Main Stage Wrap-up
Day 1: Southern Pride, Japanese Legacies, Iberian Naturalism, and South American ModernityAntoinette Bruno and Will Blunt of StarChefs.com – New York, NY
StarChefs.com partners Antoinette Bruno and Will Blunt kicked off the Main Stage for ICC 2012 by delving into the heart of their subject, Origins & Frontiers. Managing Editor Blunt tackled the theme from an abstract perspective, citing a reaction against the instantaneous nature of information, and “eroding cultural boundaries,” that have spurred a return to—or in the very least, inspiration from—the old ways. Blunt underscored the “archaeology” of the ICC theme, noting that chefs and culinary professionals are not recreating history but rather drawing inspiration from it, propelling creativity. CEO and Editor-in-Chief Antoinette Bruno drove the point home with specifics in her annual Culinary Trends Report, a visual presentation showcasing the tastes, talents, and techniques that actually inspired the Congress theme. Among Bruno’s key trends were concepts like “Roots Cuisine,” or the culinary culture of one place, “Heirloom and Regional Ingredients,” and “New Frontiers for Chefs.” Bruno celebrated the success of the Chef Picks “Off the Beaten Path” and “Chef Picks” apps, highlighted the increased social issues awareness of the Congress, and announced the release of a StarChefs chefs jacket, designed with a chef in mind (read: generous venting) in coordination with Chef Works. But her key message was inspiration. “How connected do you feel to the legacy of cuisine?” she asked her packed audience, a question the next three days of ICC would decide.Author Mark Kurlansky – New York, NY
Author and prolific food historian Mark Kurlansky took a bird's eye view of the 2012 ICC theme, literally. Through the story of Clarence Birdseye, prototypical outdoorsman, problem-solver, and pioneer of frozen food by way of Birdseye, Kurlansky painted the picture of a country attempting to increase factory production, get away from “hand crafting,” and moving towards a frozen, mass-produced food culture. “He completely changed the nature of food, in a way we are trying to change back.” While Kurlanksy was hardly advocating for a celebration of frozen dinners, he used that story—also a miniature lesson in American history (e.g. at one point, New York state actually banned the use of frozen foods in its prisons)—to underscore a simple vice of today’s craft/artisan/sustainable food movement: scarcity. Where Birdseye frozen foods are ubiquitous and cheap, if also less nutritious and lacking character, modern culinary aspirations tend toward the exclusive, not by design but inevitably, nonetheless. Kurlanksy ended with a simple question: “how do we do great food at low cost, for poor and working people?”Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto – New York, NY
After posing next to his bluefin tuna (5-year-old Natasha) and then literally skipping onto the Main Stage, Chef Masuhara Morimoto butchered the 227-pound Kindai bluefin tuna, and the crowd was rapt. Raised from an egg at a Japanese University fish farm, the tuna represents at least part of the solution in supplying the world with ever-in-demand but environmentally unsound species. “For the future of Japanese cuisine, I better have tuna forever,” said Morimoto. Although he’d never broken down a Kindai bluefin (a $25,000 aquatic beast), Morimoto and Head Sushi Chef Robby Cook hacked through fin and bone and ultimately finessed deep red loins and muscles—to be served tonight at Morimoto. “This is my soul,” said Morimoto of the fish. And while he acknowledged the environmental implications of serving and fishing tuna, he challenged the audience to think about the harvest from multiple sides: conserving the fish for future generations, protecting the environment, and preserving jobs for fishermen and their families.Chef Sean Brock of Husk – Charleston, SC
Chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene – Atlanta, GA
