2010 International Chefs Congress, Day 1: Will the real artist step forward?

Starchefs ICC NYC 2010

The uber panel Michael Rhulman, David Kinch, Thomas Keller and Dan Barber

Art vs. Craft the theme of this year’s congress came to an inconclusive pause at the end of the opening panel’s debate facilitated by Michael Rhulman.  By the end of the debate by this fine panel of our nation’s gastronomic leaders (couldn’t it have been more international considering the title of the congress) we were left with a still open question. Does this craft belong in the arts?  Who cares said Jeffrey Steingarten and I hope that after we have discussed and resolved this small argument, we can forget about it forever (I’m paraphrasing here).  The panel comprised of Thomas Keller, David Kinch and Dan Barber seemed to unanimously agree that cooking is a craft.  Very little argument seemed to take place but certain great lines sneaked out.  Thomas compared cooking to making fine furniture and also inferred that since it was utilitarian in nature it clearly serves its purpose and can only fall in the domain of a craft.  The mission of the cook is to “nurture.”  Dan Barber, presented little resistance to this line of thinking.  David Kinch compared it to music, a performance.  I could imagine by looking at David’s hair, wardrobe and body language that his would be a music filled with elusive lyrics and clever wordplay.  They are each master craftsmen and quite possibly artist, though too humble to bow to applause.

Probably some of the best commentary on the subject was by Jeffrey Steingarten.  When asked his point of view,  he referred to the repetition of the actions of the nightly ritual that is service as being the aspect of craft, but what of the time between the repetition of the craft: the actual creation of the dish.  Is that not an artistic act?  The creative process that gives birth to the creative prototype and is further refined.

Star Chefs ICC NYC 2010

Now that is a tattoo worthy of a cook

Dan Barber, talked of his visit to the Prado in Madrid and seeing a room of Velasquez’s  paintings replicated by Picasso.  He copied the master’s painting over and over, until he felt he had mastered it and eventually replicated the painting during his cubism period.  It takes a lot of repetition before you should spread your wings and create your own style.

Dan Barber told a story of Ferran eating dinner at David Bouley when he worked there.  Apparently he came into the kitchen after the meal and unrolled a scroll with a list of every restaurant he had eaten at over the last ten years and a breakdown of every course he had tasted.  The point being that Ferran did not become the super creative chef overnight.  He studied and worked very hard to get to that level.

The panel ended with the panelist firmly on the side of naming it a craft, but the rest of the conference seemed to challenge that notion periodically.

Star Chefs ICC NYC 2010

Thomas Keller

Next up was Dan Hunter of the Royal Mail in Australia.  A restaurant in the middle of nowhere (3 hours from Melbourne) with its own unique terroir.  Dan had spent several years as Chef de Cuisine at Mugaritz for Andoni Aduriz in St. Sebastian and you could really tell he drank Andoni’s very fine coolaid.

He put together a dish with foraged sea grasses like glasswort or sea beans and various other foraged marine fauna that he managed to pass through customs.  The dish was based on marine essence (a stock made with mussel liqueur mixed with an infusion of galangal and lemon grass) and rapid pan fried oysters.  You could tell that David (like Andoni) is really connected to his immediate surrounding and actively uses his indigenous ingredients as the framework for his cuisine.

After a short break we came back to a very amusing presentation of two flavornauts from Belgium.  Dominique Persoone who is the main “shock-o-latier” for Belcolade Chocolate in Belgium and Bernard Lahoose who in 2007 launched a very interesting website called FoodPairing.Com which maps food pairing combinations using flavor trees.  Bernard is also the mastermind behind a food pairing conference in Bruges each year known as the Flemish Primitives. Both are avid fans and friends with Heston Blumenthal and Dominique is a member of the Fat Duck think tank.

Star Chef ICC NYC 2010

Flavornauts Bernard Lahousse and Dominique Persoone

Dominique showed a very amusing video of some of his chocolate inspired experiments, which included a device that he came up with that catapults two doses of chocolate snuff into your nose.  He launched it at a party in honor of a Rolling Stones Band anniversary.  You can imagine Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the rest of the band snorting chocolate at this event.  I failed to stop by their chocolate stand to try the contraption. Maybe I was afraid to begin a nasty chocolate habit.

Star Chefs ICC NYC 2010

A fellow particpant wearing the food pairing mask

Their presentation had us put on a Carneval mask for a group picture (I took one home and it is a big hit with my children) and then in an echo to Heston Blumenthal’s presentation of two years ago piped in different aromas while watching a video that gives a visual cue to the aroma.  Then on his orders had us taste the chocolate that contained the flavor associated with the aroma and video.  The idea here is that visual and aroma triggers enhance the perception of the flavor in the food we eat.  An oyster tastes saltier by seashore than at a farm and so on.

The first video was of someone cutting grass, the aroma of fresh cut grass was being pumped in and then we ate chocolate that was made with fresh cut grass extract.  Sounds gross right, but actually not unpleasant.  He followed this with a forest flavored,  an oyster flavored and a chocolate Tequila shot that was inspired by his chocolate expedition to the Yucatan in search of the origin of chocolate.  All of these bizarre chocolate combinations were supported by Bernard’s Food Pairing flavor trees.  In some pairings where no direct flavor lineage exists, there is the possibilities to bridge the flavor with a mutually shared flavor, making a positive flavor bond.  Very complicated right? Yes it is, but if you go to the Food Pairing site you should understand a little better.

