Culinary Institute of America WORLDS OF FLAVOR 2016
By Steve Carlson
Fire, culture, passion, and invention cast a broad net to give participants of the 2016 CIA Worlds of Flavor a window into the passion and creativity of chefs from around the world without any reference to a geographical area. We heard from familiar chefs who have been innovating for years and others who are just breaking out. The event took place in breathtaking Napa Valley in April.
Many of the discussions surrounded the question “What kind of food do you cook?” such as Italian or some other broadly defined cuisine. The most common answer was “I cook the kind of food I want to cook.” This lead to discussions of whether you need a personal philosophy for cooking or at least think enough about what you cook to be able to talk about it.
In any creative process there have to be some fixed points, some point of departure. To me the theme of this conference was to explore these fixed points, whether they be available ingredients, history and tradition, innovation and technology, and personal expression. Here are some examples of how these fixed points influence some of the chefs who presented at the conference.
IT’S ABOUT MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY
Enrique Olvera – Pujol, Mexico City & Cosme, NYC
When Enrique opened Pujol in the late 1990’s, cooking wasn’t a competition; it was about making people happy. He talked about going down the fine dining detour; focusing on table ware and searching the internet to see what other chefs were cooking to make menu decisions; “forgetting what they were doing” and “ending up with a restaurant he didn’t like”. But then going back and looking at street foods for inspiration, perfecting the execution, and using the best available ingredients; taking what he liked from both traditional and modern techniques; achieving perfection by letting go, by subtracting from a dish and looking at the Japanese tradition of continuing to improve a dish every time you make it. He talked about making Mexican food for Cosme with New York ingredients and managing preconceptions that Mexican food should be cheap, a preconception even Mexicans have.
COMMUNITY & LEADERSHIP
Renee Erickson – Walrus & The Carpenter and other restaurants in Seattle Renee’s presentation involved building community and leading in and out of the kitchen. She was forced to look at what happened in her restaurant community of over 100 employees following the tragic death of one of her employees. She became active, intentional, and set clear expectations in this small community; she also became committed to paying living wages, offering health benefits, and a 401K.
Christopher Kostow, at Napa’s The Restaurant at Meadowood Christopher revealed the challenge of Fancy Restaurant/Small Town and the efforts to bridge the gap by offering quarterly cooking classes; inviting local elementary school children to work in the restaurant garden; and by connecting with local craftsman to create the restaurant’s service ware. Christopher maintained that the Chef’s role is helping make everyone better. He offered insights into how to retain staff and be more clear about overall goals and everyone’s role in reaching those goals.
WHY NEW SOUTHERN COOKING HAS NEVER TASTED THIS GOOD
Tim Rattray – The Grannery and ‘Cue & Brew, San Antonio had us all planning a trip to San Antonio to try his Texas Toast, made with fresh sourdough bread grilled in beef lard and served with BBQ butter – butter mixed with the meat drippings from the BBQ pit. This bread is a warm up for the BBQ Ramen incorporating the same meat drippings, smoke pork bones, shoyu, dashi, brother Alex’s Brown Ale, and homemade Ramen noodles.
Samantha and Cody Carrol – Sac-a-Lait, New Orleans and Hot Tails, New Roads, Louisiana gave a demonstration of using greater Louisiana ingredients with classic New Orleans preparations as well an entertaining description of hunting wild hogs by helicopter while blaring AC/DC.
Elena Arzak – Spain’s Restaraunte Arzak, made the distinction between raw materials which should be local and ingredients that can come from around the world but be combined in a way that respects Basque culinary traditions. Elena also showed images of the hundreds of ingredients in the restaurants laboratory displayed neatly and orderly behind glass doors.
Matae Casanas Puignau – Disfrutar, Barcelona & Compartir, Cadeques, Spain, a graduate of elBulli, demonstrated a molecular gastronomy take on pasta carbonara that was one-part ham and two parts bacon. Starting with macaroni made from a ham broth, then a bacon, butter, cream, egg yolk foam, and finally bacon butter all tossed tableside.
Mike Lata –The Fig Restaurant and The Ordinary, Charleston, NC, bases the menu at his two restaurants on the strong relations he has developed with local fisherman and oystermen, so he can give a representation of the best local seafood that day. Chef Lata described Charleston’s shrimp as the best in the world – so fresh “you should let them set a day.” He demonstrated two versions of traditional local dishes, pickled shrimp, a version of escabeche, and smoked oysters. Mike’s emphasis on reducing the amount of lime juice to preserve the texture of the shrimp echoed to the same message from the Lima chefs.
