Would you mess with this man? Charlie Palmer, the Emperor of a considerable culinary empire, flanked by the presence of his five generals from all parts of the nation formed a formidable presence on the main stage. His protégés took turns at the helm of the presentation and each did their own variation on the duck and foie gras theme. Some very traditional and some more innovative (think the legal smoking device used to infuse smoke flavor into the foie gras). The Super Aladdin Cold Smoker by Koerner featured prominently in one of the general’s demos.
The first demo was an impressive duck galantine composed of duck prosciutto, duck rillettes and a generous perfectly cylindrical foie gras torchon. He sliced a portion and placed it on a plate with a lemon purée and port glazed dates. The common echo of each demo was the importance of providing a layer of acid to each dish
The demos were well executed as the relay was passed from one chef to the other. At the end of the presentation the generals were all asked what it was like to have Charlie as their mentor and they had nothing but praise for the man. He allowed them to have their own voice and to manage their own restaurants. One was very inspired by Charlie’s work ethic, which he described as 365.
There were no big bells and whistles in any of the presentations, just sound elegant cooking.
Next it was on to a presentation by Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake in S.F. and Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune in NYC. It was a pleasant contrast from the testosterone alpha male driven presentation of Charlie’s army. They each worked on their own dishes and were extremely respectful of each others presentation. They each made two elevated comfort food dishes. Elizabeth made a deep fried chicken Ballotine (more like a roulade) with a blue cheese ice cream and Gabrielle made an elevated version of ants on a log.
The next presentation was arguably the most memorable of the whole congress. Dan Barber, the chef for Blue Hill Stone Barn in NYC and the Pocantico Hills 45 miles outside of NYC, came out and lit up the room by sharing his philosophy of manipulating ingredients before they even get in the kitchen. I have added links to my blog of other presentations he has done over the years and each of his presentations are amazing. If Dan is as good a chef as he is a public speaker, then I must eat at his restaurant. His ability to entrance a crowd and retain all the information of his presentation is remarkable. Of course he has visual cues to punctuate his points, but to do it without notes is quite another feat.
So the gist of his presentation is this: What if a chef paid as much attention to the manipulations of the food before it even gets to his front door as he does once he receives it. Now I am not sure who funds this man (I believe Kellogg Foundation is a generous contributor) but he has people working on his farm that are recreating the environment of the Spanish Dehesa (I think Dan really likes to say Dehesa) in Extremadura where the Pata Negra Iberico $2000 a leg ham comes from. As he explained the true marbling of that king of porcine delicacies doesn’t come from the singular diet of acorns that tumble prodigiously from its oak limbs, but from the grasses that surround the trunk of same tree.
Well he has tons of woods around the Farm at Stone Barn, too much in fact that he decided it needed more sunlight so the grasses could come up and feed his fine Berkshire pigs. He thinned out the forest and set his pigs out to graze. He converted the wood into charcoal to cook with and after hearing about a unique super nutrient rich soil in the Amazon that is composed of charcoal rich soil decided to integrate that into his soil composition to use on his crops. Another farmer noticed they were throwing away bones after stock making and decided to char those to add to this super soil. Corn cobs were not far behind. He showed us a slide of plants of the same age, one growing in the super soil and the other in their regular compost soil. The super soil plants were twice the size.
His farmers record everything. Before they decide to mate or slaughter a pig they take periodic ultrasounds along the ribs of the pig to determine fat concentration. Those with the desired genetics traits live to create the Über swine those that don’t end up in the kitchen.
Compost is not just compost at the farm. It is energy. They use theirs to heat their greenhouses. The compost bins are placed on the outside of the greenhouse and a fan is used to circulate the hot air into the greenhouse. The heat from decomposition of the vegetable matter stays at a constant +100º, so why not cook food in it?
Why not flavor vegetables with certain types of compost. He passed around a head of celtuce to illustrate his point. He had grown the celtuce in a soil that was rich in decaying hazelnut shells and by God if that Celtuce didn’t smell of hazelnuts when I broke off a leaf.
