Field Trip: An Afternoon at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress
September 22, 2009
Pork rinds made by the Spotted Pig teamStarChefs.com is currently holding its fourth annual International Chefs Congress in New York City, a three-day culinary symposium that's open only to industry professionals. We stopped by on Sunday—the first day of the program—to take in some demonstrations, listen to panel discussions, and eat. When we arrived around noon, attendees were taking their seats around the main stage to watch a keynote panel called "What is American Cuisine?" (A topic we know a thing or two about—click here for our white paper, "The State of American Cuisine.") Hosted by our friend, Clark Wolf, the panel included JBF Award winners Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and Norman Van Aken. Wolf opened the discussion by citing the Fireside Cookbook, in which James Beard declared that America has the greatest opportunity to patch together a unique, national cuisine from the best that other cultures have to offer. "Beard's words are just as fresh and relevant now as they were when the Fireside Cookbook first came out in 1949," Wolf stated. The first topic centered around what sets American chefs apart from those in Europe. Van Aken explained that American chefs are known for their camaraderie. "When we were starting out, we felt like we were the underdog compared to Europe, so we came together and worked as a team, as opposed to individuals working alone to reach superstardom."
Norman Van Aken, Charlie Trotter, and Emeril Lagasse participate in a keynote panel led by Clark WolfThe conversation grew a little tense when Wolf asked the panel to respond to the typical accusations hurled at American food, like bland flavor and our tradition of placing convenience over quality. Trotter explained that American advances in genetically modified food have helped the world eat, and that helping undeveloped countries is more important than defending our fast food culture. But he went on to explain that American cuisine is "moving forward beautifully," as American diners are proving they can be just as savvy as anyone else. "Thomas Friedman says that the world is flat, and that applies to cuisine. You see it in the Americans who order sushi and know the name of the fish in Japanese." A demonstration by David Bouley followed, which focused on Japanese technique in the context of his Japanese-French fusion cuisine. While preparing an uni terrine and miso black cod with black onion powder, Bouley marveled at the variety of ingredients available to American chefs today, recalling that he couldn't find fresh herbs when he was cooking in the '80s. Next up was Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi in Tokyo, a master of kaiseki cooking. The chef concentrated on dashi and how it contributes umami to Japanese dishes, describing how he uses non-traditional flavoring agents like pork. An audience member noted that the chef had not seasoned his dashi with salt and pepper, prompting Murata to declare them completely unnecessary and liken dashi's role in Japanese cuisine to how butter and olive oil are cornerstones of flavor in French and Italian food. Then came Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young of Intellectual Ventures, who have set out to publish the first cookbook to focus exclusively on modernist culinary technique (the book, which will be released next year, is an estimated 1,500 pages). Their presentation covered innovations like the "invincible beurre blanc" and cryosearing, and unveiled a mad scientist creation that would blow the minds of meatheads everywhere: pork rind–coated pork, with a perfectly pink center—a clever reattachment of skin to beast.
This overheard view of April Bloomfield plating her pork belly roulade beamed from a large screen over the main stage.The program seamlessly continued into a whole pig butchering by April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig. After swiftly breaking down a ten-week-old St-Canut piglet, the English chef demonstrated the preparation of her pork belly roulade, accompanied with deep-fried cloves of garlic confit and (what else?) pork rinds. The lucky audience members were also treated to fresh pork "scratchings" made by Bloomfield and her team. Finally, French luminary Pierre Gagnaire arrived on the main stage for a demo entitled "Creativity à la Minute." Using a basket of mystery ingredients, the chef prepared five dishes on the fly. Bart Vandaele played translator and narrator, offering a detailed play-by-play while also trying to stay out the way. Were the improvised dishes a success? Richard Blais described Gagnaire's Wisconsin gruyère panna cotta with Asian pear–beet purée as "sick" on his Twitter feed. Looks like the chef would fare well in a quickfire challenge.
Pierre Gagnaire and Bart Vandaele look on as a sous chef grates fresh corn for Gagnaire's improvised Wisconsin gruyère panna cotta with Asian pear–beet purée.