There was talk of secession. There was talk of war, but mostly, Southern disciples and Chefs Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins talked about food, where it comes from and the people who make it. “Cuisine forms around geography and what thrives in a region—ingredients at arm’s length,” said Brock, whose geography is South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where rice, oysters, and benne define local flavors. Brock demonstrated dishes and techniques that captured the essence of indigenous ingredients and their origins. He clamped oysters shut before steaming them to retain their liquor, and put together a Lowcountry dashi of clothesline-dried collard greens, country ham, and local-cured shad roe. Hopkins represented Georgia’s regional cuisines from the Cherokee tribes in north Georgia to the Geechees of Sapelo Island. And he spoke out passionately in favor of preserved foods, which he said are in danger of extinction because of bureaucratic hurdles. “We’re at war,” said Hopkins (a sentiment echoed by Brock throughout the demo). Hopkins demonstrated a traditional sour corn—a simple mixture of corn kernels, salt, and corn juice—that he rested at room temperature for 48 hours and paired with sorghum-glazed pork and clover. Equally in danger are the people, the country cooks, who hold onto the South’s food traditions, and the duo ended with a video from the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that works (like Brock and Linton) to record and celebrate those regional foods and heroes.Chef Virgilio Martínez of Central – Lima, Peru
It’s all about height when it comes to Virgilio Martínez’s cooking. Not necessarily about the height of the actual dish, but the incredibly varied altitude of Peru’s product. From the sea scallops of Lima’s coast to the potatoes at 1,700 meters and the strange herbs of the Amazon, Martínez's dishes served as spokesman for his home country. He created a vibrant, colorful scallop tiradito (think ceviche-style fish cut like sashimi) and a mind-blowing potato causa with a clay emulsion, which used a technique Martínez gleaned from his travels to southern Peru. Matt Lee, who was emceeing the packed Main Stage demonstation, said the clay emulsion might have been a new flavor: perfumy and alkaline, like a flavorful mud bath. (Lee promised it tasted better than described.) The session wasn’t all visual amazement, though, as Martínez gave a little history on how Peru traditionally didn’t have flour but rather relied on freeze-dried potatoes as a thickening agent. “I’d rather use ingredients from inside Peru” than fly in flour or other ingredients, he said with a smile. “I don’t want to say Peru has the best cuisine … but [my country] is like Disneyland.”Chef Josean Alija of Nerua at Guggenheim Bilbao – Bilbao, Spain
Nerua may be “a young concept—only one and a half years old,” said Chef Josean Alija—but its ambitions are mature. With Alija’s leadership, the restaurant inside Guggenheim Bilbao is striving to “bring nature into an industrial city,” with an inexhaustibly creative emphasis on vegetables. “We use over 200 different kinds of vegetables a year,” says Alija—produce grown by farmers, as he tends to the business of cooking. And the Nerua team uses those vegetables to explore essences of flavor and texture—and to create surprises—for a sublime dining experience. He demonstrated his now-famous cherry tomatoes, stemmed and steamed, filled with a tomato salsa derived from a more mature tomato, finished with herbs chosen specifically for each tomato. Dishes like this, and his Avocado Foie Gras, don’t simply exalt the purity of vegetable ingredients, they “personify tradition, culture, and innovation.”
Day 2: An Ode to the Streets, a Requiem for Pastry, a Shot of PiscoChef Elizabeth Falkner of Krescendo – New York, NY
Elizabeth Falkner makes city sludge look sexy. Mind you, it’s delicious sludge—a mix of breadcrumbs, capers, lemon, parsley, anchovies, sumac, chicory, and lamb sauce. But it’s a tartly named homage to the “funk of the street.” While Falkner acknowledges that most of the world’s great chefs now look to nature for culinary inspiration, she looks to the cityscape and its people, architecture, and noise. “It’s about rhythm and the frantic pace of the city,” she said. And with her move from San Francisco to Brooklyn, she has more than enough grungy muses (including public transportation) to fuel her soon-to-open restaurant Krescendo.
She started her Main Stage demonstration with a video window into her creative process. Lines and colors transformed into food porn close-ups of dishes and street scenes. “I love the graphics and tension of the streets,” she said. Falkner tagged a deconstructed cake with graffiti to reflect her origins as a pastry chef, which she followed with her personal frontier: exploring (and eating lots of) southern Italian food. She then demonstrated a lamb roulade by deboning an Australian rack of lamb, making a Moroccan-spiced sausage, and rolling it all in beautiful fat. After searing the package and finishing it in a Montague convection oven, Falkner plated the lamb on a Front of the House plate with tomato-harrisa confit, fried panella, herbs, and her dirty, delicious City Sludge.
