2008 International Chefs Congress Wrap-Up


September 15, 2008


onday morning started with a slew of hands-on workshops and tastings. On the savory side, Brian Polcyn praised fat and salt, the foundations of charcuterie, as he led his group through three classic recipes—chicken galantine, Tuscan salami, and cold-smoked salmon. Polcyn feels strongly that “charcuterie should never be forgotten in American cooking, because the techniques are part of our culture,” and he showed his attendees how classic techniques can evolve to become more approachable for the home cook and the restaurant. He emphasized the cost benefit for making in-house charcuterie, saying that, at his restaurant, “I buy an organic chicken form $7. I can get 18 portions from one chicken at $12 per appetizer. You do the math.”

Chef Morimoto on the main stage
Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell

In Mexican Street Food: from Common to Exquisite, celebrated Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera emphasized the simplicity of Mexican cooking and presented two recipes that add a modern spin to the traditional. For the robalito al pastor, he demonstrated making a marinade of achiote paste, plum tomato, orange juice and garlic, then added two small filets of sea bass and vacuum sealed them. Afterwards, he cooked chunks of pineapple for layering while cutting a chiffonade of cilantro, onion and serrano chile with some fresh lime juice for the garnish. Olvera also led the group through the making of esquites, a small cup of four kinds of corn with handmade mayonnaise, queso fresco, salt, and a squeeze of lime. 

In the pastry room, Rick Billings (L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, New York) re-approached a dessert he had previously made at Clio (using additives) to see how natural products could recreate similar textures. Rather than xanthan gum or agar, Billings thickened a chocolate ice cream base with kuzu (or arrowroot powder). He chilled the mixture down over ice, poured it into an iSi gun, then filled up a small balloon with the cream. Still in the balloon, the mixture was dropped into a dry ice bath where it imploded into itself. Removed from the balloon and kept in the freezer, the "rock" resembled a rough piece of pumice but tasted like chewy chocolate ice cream. It was innovation without additives, and it was only one component of a six-part dessert made in the spirit of Billings' "cuisine naturelle." Chefs Johnny Iuzzini, Wylie Dufresne. Bart Vandaele, Franklin Becker, Anthony Bombaci, and Boris Portnoy moved from table to table with Billings and other students as he demonstrated each component of two desserts, including one encapsulated blueberry pie.

“Most of the top chefs are avant in what they do, but the fundamentals are extremely classical. We need those fundamentals to get us to the point where we can then change something, and do something new.” Marcus Samuelsson

Uyen Nguyen (Guy Savoy, Las Vegas) spoke out against over-complicating and over-elaborating the natural beauty of desserts, and encouraged using simple, fresh ingredients to enhance the focus of the dish. To illustrate her point she walked her group through a dessert made with fresh-cut melons from the farmer’s market, micro-herbs and flowers, melon sorbet, and a crisp caramel ring filled with crème fraiche, that was finished with a chamomile vapor. Nguyen used a plate that Bernadaud created specifically for the restaurant—a round, perforated plate set atop a bowl filled with dry ice. The hot chamomile infusion is poured table-side, creating a vapor that adds a new sensory element to the dish.

It was a big morning in the mixology room, with Eben Freeman (Tailor, New York) talking about smart bar management, and Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club, New York) waxing poetic about gin. Freeman showed his group how to maintain the cocktail frenzy and combat the rising cost of raw materials with steadfast creativity, smart bar management, and a keen eye for the bottom line. His jumping-off point was “The Waylon,” a cocktail of whiskey and smoked coke, served from a cornelius keg, which manages to be creative and fun while staying economical.

Saunders began her workshop with an introduction: "I am Audrey Saunders, and I like gin." She set up a blind tasting for 20 industry professionals, including Eben Freeman, Johnny Iuzzini, and Wylie Dufresne, explaining which type of cockail each was best suited for according to proof, heat, mouthfeel, and lingering botanicals. The highlight of the workshop was a taste of Bols Genever, a gin that goes back to the spirit's medicinal roots. Saunders wanted everyone to have fun: "this is just an excuse to drink gin at 10 in the morning, under the guise of education."

