Starchefs ICC 2012 – Back to the Future

I knew I would run into the man of steel here

Once again my annual pilgrimage to NYC for the Starchefs International Chefs Congress came through at the last-minute.  I was selected as a judge for the Somm Slam a few weeks before the conference and quickly made plans to get to NYC.  My usual option for housing had guests from Puerto Vallarta staying with them.  Fortunately an old friend who found me on linkedin had just moved to Times Square.  I hadn’t seen him in 13 years and I last caught a glimpse of him around 3 years ago in Steamboat Springs as he rode right past me on his bicycle.  I was eager to see him again and couldn’t believe he had moved to the epicenter of the free world.

His apartment is on the penthouse level high above Times Square. On the east side of the apartment you look right down into the huge video screens of Times Square and on the west side of his apartment you have an unobstructed view of the Hudson river all the way down to the Statue of Liberty.

West side view from the apartment

Southwest view from the apartment

He introduced me to Doris the woman whose siren calls brought him first to Long Island and then to the heart of the city.

The following morning was a gorgeous fall day. I waited patiently at the subway for a train uptown.  I arrived at the tail end of the welcome address with Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno.  The theme for this year was “Origins and Frontiers” and focused on the archeological trend in food to bring old methods of cooking, curing, foraging into the dining experience.

I snapped a picture of Natasha the 227 lb bluefin tuna hatched from an egg and raised in captivity in a Japanese University that Masuhara Morimoto was about to filet on stage. Truly the future of this revered sushi fish that is being consumed to extinction.

Natasha ready to be filleted

Time was running out until the beginning of the Somm Slam and I headed to tasting room. The Somm Slam is a competition gathering 12 of the top sommeliers in the US and pitting them against each other over the course of 3 days.  The group of 12 is cut in half after the first day and then down to 2 Somms on the 3rd day.  The competitors are challenged each day to determine a wine through a blind tasting, then to choose a wine to pair with a dish and finally are challenged to wine trivia.  The sponsors represent wines from all over the world.  The contestants know who the wine sponsors are so they can at least know the limit of the wines available. This year however the wines of Greece and Georgia (where the first wines of the world were created) were in the selection.  I have tasted a few Greek wines but never wines from Georgia.  All in all there were about a 100 wines on the table for them to choose from.

Somm Slam placemat

I sat down and took my first impressions of the red wine placed in front of me for the 1st blind tasting that the Somms would have to determine.  I analyzed the color, the viscosity, the aroma and the taste.  I thought it was an old world wine, with medium viscosity and fairly good acid structure.  My first conclusion was that it was a young northern Côtes du Rhône Syrah though I was not getting any of that depth of white pepper in the nose.  I concluded it could also be a southern Côtes du Rhône. I knew Côtes du Rhône wines were in the selection so this was not too far fetched of a conclusion.

Fred Dexheimer the emcee introduced all the Somms and gave them 4 minutes to blind taste the wine and write down their conclusions.  After this exercise they had half the group leave the room while the other six remained for the pairing exercise.  For this they were given a plate of two cheeses and then allotted a certain amount of time to go through the wine selection to choose a wine that would work with the two cheese. As judges we were provided a glass of the contestant’s selections and the two cheeses to determine the Sommelier who made the best pairing.  Most of the Somms went sweet or white with their pairing choices.  They brought back the other group and had them go through the same exercise.  I felt that a Georgian red that was poured in the first round was the best as it echoed some of the mushroom qualities of the cheese.

In the second round I leaned toward a Samos muscat from Santorini Greece that had a limited amount of residual sugar but was beautifully aromatic. After they brought back the first round of contestants they were subjected to a fire round of wine trivia  that they had to write the answers on a notebook and show to the audience.  The first to raise their notebook with the right answer would receive bonus points.

The first day of the Slam came to an end. The blind tasted wine was indeed a red Côtes du Rhône.

Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky author of Salt and Cod

I then strolled into Chefs products fair and stumbled upon Mark Kurlansky who wrote the books Salt and Cod.  Both books were a revelation when I first read them.  In the two books he goes into detail on the interrelated history of these two products and how they shaped the course of history. Fascinating read that I highly recommend to anyone.

This year Starchefs created a new dining experience that I had to jump on – the Pop Up.  I signed up for two of them.  On the first day it was surreal chef extraordinaire Jordan Khan from Red Medicine.

Scattered around the Chefs Products Fair, there were also a bunch of lunch carts being run by different famous chefs. Some of them offered free food and others for a nominal fee.  Both of these new dining experiences are new to the Starchefs congress and I believe represent a major benefit to the attendees.

In my next post I’ll continue the ICC experience with Jordan’s Pop Up.

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