Alexandre Gauthier brought Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, France, to the ICC Main Stage. Images of forests, the sea, farms, and fields mixed with photos of Gauthier and his team cooking at his restaurant, La Grenouillère. Although Gauthier remodeled the space last year, the restaurant and farm have been in continuous business for 350 years. That’s quite a culinary inheritance to uphold and ultimately revolutionize. For his demonstration, Gauthier prepared five dishes that embodied his restaurant and light, naturalistic cooking. His first plate showcased curls of raw pumpkin, foie gras, and spherified clementine. He updated a clichéd bundle of haricot verts by barely blanching the beans, tying them together with different herbs, and roasting the bundles—the exterior beans were soft and charred, and each bean was imparted with a different kiss of herbal flavor. He embraced the earth with a cylinder of gamey raw duck and sautéed wild mushrooms. And he finished the meal with a celebration of hemp, one of France’s major agricultural exports. He built pastry squares with hemp flour and plated the puffs in a tangle of warm, damp hemp rope, as if boat moorings on a dock, just in time for dinner. Gauthier was reluctant to predict the future or haute gastronomy in France and whether it would follow his lead with such a deep devotion to nature and place. But for Gauthier, connecting to La Grenouillère and the frogs that leap from its swampy environs onto his menu, provides endless inspiration and a deeper relationship with his heritage and home.
Chef Alex Stupak of Empellón Cocina – New York, NY
Tacos. Margaritas. Nachos. It’s what comes to mind when you think of Mexican cuisine, said Alex Stupak, in his Main Stage demonstation. “[But] if tacos were a portal into Mexican cuisine,” then Stupak wants to strip away those stereotypes with his New York eateries Empellón Taqueria and Empellón Cocina. Traditional Yucátan cuisine and other regional foodways are “new flavors” for Stupak, who is just beginning to explore the vast bounty of produce, techniques, and traditions that make up the diversity of Mexican cooking. “Originally, when you start cooking the cuisine you think you know better,” Stupak said. “But then you realize there is a refinement developed over a thousand years.”
Stupak showed off this refinement in a modern take on a classic Mexican preparation. His Tamal Colada makes use of masa as a thickening starch and highlights mushrooms, epazote, and dehydrated tomatoes. And while many in the industry were surprised by Stupak’s departure from the pastry realm, he explained that he was still a pastry chef at heart. “Pastry is a way of thinking,” he said, explaining that his experience in the pastry world influences his way of thinking as chef and business owner. His masa glucose chicharrón showed off those skills perfectly; combining inspiration from a pastry technique and Mexican ingredients, Stupak created visual and textural depth on his plate.Chef Jordan Kahn of Red Medicine – Los Angeles, CA
Jordan Kahn invited the Main Stage audience deep into his emotional creative process with the debut of his film, “Gathering Quiet.” In the film, Kahn garnished the natural environment with his dishes. He selected wild patches of watercress to dress with greens and lavender-hued “rocks.” He layered dried, shredded beef onto a rotting log to create a jumbled canvas of vines set with almond skins, herb stalks, and trompe l'oeil mushrooms. It was food as landscape and nature as plate. As the video played, Kahn arranged moss, greens, dough, and other ingredients onto a barren tree (though he purposefully avoided tweezers to defy stereotypes of his cooking and plating). As Kahn worked, a trio of musicians played stringed instruments to a score composed for the film. He explained at the demonstration’s conclusion that he’s not a technique-driven chef. He thrives in the creative process and defended the idea of chef as artist. “What’s important is to internalize ideas, explore the process, and surround yourself with musicians and artists—things that aren’t in cookbooks,” he said. “That’s more useful to me [for inspiration] than looking at other people’s finished product.” Kahn’s finished product at Red Medicine draws from his artistic exploits in nature—even if the deer are the only creatures to eat his forest compositions. Summing up audience sentiment on the eyebrow-raising, boundary-pushing demonstration: “God bless you for having the balls to do something like that,” said Pastry Chef Keegan GerhardtChef Mathias Dahlgren of Restaurant Mathias Dahlgren – Stockholm, Sweden
Chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster – New York, NY
Chef Marcus Samuelsson introduced his fellow countryman Mathias Dahlgren to a Main Stage audience well-versed in Dahlgren’s native tongue: nature. Dahlgren, the chef behind two Michelin-starred Restaurant Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm, puts an almost religious emphasis on respect for the natural product, a passion that drives his kitchen. After introducing the audience to his team—another of his passions, Dahlgren quickly makes clear, is people—the chef went on to discuss his latest projects, including brewing beer for his restaurant and also snow-curing reindeer meat. The product at his restaurant is always vibrant, owing to Dahlgren’s ability to shift concepts. Every six months he changes the theme of his restaurant to keep himself and his staff energized. Their latest theme—it began this September—is truffles, mushrooms, and lichen, the last of which encompasses 2,000 species in Sweden (and four to five delicious ones, according to Dahlgren). But his focus and message for chefs was to exercise their freedom of expression, urging his audience to follow their personal visions, regardless of rejection. He said it’s important to build your team and get buy-in for your unconventional ideas—having support makes change easier. “We do what we like and what we believe in,” said Dahlgren. And his advice for chefs caught in a cycle of cooking to please customers rather than themselves: Take one thing you can own, and run with it. It’s your responsibility to yourself and your customers to make inspired, personal food.Chef Sat Bains of Restaurant Sat Bains – Nottingham, England
Sat Bains's eponymous restaurant forces people to take a journey to a bleak, industrial neighborhood in Nottingham, England. As for natural beauty surrounding the restaurant, "We've got nothing," said Bains, whose space is nearly two hours outside of London, next to major highway, and neighbor to a cigarette factory. "If we fail on flavor, we might as well close the restaurant." On Day 2 of the Main Stage, Bains shared exactly how he ensures he'll never fail on flavor. He believes in serving intense dishes in small portions, so people feel the full impact of his cooking without overwhelming their palates. In stark contrast to Main Stage Presenter Jordan Kahn, Bains thinks plating is overrated, and his dishes take a minute or less to expedite. "Food should go to the diner when it's alive," said Bains. For his demonstration, Bains prepared a sous vide Cervena venison loin with a quenelle of venison tartare. The raw meat he said, "takes you back to a caveman place, that can make you feel quite aggressive." Bains aggressively layered flavors on the plate, adding to the gamey venison, fondant cauliflower florets, roasted cauliflower purée, quince terrine, peppery watercress, and microplaned chocolate—all classic game pairings, just punched up for a modern, demanding palate. Bains uses close to 85 percent British ingredients (including beloved wild game American chefs can't get their hands on) but looks globally for techniques and the spice trail left by the British Empire. Born to Indian parents, Bains is a part of that culinary legacy. "It's my journey, my way of thinking," he said. Another global influence is the recession, which hit hard working-class Nottingham and has pushed Bains and other chefs to innovate. "The recession is keeping shit out of restaurants," he said.Dave Wondrich of Esquire – New York, NY
Dave Wondrich closed out Day 2 of ICC with a look into the soul of the Andes: pisco. With the mixture of native and European grapes and a mashed-up Spanish-native culture, “Pisco is what the Americas are all about,” Wondrich said. Wondrich fell is love with pisco deep in the Chilean Andes, drinking the grape-based spirit in underground niches marked with skeleton drawings and epitaphs of the distiller’s very-much-alive friends. StarChefs.com Editor-in-Chief Antoinette Bruno passed out shots of Pisco Control as Wondrich waxed on the virtues and deep cultural significance of the spirit. The audience kicked back their shots, cheered “Salut!,” and headed to imbibe and enjoy Congress Cocktail.
