Day 1 of the International Chefs Congress 08 in NYC

I just got back on Wednesday afternoon and I would have started this post sooner except my computer died while I was gone.  It has been whirring, making heavy breathing sounds and in overall poor humor for a few months.  The screen went out even though we could still hear the ever so recognizable MS start up tune.

We took it to the PC doctor and on Tuesday he told my wife there was little hope.  RIP Toshiba Qosmio.  I am of course totally annoyed by the planned obsolescence of our electronic world.  How many computers will we go through in our lifetimes?

The Congress was quite an experience.

The apartment that my brother’s friend was nice enough to set me up in was impressive to say the least.  Two apartments put together to form one large one with twelve foot ceilings and two separate loft bedrooms.  I am so used to the usual shoe box apartments in NYC that this was quite shock.  Big windows giving out on a view of another building, but at least plenty of light.  The neighborhood is nice.  72nd street subway station, Citerella and Fairway less than a block away. H&H bagels is a few more blocks away on 80th.  All you need close by.

The apartment

The apartment

Sunday the first day of the conference was quite muggy and I set out to walk across Central Park.  Ipod pumping and as I closed in on the Dakota  I noticed people spilling out of Central Park.  I walked into Strawberry Fields and people had adorned the Lennon peace sign with flowers.  By now I noticed that I was walking into a major rally.  It was “race for a cure” and it had taken over Central Park.  Thousands upon thousands of humans marching in what seemed at first no apparent order were pulsing through every artery of Central Park and I like an antibody was desperately trying to reach my target.  I don’t know how many of you have tried to cross a band of marching pink and bunny eared race for curers, but I can vouch it is not easy.

I finally made it to the band shell which was packed with curers and slipped by to reach 5 Av.  The Armory on Park Avenue is a large red building that takes up the whole block. I rushed into the building and slammed right into a large line waiting to register.

Now you would think that a chef’s congress would run like a Swiss watch being that the chef’s live and die credo is to have their mise en place together.  Not always the case.  I cant tell you how many times I have been shocked by the lack of preparation of chefs outside of their element.  Pastry chefs, the most annal of the bunch can be the most disorganized when removed from their scale and candy thermometer world, but we are not talking about chefs organizing this event here or it might have been worse.

View of the congress from the 1st floor of the armory

View of the congress from the 1st floor of the armory

Well after about 30 minutes I was let in without credentials and a promise to come back for them.  They delayed the start time of Heston Blumenthal by a 1/2 hour.  The first person I ran into when I walked through the door was my old friend John Morpurgo.

Side story:  John and I worked together at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown back in 1990.  He moved out to Colorado shortly after I did and now he is the executive chef at Sysco in Denver.  We had not seen each other for over 12 years when I ran into him at the ACF meeting that was held earlier this year at the stock show.  I noticed him sitting at my departure gate when I was leaving for NYC for the Congress.  It turned out he had won a scholarship to the congress as well.  I wonder how many free tickets were awarded?

Heston Blumenthal was a great opener to the Congress.  His restaurant the Fat Duck in the small town of Bray in the UK has been voted #1 restaurant in the world.  One of my students did a stage there for three months in the lab working on new dishes for the restaurant (more on him later).  His presentation was mind blowing.  His theme “Eating is a Multi-Sensory Experience” gave us insight into the way his mind works.  The amazing thing about Heston is that he spends a lot of time consulting with authorities from other areas of academia to answer his endless series of questions regarding the sensory experience of eating. Aroma: he consults with the leading fragrance specialist in Paris. Food science: he consults with chemists at the University of Reading (my father’s alma matter).  He values these relationships as the greatest influence to the development of his style of cooking.

Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal

He was very prepared for his presentation and obviously well rehearsed. The first part of his presentation took us on a trip to Oman to seek out the source of frankincense at the reputed spot where the three wise men gathered to present baby Jesus with gifts.  OK who funds this project?  His goal in doing this is to prepare a sensory meal to a group of friends (VIPs, critics etc.) to celebrate Christmas and create a BBC “search for perfection” show.  His first dish a cube of freeze dried shellfish consommé wrapped in gold leaf with a broth infused with the aroma and taste of frankincense and a carved myrhh branch (a lot of this presentation is a blur so I apologize if I am getting the facts wrong).  He had put an envelope under each attendees seat. In it he had us taste a cellulose strip (like those breath strips) of frankincense and another wafer that felt like Styrofoam but slowly dissolved in your mouth. He had created (with his fragrance specialist) the taste and aroma of a baby to make his dinners think of the baby Jesus.