In the wine room, Anthony Giglio said: "Life is good in Italy, and so is the wine," as he led his group through a tasting of Italian organic and biodynamic wines. Giglio explained the biodynamic philosophy, crediting its origins to Rudolf Steiner, who in 1924 taught that a farm is a living organism comprised of tangible and intangible forces. Giglio explained these forces as "climate, wildlife, light and warmth of the sun, moonlight, and the gravitational pull on both the water in the vineyard and the sap in the plants." After the groups tasted and discussed six wines, he closed with some advice: "Drink wine  drink often, and drink everything you can get your lips on." 

In the business seminar, Shawn McClain (Green Zebra, New York) discussed how to successfully operate multiple restaurants of difference concepts emphasizing management structure, investor strategies, marketing and PR, leases, and locations. His PR rep, Janet Isabelli of Wagstaff Worldwide, was there to share her perspective and a PR person’s role in the process. “When your PR person asks you for your New Year’s menu in October…there’s a reason for it.” Kep Sweeney (Acceleron Group, Las Vegas) debunked the notion that successful restaurants rely solely on operations by explaining the three phases to restaurant ventures and how to engineer out the majority of risk. Laurel Cudden (B.R. Guest) and Richard Young (Food Service Technology Center) advocated the necessity for restaurants to continue to push sustainability, not just on the menu, but through the operations from equipment efficiency to water conservation.

“Not all tradition is good…You have to question it, and pick what is important for you and your cuisine.” Jordi Butron

Monday’s main stage presentations began with Chef Jordi Butron (Espai Sucre, Spain), who spoke of the difference between restaurant pastry and pastry shops. Butron discussed some pastry fundamentals (“There must be sugar—but restaurants can incorporate sour, salty, and acid, too…”) while one of his cooks plated a dessert of smoked brioche, truffle agar, butter ice cream, and hazelnut shortbread that demonstrated his approach of combining traditional flavors with modern techniques. Butron spoke of tradition, saying, “tradition is good, but not all tradition is good…you have to question it, and pick what it important for you.”

Next came the charismatic Masaharu Morimoto (Morimoto, New York City), who flexed his legendary knife skills by breaking down an entire monkfish hung from a hook. He identified every part of the fish—and even better, incorporated everything, from gills to liver, into various dishes. He showed the crowd the Japanese philosophy of letting nothing go to waste, with dishes like deep-fried monkfish gills, and monkfish liver caprese with fish skin, mozzarella, tomatoes, olive oil, and soy sauce. Morimoto introduced new techniques to cook fish, including kombu-wrapped monkfish fillet cooked in a bed of hot stones (saying “Kombu is the natural form of MSG”), and speckled the presentation with sound effects, including the occasional “Bam!” as he chopped and plated his way through the fish.

During the lunch break, Iacopo Falai (Falai, New York) walked a group through an easy bread recipe which they turned into five types of simple bread—beet, spinach, whole wheat, rosemary, and sesame. Falai says artisan bread is about “action, love, feeling and touch”—and he discussed flours, humidity, yeast, rolling, and more as the group felt, touched (and loved) their dough.

Dave Wondrich discussed the history of punch in the mixology workshop room, a dark wood-lined taxidermist's paradise that fit nicely with the mood of his theme. Wondrich explained how punch was, for many years in England, the working man's drink and how the trend of serving punch bowls in bars today reflects a return to the communal spirit of the bar. Guests began by mixing their own 18th century punch as Wondrich guided them through each step—from making the "olio saccharum," or mixture of citrus oil and sugar, to adding the alcohols, water, and ice. Wondrich shaved nutmeg on each person's drink to finish the cocktail. Ever the historian, he explained how things had changed by the end of the 18th century using the second punch recipe: Regent's Punch.

Larry Forgione (An American Place, St. Louis) was joined on the Culinary Trailblazers panel by chef Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto, New York) and moderator Mitchell Davis (VP, The James Beard Foundation) for a discussion that ranged from finding the best chicken to the ethics of genetically altered ingredients. "Much of what's taken for granted today was a difficult process 20 years ago," said Forgione, a man considered to be one of the fathers of American cuisine. "Chefs then were choosing convenience over flavor; it was the dark ages of food." When asked his thoughts on the celebrity chef, Waxman told a great story about a "young and very scared" fry cook he once trained named Bobby Flay, saying Flay had worked very hard, paid his dues and "earned the right to be a celebrity chef." Both downplayed their role as culinary trailblazers, but spoke passionately about the definition of American cuisine. "It is a spirit of cooking," Forgione said, "And having one foot in the future while cooking in the present."

