2011 Starchefs – International Chef Congress – Day 1

Day one of the Somm Slam

It was hard getting up by 9am to prepare for the “Blood and Curds” Spanish Wine and Cheese seminar and the calm along 6 Ave. on a Sunday morning made it even harder to get out of the comfortable bed.

In previous years at the ICC the lines to get in were overwhelming and the registration seemed disorganized. This year they provided bar codes to be scanned and even though I was late for the seminar the process took less than 1 minute.  Bravo Starchefs!

The seminar was stellar and reinforced how much I already know about Spain’s cheeses and wines.  That in itself is comforting.  They presented 10 wines and 9 cheeses. Enrique Canut and Kerin Auth did a great job at going back and forth with their discussion about the various cheeses and the reasons she chose the wines to accompany. Enrique presented a stellar cheese called “Ombre” which stands for “shade” that I will have to try and find locally.

Then it was time to get into the main room for the opening presenters. Compared to previous years the room seemed to have fewer vendors.  The Belgium beer garden was missing.  Could the economy have caught up with this congress?

Kim Severson and Grant Achatz took the main stage and Kim acted as interviewer to go over the theme of this year’s congress the “6th Sense.”  The sixth sense is the intangible positive or negative emotional response you get when you dine in a restaurant.  The hardest thing to control.  Chef like Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal have been toying with manipulating diners emotions through sensory manipulation for quite some time.

During 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 he could come up with to evoke the emotions of Christmas. Mind blowing and cemented my desire to someday experience a dinner at his restaurant.

There is so much involved with an unforgettable meal.  The people you dine with, the weather, the circumstances in your life, the occasion, the scents, the waiter and of course the food.  Can a restaurant actually strum those emotional heartstrings and magnify the customers experience?

Grant talked about his latest venture “Next” which is a restaurant that changes themes and menu every 3 months. Currently he is working on a childhood theme. Previous themes have been “Paris 1906” and currently the theme is a “Tour of Thailand.”  So the challenge is to come up with dishes that conjure the comfort foods of childhood.  This presents a challenge, as he mentions, due to the fact that certain flavors like “bisquick” are for him, Because his mother made them every Sunday, the benchmark for pancake flavor.  How do you mess with that and connect with the consumer about that flavor and very American childhood memory and still put the Alinea spin on it.

Since I chose to be a Somm Slam judge at this year’s ICC, I had to sacrifice some pretty exciting presenters.  The next up was Laurent Gras the former chef for L2O.  I wanted to get the opportunity to talk to him as I had a student who worked for him at L2O. Interestingly enough L2O was awarded the coveted 3 stars from Michelin right after Laurent quit the restaurant.

Instead of catching that I went to the Slam.  They brought out 11 top Sommeliers to compete this year. Predominantly from Washington D.C. , some NYC and one Californian.  On each of the days the Sommeliers were presented with a wine that all had to blind taste and to guess its origin.  All the judges were presented with the same wine so we could evaluate along with them.

Next five of them were led a way from the room while the other six were presented with a plate of 3 Wisconsin cheeses. They had 4 minutes to go to a table with approximately 50 wines and decide which wine they would pair with all 3 cheeses.  Once they committed to a wine the volunteers would begin to pour their wine to the judges so that we could evaluated their choice along with the cheeses.  So if you can imagine each of us had 6 different glasses of wine for us to evaluate along with the cheeses.  We were asked to determine our top 3 choices of a best pairing.

decisions decisions

Then it was next group’s turn.  Originally Fred the emcee said the wines the first group chose would be taken out of the selection.  But when it was time for the second group to choose, he changed his mind and decided to let them have access to the same selection.  The following day he said all the selections from the 1st day would be removed and the options would dwindle.  Two of the same wines were chosen by sommeliers from each group.  A white Maury from the Côtes de Roussillion (did not know they made such a wine) performed remarkably well and was one of the wines chosen by two of the sommeliers.

The wine sponsors for the event were Côtes du Rhône, Vin du Sud (Languedoc), Australia and Chile.  This at least gave the sommeliers a fighting chance to determine the wine in the blind tasting. In the next part of the competition the groups of sommeliers were asked wine theory questions about each of the sponsor’s region.  They had to jot the answer down in a notebook and then show it to all of us.   At the end of the Slam a young lady named Eileen asked for my business card and said she was from InterRhone.  I asked if she knew some of the same people I know and said that Daphne Payan, the daughter of the Directrice of the University of Wine in France where I took my professional students for many years, was at the congress.

I went into the main vendors area and caught the tail end of the David Burke and Doug Piper Australian lamb deconstruction.  the two ping ponged off each other as they cut and prepared a vast array of lamb dishes.  David Burke discussing and making all the dishes he likes to make using lamb and Doug Piper taking down a whole lamb.  David Burke had a band saw and said that every kitchen should have one if they could afford it.