The presentation ended on a more medical note with the story of an inspiring collaboration with a Dr. Lee who is doing research on the antigenic properties of certain vegetables. The premise is that certain vegetables have much higher proportion of cancer blocking cells than others. In one graph he showed that Dr. Lee had discovered that Earl Grey tea had twice the antigens of Green Tea and in further research showed that a combination of Earl Grey and Green Tea had double the properties of the Earl Grey.
The question he left us to ponder is what if there is a correlation between how we raise vegetables and how they taste and the antigenic (not positive this is the proper word) properties of each vegetable. He feels that subsequent research that Dr. Lee will do at CSU (Colorado State University in Fort Collins) will probably reveal that vegetables at their peak raised in organic conditions will prove to be the best for us. I wanted to ask if that explains the “French Paradox”, but he had clearly gone over his presentation limit and it was time to move on to the next presenter.
Mourad Lahlou of Aziza had a hard act to follow, kind of like “the Who” following “Jimi Hendrix” at Monterey Pop. A bald tattooed Moroccan man wearing a white tee shirt and the traditional blue French apron was meek and delightfully humble. Driven by his ethnic roots he creates an adventurous interpretation of traditional Moroccan flavors. A cuisine that Antoinette Bruno the founder of Starchefs referred to as soulful which is a moniker that Mourad reluctantly accepted. His food was simple, featuring great fresh product and traditional Moroccan spice blends and deconstructed classic dishes.
If anyone tilted the balance of the Art vs Craft question towards Art it was the next presenter Jordan Khan. Jordan, the youngest person at age 17 to work at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, sports an Emo haircut and came out without saying a word except to tell the AV man he was fired for not getting his presentation up and running on cue.
The video he put together while also working simultaneously on the dishes being prepared on the screen was extremely creative and mesmerizing. Dubbed “La Révolution Surréaliste” was an homage to Dali and other surrealist painters and artists. The pastry dishes he worked on were inspired by art and music. One where he took apart a croissant and glazed it to look like Dali’s mustache. The interesting aspect of his video was how he would put down an element on the plate and then the video would cut to how he put together the element. All of his dishes were composed of roughly 20 elements and, as Rick Moonen aptly put it at the end of the presentation: “table 10 wants their dessert, their trying to make it to the theater,” were not practical in a restaurant setting.
Another dish was inspired by the color blue and yet another by shades of black inspired by Mark Rothko’s Black on Black paintings and was built entirely of different chocolate elements. At the end of his presentation the stage was swarmed by people trying to get pictures of his dishes.
The final presenter of the day was Martin Berasategui, yet another culinary luminary from St Sebastian Spain. The presentation began awkwardly with some deliberation about who was translating and trying to figure out the video functions. Once they got those two issues resolved they began, but it was not without further technical problem. Always hard to pull off a presentation when you are making it to a foreign crowd. Translation creates lag time.
He had created videos of different dishes and went through them one by one. I can’t remember how many there were (a lot) but I do remember how anxious the MC and the Starchefs director were getting about how long it was going on. Martin is extremely talented. One dish that stuck out was a rouget where he rubbed his fingers against the grain of the scales on one filet and made them curl slightly then he placed it on the outside of a sieve and ladled hot oil over the surface. This turned the scales into crispy chips. I would be really curious as how this dish tastes. He tried all different types of fish before he stumbled on the rouget and found that it worked.
You could tell that Sammic had sponsored the presentation because he continuously showed their products being used in the videos. At the end he reminded everyone that Sammic was sponsoring 2 Stagiers to come to his restaurant for a year long paid stage. Pretty amazing opportunity. I long to return to St. Sebastian again, but I’m not really in that age group any longer.
I stayed at the show a little while later to taste some of the special cocktails being put together at some of the different booths. The cocktail party on the second day of the Congress seems to have become an annual feature and showcases some of the nation’s top bartenders riding the mixology trend.
Another full day at the congress, I was beat and looked forward to a good night sleep.