussing, in the words of CIA VP of Strategic Initiatives & Industry Leadership Greg Drescher, "how millennials are going to push us to transform our restaurants."
Though the event was heavily sponsored, decked out with tablescapes touting a host of brands, attendees still ate (and drank) very well at the daily World Market. Dutifully armed with personalized conference badges and those compostable plates with the hole for your wine glass, guests had their choice of over 50 tastings from international chefs. Read on for more Hangover Observations.
1. Modernist Cuisine co-author Nathan Myhrvold spent his time behind the podium talking about alkaline environments, making cream out of any fat compound, and arguing that science provides an opportunity for "enjoying an ingredient in a form you wouldn't otherwise enjoy."
2. Fool Magazine, recently named best food magazine in the world, brought both its Swedish editors-in-chief, Lotta Jorgensen and Per-Anders Jorgensen. Both starting out working for Swedish Gourmet as art directors and photographers. "We wanted to do something interesting in food photography," said Lotta, incorporating an artistic perspective and portraits. "We wanted to make a magazine that inspired people, without recipes," added Per-Anders.
3. Chef Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen's acclaimed Noma, told the crowd of his transformation from "one of the fattest kids in Denmark," raised on cheap cuts of meat and frozen vegetables shipped from Kazakhstan, to notable chef. Meyer said that his family believed thinking of food as a sensual experience was just as taboo as masturbation, with a father who thought every day should be more efficient than the day before. Meyer sees the new Nordic cuisine as a "benign virus," one spreading the notion that "rye is the new black." To him, eating whole grains is "not a crusade against pizzas or burgers, but an emphasis on local food culture and identity."
In addition to employing over 700 people on various Noma-related projects, Meyer is cooking in a curious locale: Nordic prisons, where he instructs institutional chefs how to cook a Michelin star-worthy meal. "It is the most rewarding project of my life," he said—particularly impressive since his team has also just created an all-local-ingredient restaurant, GUSTU, in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America.
4. Iron Chef America victor and Top Chef season 9 contestant Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, KY, demoed his infamous fried chicken to the general session crowd. "I am obsessed with fried chicken," said Lee, who cited one of his cardinal rules of fried chicken: "No breasts allowed." Additionally, he discussed being a non-native Southerner making traditionally Southern staple foods: "It's interesting being a Korean kid from New York, telling people how to eat fried chicken in the South," he said. "Culturally, you're not allowed to change your grandma's recipe, but I don't know any better. It takes an outsider sometimes to go into a very rooted culture to blow things up."
4. Chef Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood touched on "wrestling with ghosts" in the Napa Valley. Unlike the culinarily historic regions of France, the valley lacks a certain "canon of history," says Kostow, who has intensely studied the agrarian history of the area. As a tribute to these rural "ghosts," he demoed a dish that, according to him, got its start five million years ago, when a volcano erupted in Calistoga. He used this locally-harvested ash and sea salt to encrust and bake off a few rutabagas from Meadowood's farm, topped off with browned local goats' milk.
5. Masayasu Yonemura, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Restaurant Yonemura, in Kyoto, kicked off a 12-hour day of talks with a dish that was essentially French toast topped with a hunk of seared foie gras and drizzled with a sauce of black truffles reduced with red wine. Apparently he didn't get the memo on the local ban, though it made for a pretty remarkable 8 am breakfast.
6. For those wondering about the culinary scene in Northern France, Alexandre Gauthier, chef-owner of La Grenouillere, showed the crowd a bizarre and slightly voyeuristic video of his restaurant. After the video, he demoed a dish containing a pre-fabricated sugar sphere, in which he inserted ice cream. He then smashed the sphere, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
7. A seminar entitled "Information Technology and Changing Relationships Among Chefs and Consumers" familiarized the non-Silicon Valley-based crowd with the concept of a Google Hangout, in which two London-based chefs, Jason Atheron and Atul Kochhar, were projected the big screen in real time to discuss the topic at hand. Former Gilt Taste and Gourmet editor Francis Lam presented the session's speakers, starting off with Jared Rivera, co-founder of the San Francisco-based food app, Chefs Feed. Rivera cited the San Francisco Chronicle's potentially folding food section to strengthen his assertion that chefs are using social media to displace critics. After showing the crowd a Chefs Feed satirical video (insert clip here), he discussed how social media is "a hell of a lot cheaper than PR"—a bold statement from the former owner of a PR firm.