I skipped Bill Kim’s presentation and it seems that might have been a mistake.  He is doing something similar to David Chang’s Momofuko but in Chicago.  His is called Urban Belly and his newer venture Belly Shack.

Bjorn and Daniel

Bjoring and Daniel

The next up was a Nordic duo, Bjorn and Daniel, that bored the pants off of me.  Interesting ideas but the delivery was numbing.  They have a restaurant in Stockholm Sweden called Frantzén/Lindeberg and showed a video of the producers they use.  It showed their fisherman who catches their fish and then kills them using the Ike Jime method (click the link to get Cooking Issues detailed research on this technique).  This is when you catch the fish live and slice through its vertebrae at its tail and then carefully run piano wire through the core of the vertebrae.  This method insures the fish bypasses the rigor stage which can adversely affect the texture of the fish. Not sure I grasp all of the benefits of the method but it looks like quite a pain staking process.  Being that it originated in Japan I’m sure there is tremendous value.

The video also showed their farmer, a Luddite, who lives in a tent and tends to their specifically grown vegetables.  He plows his field using a horse drawn plow.  He refuses to deliver the vegetables with a car or truck but instead packs everything up and takes public transportation. Two plus hours of public transport to deliver vegetables so that he can feel better about his carbon footprint.  The restaurant only serves 20 patrons a night at around $250 meal with optional additional wine pairing.  There is the customary 1 staff member per guest of standard 3 Star Michelin luxury.   As Bjorn stated “we are not becoming millionaires doing this.”

Gilles Verot and Daniel Boulud

The day ended with a presentation by Daniel Boulud and Giles Verot, which was interesting to me as I had just eaten at DBGBs the night before.  They showed a video in French of Gilles and his wife’s charcuterie in Paris.  Gilles who is a second generation charcutier (his father was a M.O.F. Meilleur Ouvrier de France) in St. Etienne (just south west of Lyon) married a woman in Paris whose father owned a charcuterie in Paris.   This convenient union allowed him to take over the reins of the Paris store and get the hell out of St. Etienne.  Daniel Boulud discovered Gilles when he was over in France searching out a talented charcutier to develop a charcuterie program at Daniel’s many restaurants in NYC.  This collaboration has brought Gilles over to the US many times to train Daniel’s staff and to create the stellar charcuterie that Daniel offers at his restaurants.

Gilles put together a multi-layered Pâté en Croute featuring venison, duck and wild boar each marinating in a unique spice or herb.  After he finished assembling the pâté he cut through an already cooked one to show the crowd.  Giles is the type of artisan which you can’t help but love.  Very humble, amazingly skilled in his craft and grateful for the collaboration with Daniel.  It is that humility which I find particularly endearing.  Many French Chefs vaunt their egos and lack humility.

I rejoined my wife back at the apartment and we prepared to meet up with Jorge de la Torre as he had invited us to join him at a Vegetarian Japanese restaurant in the east village.  I was not really up for a Japanese vegetarian restaurant, but usually Jorge has great leads on restaurants so we decided to join him and the Dean for J&W Miami.

Kajitsu is the restaurant and is in the basement of a brownstone in the east Village.  Jorge told me it was a 2 star Michelin, so that raised my expectations.  I was further encouraged when we got to the table, Jorge pointed out that Grant Achatz was sitting at the counter with, I assume, his wife.   If one of the top chefs in the US is eating here it must be awesome.

The very Japanese decor was indeed peaceful and calming.  We chose the $50 prix fixe which was a 5 course meal.  I have been to many 1, 2 and 3 star restaurants in my time and how the Michelin guides selected this one as a 2 star is beyond me.  The food was artfully presented and mostly well cooked, the service was attentive and graceful.  However I desperately desired salt at every course.   Vegetables were cooked beyond a crunch in certain plates and maybe I’m not deign of judging Shojin Buddhist cuisine but I think we would have been much happier heading down the street and eating at Momofuku noodle bar. Bathroom was not appointed to the level of a 2 star nor were there any of the other customary luxuries that Michelin requires of a 2 star joint.  I can’t help but wonder what Grant’s take on this restaurant is.

We ended the evening at a nearby Tequila bar, where my wife ordered a jalapeno spiked concoction that was so spicy she couldn’t take more than a few sips.  We were hoping for a call of a very small speakeasy called “Do not Tell” that you have to gain entrance into by going into a little pizza place, going into the telephone booth and picking up the phone. Jorge sent Lucy in there and she picked up the phone and the doorman opened a door in the wall in the phone booth.  No room tonight.

We headed home on the subway and ended another great day in the city.


One Response

  1. I really enjoyed these reports and appreciate all the hard work that went into them!

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