Star Chefs Congress

Frankie Thaheld, our Modern Bar mixologist, and I just got back from New York City where we attended the 3rd Annual International Chefs Congress, a three-day culinary symposium that explores the current state of the food and beverage industries.

Last year I took some of the mixology classes and thought they were very interesting, with modern interpretations and twists on old cocktails, as well as some new ways of looking at this exciting field. I decided to bring Frankie along this year to help in his development as one of the most exciting mixologists in San Diego. As you will read in Frankie's article, I think he found some new inspiration for our Modern Bar cocktail menu.

As for me, I always find it useful to put my student hat back on and look at what we do in the restaurant with new eyes and a new sense of energy and excitement.

The event started with a well-presented and interesting discussion by Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck in England. He is one of the proponents of the new, more modern forms of gastronomy and he discussed the different things he pays attention to other than just flavor, including scent, sound and visual cues. One of Heston's creations is a cold seafood dish plated on glass over sand with a conch shell on the side that conceals an iPod with the sounds of the ocean playing; you wear the earphones while you eat the dish. This line of thinking seems a bit out there to me, but Heston explains the creation of a dish comes from a point of inspiration - if what he is trying to do is give the diner as true an experience of visiting the sea as possible, having the sound of it as you eat adds to the authenticity. He shared some studies he has been conducting with Oxford that proves this concept. For example, when people eat an oyster and hear the sound of the ocean, they find it tastes fresher and more enjoyable than when they hear the sound of a barnyard. That seems obvious to me, so I doubt we'll be subjecting our guests to wearing earphones anytime soon.

There were several other demos that first day, including Charlie Trotter and Rick Moonen, but what turned out to be the most talked about and controversial of the presentations was the final one that included Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White, both known for being critical and vocally opposed to the new wave of modern cuisine. They did not disappoint, ranting about the need for 3-star chefs to be in their restaurants, and the practice of some restaurants to explain to the guest how they should eat a particular dish. It was a fiery and interesting way to end the first day.

The second day started with a pastry discourse and presentation by Jordi Butron from Espai Sucre in Barcelona, followed by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto showing how to skin, butcher and prepare a whole monkfish, including its liver and a stew of all the funky bits. Marcus Samuelsson did Swedish and African cuisine. One of my most anticipated demos was by Candido Lopez and Joan Roca from Spain. Candido showed how his 100-year-old restaurant prepares its most famous dish, the suckling pig. Then Joan Roca did a more contemporary interpretation of the same suckling pig using sous vide. As a proponent of new and more modern techniques, it was great to see these two chefs on the stage together, showing how the new style and the old classics both have their place and do not need to be threatened by the other.

The last day turned out to be the most interesting. Daniel Boulud and four of his chefs each prepared a different part of a pig to showcase the charcuterie items he is doing at Bar Boulud. Carlo Cracco from Italy showed us how he is making "paper" out of fish - he actually builds a book out of the sheets that you then rip out and eat. Weird, and not anything I will be trying soon, but interesting none the less.

The most beautiful food came from Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. He uses nothing that is not indigenous to the area he works (that means no olive oil). His food is modern but with a foundation from where he resides. Rene did six courses all made from onions. He explained that during the cold winters, onions are one of the few vegetables available to him. Every dish was truly inspired, from a dish with ash burned cheese, to seven different onions and tapioca cooked in onion stock, to a dish with milk skin, roasted garlic, truffle puree and roasted bread. The dessert of spiced, caramelized onion, frozen milk and thyme gelatin was remarkable. Each dish looked delicious and was utterly unique. Every chef I talked to pointed out this demo as the most inspiring of the three days.

The final presentation was by Grant Achatz from Alinea in Chicago. It was an interesting finish as he chose to spend the first 20 minutes presenting a rebuttal to the Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain comments. He did it intelligently, pointedly, but it was obvious he had been strongly affected by the comments - you could have cut the air with a knife. He went on to explain his custom-made serving utensils, pointing out the fact that the knife, fork and spoon have not been improved upon for over 200 years. Good point, but I think they still work pretty well. It was a great presentation, showing deep intellect and knowledge for our craft and the act of dining in a restaurant, which he is trying hard to turn upside down in more ways than just the food.

Sitting on the plane on my way back to San Diego, I wonder why there is such a wide rift between the old style and new. Will the new modern take on food last? Will we lose our historical references or enjoyment of eating those classic dishes? Will the use of chemicals and stabilizers that were developed by big food processors continue to be an important part of the culinary repertoire into the future? My belief is that flavor should always be the most important thing. How you want to intellectualize it, form it, or change it should always come from the goal of making it taste better.