Day 3: Authenticity and Soul in New Orleans and ItalyChef Susan Spicer of Bayona – New Orleans, LA
Chef John Besh of Besh Restaurant Group – New Orleans, LA
Susan Spicer may have never hired John Besh to cook at her legendary Bayona, but his sous cheffing skills were more than adequate on Day 3 of the ICC Main Stage. The duo united to tell the story of New Orleans and the Gulf through soulful dishes and the iconic regional flavors of Louisiana. Spicer prepared a Seafood Boudin laced with shrimp, sheepshead (“a good eatin' fish”), cold-smoked mussels, and Ellie Stansel gourmet rice. Boudin is essentially a sausage made with rice and has origins in Spanish morcilla, brought to Louisiana by immigrants from the Canary Islands. Spicer debuted her Seafood Boudin last year at Emeril Lagasse’s Boudin & Beer festival; this year she’s contemplating a nutria boudin. Besh cooked a staple from his childhood that’s now on blue plate special at Lüke in New Orleans: Redfish Courtbouillon. He started by cooking crab legs in a pan, adding flour to make a roux, and then adding fish stock and herbs to create his gumbo-like base. A four-pound redfish was added on top and finished in the oven. The final addition was crab meat, because as Besh put it, “In New Orleans, if you want to sell a dish, add crab meat.” And the dishes, highlighting the bounty of Louisiana Seafood, truly epitomize Besh's and Spicer’s cuisine and outlook. “Seafood is a part of our culture, it’s a way of life,” said Besh.Chef Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero – Rivoli, Italy
Chef Davide Scabin is as ambitious as a presenter as he is a chef. For the last cooking demonstration of this year’s Congress, Scabin fired off six dishes in a mere 33 minutes—and that’s on top of serving the audience a tasting portion of powdered, deconstructed pesto designed for astronauts (shelf life: 36 months). But the rapid, almost frantic pace of the demonstration was the perfect format for the energy and passion Scabin channels into his cooking. Using traditional flavors and highly unconventional cooking methods, Scabin first constructed two pasta dishes by pre-cooking noodles, vacuum-packing them, and forming them into sheets. And even though “grandma wouldn’t be happy” with him pre-cooking pasta (which can be held for five days), she would find herself at home with the flavors of his Pasta Pizza Margherita—an elegant composition of black and white noodle sheets, tomato sauce, anchovies, basil, fermented black garlic, and chile oil. Scabin doesn’t want his creations to be limited to fine dining. To demonstrate the versatility of his concepts, he plated his Spaghetti Vegetable Soup (vegetable dashi, freeze-dried vegetables, and a round puck of pasta) in a Steelite Craft bowl and a Styrofoam cup that he says New Yorkers eat out of all the time. In another nod to NYC, Scabin constructed his Hamburger from Manhattan. The “bun” was a round of risotto for which the rice was vacuum-packed with seasoned oil and cooked for six hours at varying temperatures to yield a creamy, risotto that’s stable for up to 15 days. Scabin garnished the burger (borrowed from April Bloomfield’s The Spotted Pig) with gorgonzola (because American like their blue cheese), onions, and anchovy salsa. It was two dishes re-imagined into one—an ode to American innovation and a glimpse at the future of Italian food.Chef Mario Batali of B&B Hospitality Group – New York, NY
Chef Mario Carbone of Torrisi Italian Specialties – New York, NY
Author Melissa Clark of The New York Times – New York, NY
Chef Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero – Rivoli, Italy
Closing ICC, Author Melissa Clark moderated a discussion between Chefs Mario Batali, Mario Carbone, and Davide Scabin on the current state, evolution, and future of Italian cuisine—a broad umbrella that takes for granted Italy’s 20 idiosyncratic regions. No one in Italy agrees on a definitive “authentic” cuisine. That’s why, Batali says, Italians understand his food. He takes Hudson Valley ingredients and combines them with Italian staples, essentially carving out his own region of Italy here in New York. As for Carbone’s food that’s “authentic” to his Italian-American heritage: “Italians are confused, sometimes infuriated. But we’ve won some over.” Scabin added that his modern food is really just a reinterpretation of classic recipes, and that the real problem with Italian food is “we have too many nonnas, who are all master cooks.” But over generations, even nonnas evolve. According to Scabin, Italian food is indeed progressing—just at a slow generational clip. Batali and Carbone are willing to push the modernist envelope only so far, and Carbone draws the line at, “If Mario Batali would make fun of me, I don’t do it.” What have Italian chefs learned from American chefs? “We have a great tradition,” said Scabin, “but we’ve never been good in translating it into business.” Scabin and 2011 ICC Presenter Massimo Bottura are both major culinary brands in Italy, but Batali went onto explain that neither of them have gone on to open high-margin pizzerias, sandwich joints, and beer bars—yet.
by Emily Bell, Jessica Dukes, Caroline Hatchett, Nicholas Rummell, and Katherine Sacks