8. In one of the more intimate seminars, the Slanted Door's Charles Phan and Katsuya Fukushima of D.C. ramen shop Daikaya discussed the influence of their respective heritages on developing their restaurant concepts. Turns out, both chefs majored in architecture and share a nostalgic love for Spam; Phan recalls eating it on a refugee boat from Vietnam, and Fukushima noshed on musubi in Hawaii. Phan went on to share his emigration story from Vietnam to San Francisco's Chinatown. After settling into the city, his father worked as a janitor and server at an English pub-restaurant called the Coach House. As a nod to his past, Phan revealed his plans to attribute this same name to his flooded and recently-gutted Heaven's Dog when it reopens.
9. Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions demoed a few of his dim sum-style dishes, including a sauerkraut-ricotta pancake and beef tartare. He said the inspiration for State Bird's concept was a realization that "Americans love control," drawn from catering parties whose hosts often preferred several courses of passed hors d'oeuvres over a formal sit-down dinner. Brioza also explained why State Bird no longer offers brunch: "I realized I didn't like to eat brunch. A large blob of food ruins your whole day. Also, I realized if someone called in sick, I would be working."
10. A Saturday-morning seminar on the Collaborative Vision for the Future of Food brought together Kostow; Modernist Cuisine co-author Maxime Bilet; Christian Puglisi, chef-owner of Relæ and Manfreds og Vin in Copenhagen; and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine. While Bilet passed a recently-deceased geoduck clam around the seminar, he discussed his edible schoolyard projects in Seattle and how "the culture of chefs in this generation is about sharing community...If we don't accumulate wisdom and from that wisdom take it to another level, then we are not evolving." Added Puglisi: "Chefs like to say produce is most important, but the people are far more important. As a chef, you are what connects people to nature through your restaurant."
11. Former SF chef and crowd favorite Elizabeth Falkner, one of only four female chefs featured out of 70 speaking at the conference, had arguably one of the toughest demos of the event. Blackboards asking attendees "What Will be the Next Food Trends of 2014?" had hung outside the general assembly area for all three conference days, with markers for attendees to jot down their predictions; Falkner's task was to take the most inspiring hypotheses from the board to create dishes in front of the crowd. Among her favorite trend predictions: "fire inside food," "deep space food," and "anything but foam." She took squid and laid it over fiery-hot coals, added a generous amount of squid ink to a farro dish, a nod to "deep space," then topped everything off a squid ink foam.
12. Thomas Keller made a brief yet impressive appearance, wrapping up the conference with a closing speech worthy of a CIA commencement ceremony. Here are some of the most notable quotes:
-"Creativity is not what I spend a lot of time thinking about. I live for the moment. I do everything I can to be as successful as possible in that moment. I prefer imagination, inspiration, interpretation, evolution."
-"We should embrace those who act responsibly and with integrity. It is our job to hire those who will be better than ourselves."
-"Simple is hard. Let's try not to complicate it more than necessary."
-"Our future success lies in the work we do today."
-"You begin habits today which will take you through your career."
-"Without those failures and the ignorance I had when buying the French Laundry, I wouldn't be here today."
-"The idea that chefs opening more restaurants is making them weaker only applies if they didn't plan correctly. It should make them twice as strong."
-"People always ask what I'm doing next. Why does there have to be a next? Why can't we be satisfied with what we have and improve upon it?"