“Much of what's taken for granted today was a difficult process 20 years ago…Chefs then were choosing convenience over flavor; it was the dark ages of food.” Larry Forgione

Wylie Dufresne (wd-50, New York City) revealed an inkling of his creative process as he prepared his riff on the classical dish eggs Benedict. He began with a history of his fried mayonnaise, and the trials and tribulations of the process (success came once he began using heat-stable gellan gum). More trials came when he tried to apply that technique to create fried hollandaise (the mayonnaise didn’t have eggs, but the hollandaise did)—long story short, after a journey through hydrocolloids, big chemical companies, small companies, and failed attempts, Dufresne “took a step back” and realized that starch could do the trick (it’s used in pastry cream, and insulates the egg yolk). Dufresne reiterated the importance of taking a step back, and of the meandering journey of creativity, saying: "we're not going from A to B but from A to Z.”

In the tasting room, Unibroue beer (Chambly, Canada), a Belgian-inspired brewery that has been producing re-fermented ales since 1990, led attendees through a tasting that ranged from white ales to extra-strong dark ales. The beers were paired with assorted cheeses, meats, and chocolates, and the group was led through the tasting by Jim Javenkoski, a food scientist and "Culinary Attaché" for the Unibroue's Chicago area market. Chef Francois Pellerin (Quebec) chimed in with occasional comments, like: "beer is good for cheese, better than wine," and elaborated on pairings, sharing a list of dishes he created in his restaurants.

Back on the main stage, we moved on to Africa and Sweden with Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit, New York). Samuelsson’s food at Aquavit is Swedish and French, but part of his heart (and his heritage) lies in Africa. He spoke first of Swedish flavors and techniques while preparing a sea urchin flan with dill-crusted watermelon, then moved on to Africa, saying, “African food is where pan-Asian food was 10-15 years ago.” He made a modern African dish—cassava stuffed shrimp with pickled papaya salad and green curry sauce—and expressed a wish for a P.F. Congo (the African version of P.F. Chang’s) to diffuse African food across the country.  

Next Ana Sortun (Oleana, Boston) showed her passion for eastern Mediterranean cuisine in her demonstration of a classic dish—kibbeh. She prepared three kinds—carrot kibbeh with raisins, fried almonds, and za’atar, tomato kibbeh with pickled corn, sumac, and sweet and hot peppers, and beef kibbeh with porcini, spinach and dried mint. Using different techniques—baked, deep-fried, steamed, boiled—accented with native spices, such as za’atar and sumac, she spoke of the diversity of ways which this staple grain can be translated into fine cuisine. Sortun also discussed the botany of common dried herbs, attributing differences in flavor to variations in the strains of herb, making the flavor of spices like za’tar slightly unique across countries.

Monday’s finale was the dual demonstration of Candido Lopez (Meson de Candido, Spain) and Joan Roca (Cellar de Can Roca, Spain). Together they introduced two techniques for the suckling pig—a classic roast (by Lopez) and one prepared en sous vide (by Roca). Chef Lopez began his demo attributing this roasting technique to his late grandfather—simple, straightforward, and unadulterated. After slitting the pig straight down the belly, he pulled apart the skin to expose the organs. He seasoned the cavity with salt, basted it liberally with pork fat, then slid it into the oven on its back. While Lopez’s pig roasted, Roca prepared his modern version, in which the pig is sectioned and cooked ahead of time en sous vide, then brought up to temp and crisped for service. It’s Roca’s way of bringing tradition into his restaurant—with the help of modern tools. “When someone orders, in 20 minutes we can make a dish of suckling pig that is as it should be—moist, tender, with crispy skin.” Roca showed a video of other dishes, including one called “Treasure Island,” with oyster, dirt essence (dirt that’s been distilled), and ocean water foam, and the presentation ended with Lopez’s suckling pig (roasted to a golden brown, and filling the arena with the intoxicating smell of pork fat) cracked and portioned with a the edge of a plate. After a long photo shoot, the pig made its way back to the presenters’ prep kitchen, where it was devoured within 10 minutes time.

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   Published: September 2008