On another clip he showed us how he wanted to re-create the sensory memories of his childhood Christmas celebrations at his uncle’s house.  So he create a dish around the memory of being close to a crackling fireplace, the smoke, the smell of his uncle’s red leather chair the fragrance of the smoke etc.  He went to Siberia to find reindeer and see how he could use it in his dish.  The local tribe has a long history of eating reindeer and he felt that it would be inappropriate to make a dish out of reindeer marrow (no one will eat Rudolph) and instead decided to make a sorbet out of reindeer milk.  Not enough to just do this he wanted to set it on fire to replicate a fireplace, to this he wanted to add smoke and furthermore he wanted to bring in his uncle’s leather chair. How to accomplish all this.  To the reindeer sorbet he added gellan F gum which allows the sorbet to stay frozen while it is being flamed with Jack Daniels, to simulate smoke and the aroma of smoke he put dry ice under the bowl and poured water flavored with smoke and finally he had the bowl wrapped in red leather.  To illustrate how he could make the dry ice smell of smoke he poured the water over some plants that had dry ice stashed at it’s base and put on a series of fans.  We could smell it all the way up the second level of the bleachers.

From this original concept he modified it to work in his kitchen with table-side service.  He is presently working with a magician to have the dish presented to guests and with a snap of the finger the flame would ignite.  Wouldn’t you love to be a waiter there.

The core of his presentation was centered around all the senses that come into play in the dining experience.  He showed us another clip about a dish called “the Sound of the Sea”.  He had consulted with a sociologist at the University of Reading about the effect of sound on the dining experience.  Would an oysters taste saltier if the sound of the ocean was played while eating it?  So he had her perform a few experiments to assess the validity of the theory.

The conclusion of the study was affirmative.  So he created a dish of oysters, sea urchin, razor clams, sea weed, replication of sand and ocean foam. When the patron orders it they bring out a sea shell with ipod earphones dangling out and the dinner listens to the sound of the sea.  He has done other dishes involving sound to heighten the crunch of a dish.

All I could think about during this presentation was that scene in Brazil where the heavily nipped and tucked  mother takes her son Tuttle to a restaurant and they eat a dish they can only see virtually on a screen.  I don’t think that Heston is trying to take eating to that conclusion, but I am intrigued at his in depth exploration and fascination of the multi-sensory experience involved in dining.

The pump was primed for the rest of the Congress.

Enrique Olvera from Mexico City was next on the stage as about 90% of the attendees flooded out of their seats to get to the never ending flow of Stella Artois and Wines available at the product booths.  Poor guy came on to talk to the rest of the group about Mexican street food.  His dish focused on cactus, which you often see in the market stalls in Mexico City.  I used to love to go to the mercados with my mother in Mexico City.  The colors were amazing and the samples of fresh fruit always stick out in my memory.  Unfortunately his presentation fell flat, but how could you possibly get up and follow an act like Heston.  After Ted Allen (queer eye for the straight guy) came up and gave us the remaining schedule we broke for lunch.

Next on the roster was Charlie Trotter.  I talked to him briefly after his book signing and told him I was impressed that his name was listed on the wall, along with all the top chefs of France, of Paul Bocuse’s banquet hall which is located a few hundred yards from his world famous eponymous restaurant outside of Lyon. To me that act by Paul Bocuse heralds the acceptance of our chefs (albeit only one) as being on par with the French chefs.  A major milestone in my mind.  Charlie replied that he now had an even greater reason to go to Bocuse.

Charlie Trotter and his Chef de Cuisine

The theme of Charlie’s presentation was on the responsibilities of a chef.   He made awkward attempts at humor, which seemed a little strained and fell short.  The guy’s facial expression never changes so it’s hard to feel the humor.

He gave us a good feel for how over the top his perception of perfection and his sense of communal responsibility is,  e.g. he got tired of how dilapidated his sidewalk had become so he went over the head of the city of Chicago and replaced it himself in the middle of the night or he scours out his dumpsters and even those of his neighbors because he feels there is no reason there should be any difference between how immaculate his dining room is and every other part of his restaurant.  I can understand his point, but I don’t think I’ll be lining up to work at his restaurant.

He showed us a demo of the evolution of a dish over the course of twenty years.  Same ingredients just manipulated in a different way.  He had his chef de cuisine there and his sous chef. The two patiently helped Charlie along with his demo.  It was a nice presentation and inspiring

Next came Barton Seavor who also faced a mass exodus maybe not on par with Enrique.  His topic sustainable seafood, which he seems to be very passionate about.  This is not a very easy topic to discuss as chefs are in the pleasure industry and not the “you can’t have that business”.  Barton offered some advice on how to educate customers and offer tasty alternatives to fish in the red category and even those in the yellow.

I hate to think of my children not being able to eat wild caught seafood in their lifetime, but it appears that is where the state of our oceans is heading.  60% of seafood is consumed in restaurants, that give us chefs the biggest potential impact through our food dollars to elicit a change.

Next came Rick Moonen who echoed the same message as Barton but in a more urgent no BS way.  His message “If we continue our patterns of consumption, most of the species we like to eat will be gone by 2048. And they’re not going to disappear on December 31, 2047… it could be much sooner than that.  Certain species could be gone 5 years from now.”