StarChefs ICC NYC 2010

Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco

Next up was Daniel Patterson of Coi (pronounced kwa) in San Francisco.  Michael Rhulman introduced him and pronounced the name of his restaurant like the pronounciation of the fish Coi (which is always the way I thought it was pronounced) and he was quickly corrected.  Michael Rhulman also had heard that Daniel does not like to use garlic because of how it flavors a cutting board.  Who knows about the veracity of that statement, but it was clear from early on that Mr. Patterson’s idiosyncratic likes and dislikes hardly stopped with garlic on cutting boards.  His presentation was good but I guess I was turned off by the way he came off or maybe I was just too saturated with listening.   If I recall he did a very cool tomato tart with cherry tomatoes placed on an olive tuile and topped with tomato mousse and another tuile.  I do remember him saying that he can’t stand to use corn because it has been hybridized to be sweet and that it has lost all of its corn flavor.   I’ll have to go to his restaurant some day and see how he comes across on the plate.

Following Daniel was Tom Aikens from the  UK.  Who  put on a great low tech demo.  What I really enjoyed about his time on stage was his account of his time at Joël Robuchon and especially the description of how Joel’s famous potatoes are made.  I’ve heard many stories of people that have worked for him and each elevates his reputation as one of the most difficult but mind blowing people to work for.

Star Chefs ICC NYC 2010

Tom Aikens and Michael Rhulman

Tom explained, contrary to my belief of 1:1, that the actual ratio of potato to butter was closer to 1 : 1.3.  He also said that cooks responsible for making the potatoes were the most respected as it was the most feared station at the restaurant.  One mistake and you were out.

He went over the recipe to give us a concept of the work this simple purée would require. First you had to cook the 10 kilo/22lbs. small “ratte” potatoes and then you had to peel them while hot and pass them through the food mill with 13 kilos of butter and some milk.  The potatoes are virtually a thin veil holding the butter in suspension. Then they need to be passed through the finest of tamis or sieves (as fine a mesh as linen Tom described) and then when they reheated and plated the purée the ridges created by the spoon on the dish they were served in needed to be exactly equidistant or you were “out.”   Not hard to figure out why Joël has his potato purée to credit for his success.

As a surprise interlude Star Chefs brought out Sam Kass the White House Chef to inspire us to adopt a school as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move iniative.  If you haven’t heard Michelle is calling on all Chefs to adopt a school to help educate its students about healthy food choices and to teach them how to cook.  Having recently done some work with elementary school children I can vouch for the need to connect with our next generation.  It is very rewarding.  Now I have to choose which school to adopt. My son and daughter’s school right down the street or the Elementary school close to my work.

Sam Kass White House Chef

Sam Kass the White House Chef at the podium

The finale to the day was actually a bit of comic relief at the end of a mostly serious day.  Normand Laprise owns the Restaurant Toqué in Montreal.  The theme of the demo was Nose to Tail and Farm to Table and yet I can’t recall  them preparing a pork dish.  There was a lot of humor used to keep us entertained.  The Chef Normand brought out 4 bottles of wine and a bunch of glasses and started pouring as he talked about sourcing and making use of every part of each ingredient at his restaurant.  “With your producers it is important to get to know them by making a party and getting drunk, then you have a friendship and can work well together” he said.  The main topic he discussed was the way he uses every element of tomatoes when they are in peak.   They can them, they then dry and purée the remaining pulp into a powder, reduce down the water into a syrup and turn it into tomato pâte de fruit.  The chef de cuisine who spoke much better English was a riot.  They had a young Asian lady they brought out and made fun of throughout the presentation.  It was clear it was not malicious in any way and more part of keeping us amused.  In order to punctuate every step the CdC would ask the audience “are we completely clear.”

He put together a presentation platter in a very Jackson Pollock style using every condiment on their vast palette.  The first day was done and we were rushed out to make way for the first annual pastry competition taking place on the main stage.

I headed home and decided to go to Bar Boulud for dinner.  I was instantly struck by the warm welcome and genuine customer service.  The prices do NYC justice, but I was able to choose a charcuterie plate all made in house,  a salade Lyonnaise and a couple glasses of Coudelet de Beaucastel for under a C-note.  The Maitre D was very friendly and mid way through my meal my waiter brought me over a complimentary order of Escargots de Bourgogne.  Later Andrew the Maitre D came by and said they took a slight guess that I was in the industry.  I asked them what gave me away and they said the crocks I was wearing.  He said that Daniel himself was dropping by to visit with a famous Spanish 3 star chef outside.  I asked if it was Martin Beresategui and he replied it was indeed.

At the end of my meal, I asked Andrew if it would be OK to get Daniel to sign my menu.  We went outside to the patio where they were sitting and during a break in the action got Daniel to sign my menu.

I continued to walk down Broadway until I reached The Time Warner building and decided to check out Per Se.  I got into the entrance but denied any further access.  No surprise.  A temple of gastronomy I might one day enter as a patron or maybe I would prefer to spend my money at one of my other must do restaurants in France, England, Spain or Denmark.  What are the top restaurants on your must eat at list?

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