FROM THE ANDES TO THE AMAZON: CULINARY INSPIRATIONS FROM PERU
Two very well-known chefs from Lima went to great lengths with ingredients as a point of departure:
Virgilio Martinez – Central, Lima Peru shows the great variety in Peru’s ecosystems by organizing his tasting menu by altitude. Starting at sea level, the menu then traveled through high and low jungles and the Andes. He used a variation on the tradition of cooking in edible clay for baking a sampling of the 3800 potatoes grown in Peru.
PedroMiguel Schiaffino – Malabar, Lima searches the Amazon for little-known ingredients incorporating them into his menus. He demonstrated using one traditional ingredient, masato (fermented yucca), to make a traditional ceviche.
Mitsuhara Tsumura (Micha) – Maido, Lima demonstrated a ceviche with a Japanese twist and talked about the influence of the Japanese immigrants to Peru on the traditional ceviche recipes. Originally used as a technique to preserve seafood, the amount of acid used to make ceviche has been reduced to preserve the texture of the seafood.
YOUNG CHEFS TO WATCH
A breakout session that piqued my interest was a panel of Young Chef’s to Watch lead by Chandra Ram. It featured three young chefs chosen to open a restaurant with only the money they could raise themselves, avoiding having to attract investors and then be beholden to those investors.
Rent, being the biggest expense, dictated location. Michael Gulotta and two others opened their restaurant in a strip mall in an out-of-the-way New Orleans neighborhood. Focused on serving restaurant chefs and servers, they were very busy at first benefiting from some great opening press. Now they celebrate making payroll and the mortgage.
Preeti Mistry first opened a pop-in liquor store deli near her home and then after two years opened a brick and mortar location in Oakland. Asked why she didn’t locate in San Francisco, she listed being able to see her friends from the neighborhood, avoiding a commute, and not needing an investor as more important.
Justin Carlisle found a space below a coffee shop for a 23-seat restaurant with no hood, that he opened for $65,000. While located in downtown Milwaukee many of his customers drive from the Milwaukee suburbs who could drive the same distance to Chicago. Justin said that having only induction ranges and one oven limited drama in the kitchen and meant that service was very carefully planned.
KNOWLEDGE IS KING
I’m continually amazed that so many of these chefs have time to dig deeply into one or more subjects. Stuart Brioza talking about learning more about ingredients from his suppliers say’s “Knowledge is king.” Matthew Accarinno, who moved to San Francisco to be able to take advantage of the Bay area ingredients, has gone deep into sturgeon, harvesting his own caviar and then using every part of the sturgeon, even making tripe from the intestines.
Eric Werner of Hartwood, who with his wife, run a restaurant way down the beach road in Tulum, Mexico, where they do all the cooking over a wood fire. He works hard to develop relationships with their suppliers, overcoming language and cultural differences, to find out what products the suppliers proudest of. Eric demonstrated the preparation of camote (sweet potato) that they serve as a side dish. Eric saw vendors slow cooking these on their fires in the market for their lunch. Intrigued by the smoky, rich flavor developed by slow cooking, Eric and his wife spent two years perfecting the overnight cooking, and then finishing the camote in a cast iron pan over their wood fire.
Pablo Salas of Amaranta in Toluca, Mexico, has five principles for traditional cuisine:
- Work with local ingredients as a base
- All ingredients have the same value (not just the expensive ones)
- Use a contemporary approach in techniques, décor, and ingredients
- Have dynamic conversations with ingredients
Chef Salas explained the last point by example that they had explored using heritage pork for an extended time and then using all fresh water fish (carp, crawfish, frogs, etc.) instead of seafood from the ocean.
Lastly one of my favorite breakout sessions was Cocktails and Botanas, sponsored by Oneida, this session gave a brief history of service ware, noting that it wasn’t until the 1950’s that companies like Onieda starting designing products for hotels and restaurants.
Ivy Mix provided two great cocktails, the Jalapeno Infused Sonamba (sleep walker) and a classic Sazerac. Ivy made the case that the shape of a cocktail glass is just as important as a wine glass. The coupe is great from some drinks but the Sazerac should be served in a glass with a narrow top to keep in the aroma.
Ivy also explained that her bar menu at Leyanda shows the shape of the glass for each cocktail as well as the ingredients, so guys don’t mistakenly order a pink drink in a tall coupe 🙂