Now I have an issue with anyone preaching about sustainable anything while living in Las Vegas running several restaurants.  LV seems like the biggest eco disaster ever created with the exception of Dubai which has taken the creation of a completely artificial city to a whole new level.   I’m curious how he reconciles this.  Maybe he feels he has the ability to reach a larger audience in LV. I do believe in his message however and I do my bit by avoiding the purchase of red listed species and to give my students the Monterrey Bay Aquarium seafood choice list.

After Rick Moonen we were able to relax for an hour and I was trying to get Anthony Bourdain to sign my book.  He was supposed to be at the booth signing with Michael Rhulman, but when I went up Michael was alone and when I asked where Tony was he said “oh he is being a prima donna and left in a huff.”

Which bring us to the final panel of the day.  Michael Rhulman as mediator between Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain on the “role of the chef”.  This is a vast topic for these two to talk about and they went all over the map.  Railing on Food TV, 20+ course dinners, multi-sensory dining experience, chef’s egos etc.

It was irreverent, patronizing, condescending, funny and honestly a little narrow minded.  These guys are entertainers now.  Like shock jocks they know what buttons to push for a laugh and they aren’t afraid to state their opinion.  Marco was brilliant and had the most laughs.  He was filled with conviction behind what he believes in.  He spoke of his decision as the youngest Michelin 3 star chef in the UK to renounce his stars to regain a relationship with his children and then wife.  Though if you click on his name above you will see his lifestyle is more akin to Dylan Thomas.  He feels that a Chef who puts his name on a restaurant should be behind the stove, anything less and he is living a lie.  This led to the Anthony Bourdain saying in return that it made more sense for the new chef to renounce his more hands-on role and take on a role of CEO of an empire so that they can have more of a life and better return on their labor.

When question and answer time came along.  Norman Van Aken asked Marco what he thought about the type of chef that screams at people, burns their aprons and intimidates them in front of others.  Marco replied “oh you must mean Gordon” (Gordon worked under Marco and learned the above practice from his master).  Marco says that he doesn’t believe chefs should belittle their staff.  When Michael Rhulman pointed out that Marco was famous for this same behavior.  Marco replied “Gordon made himself cry”. He brought down the house.

They were very entertaining, but you could tell that they had pissed a few people off.  They made suggestions that multi course chef driven meals where the patron is told how to eat a dish, that comes with whiffs of smoke is just not satisfying.  As Anthony said “we know the good shit and are satisfied with good done simply”

Now I agree with this in principle.  Some of the best meals I have ever had have been simple with the food,  company and surroundings forming the great food memory.  However, I also feel there is a place and a need for chefs to express themselves and to re-analyze the way we eat and the role of the menu.  Cooking, like any creative pursuit, needs to evolve.  Does Marco still want us to eat like people did in Careme’s time.  I welcome innovation and am its patron.  Let Chefs evolve and if you don’t like what is being done, don’t eat at their restaurants. There are plenty of one hit wonders out there, the cream will rise and those like Ferran and Heston will soon be sitting upon similar panels railing on the excesses of their successors.

The trio could not wait to get out of the congress and they spent awhile trying desperately to hail a cab.  I did manage to get my book signed while they were seeking a cab.  I always feel weird asking famous people for their signature as if it has any value.  What am I hoping for?  That the book will increase in value or is it just a momento of the fact that I bugged a guy at an inopportune time when he reluctantly signed off on the book to avoid pissing off a fan?  Who knows?

John, the Dean of Culinary Arts at J&W Denver (Jorge) and I grabbed a cab to go to Momofuku Noodle Bar a lady named Alex (she owns a restaurant on St. Johns called La Tapa) jumped in the cab with us as she was heading in the same direction.  It turns out that she spoke French and that she had also worked at the Four Seasons in Georgetown a few years before John and I .

The noodle bar was awesome…..especially the pork buns and the kimchee soup.  David Chang the chef is making a killing at these joints (which include Saam bar and KO).  Apparently they were propelled to popularity by the late night chefs crowd (chefs looking for an after hours bite to eat).

After we cabbed it to WD-50 for some desserts.  We got to meet Wylie and saw his set-up.  He knew my student who worked for him well (the same one who did the stage at Fat Duck).  Right before we left the Chef de Cuisine and Sous Chef for Charlie Trotter walked in.  We chatted with them and on our way out ran into another group of ICC attendees and the chef for Bar Americain a Bobby Flay restaurant who invited us to his restaurant for dinner.  He was rather innebriated so we doubted he would remember us.


3 Responses

  1. […] book is monumental and at the price of $30 is a must buy.  I saw Heston do a presentation at the 2008 International Chef’s Congress in NYC and it was by far the most mind-blowing presentation of the congress.  Ironically it was a […]

  2. […] I got to experience some amazing presentations by world class chefs.   I’ll never forget Heston Blumenthal’s presentation or the presentation by Rene Redzepi from Noma restaurant.  I had never heard of Rene or Noma and […]

  3. […] the first congress I attended. Heston Blumenthal took us on journey of preparing a Christmas dinner for a small group that was a perfectly orchestrated and loaded with every imaginable sensory memory […]

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