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StarChefs.com
International Chefs Congress 2008 Welcome Address

CEO & Editor-in-Chief Antoinette Bruno
September 14, 2008

Good morning, and welcome to the 3rd International Chefs Congress: A Kitchen Without Boundaries.

For the next three days, this historic hall will be transformed into a culinary wonderland, with chefs sharing their tricks and techniques, mixologists sharing their secrets, sommeliers teaching about – and tasting – some of the world’s great wines, and the best producers and manufacturers from around the world sharing their wares.

2008 International Chefs Congress Welcome Adress
Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell

Together, we form a creative, dynamic, passionate industry – one that is breaking boundaries in new ways nearly every day. Coming together to share our ideas, our passion, and our progress is what this congress is all about.

Before I continue, I’d like to thank the Congress Advisory Board: José Andrés, Daniel Boulud, Josh DeChellis, Traci Des Jardins, Wylie Dufresne, Todd Gray, Paul Liebrandt, Rick Moonen, Ken Oringer, Lex Poulos, Marcus Samuelsson, and Norman Van Aken for their invaluable input, both this year and in the past.

Thank you to all the presenting chefs – we are so honored to have you here, participating in this venue for discourse, education, and growth.

And THANK YOU to our sponsors for making this event possible – none of this could happen without you. A special thank you to our initial founding sponsors – Jade, Hobart and Nespresso – whose support over the years has helped make our visions possible.

I’d like to thank the Sam Tell Companies for making this dream demonstration kitchen a reality.

The patronage of these innovative companies enables this forum – it allows us to bring together chefs from around the world, uniting them with each other and with the people that make the equipment they cook on and the products and ingredients they cook with.

I encourage you all to spend some time walking around the products fair – the variety of products, equipment, and technology is truly stunning. Randall’s FX series drawers go from refrigerator to freezer – it’s really cool technology! Cardinal has developed a chef/sommelier series with a fill line built into the glass – think about then for controlling cost in a tough economy! Bauscher and Steelite have innovative shapes that are really pushing the limits of plateware.

Ranges: The range is the centerpiece of the kitchen… and with an increasing amount of open kitchens, they are a visual centerpiece. We have Jade, Bonnet, and Vulcan here – they’ve brought some of the best stove technology and design together under this roof.

Sous vide is spreading like wildfire – and we have sous vide equipment from Polyscience and Multivac, plus innovative new labeling systems from Daymark that will keep the Health Inspector happy. There’s a Winston CVAP – one of the most versatile kitchen tools out there, and on stage we have a Hobart Combi Oven with all the chefs recipes already programmed in – all Marcus Samuelsson needs to do when he gets on stage for his demo is punch in his code, and it will go right to his desired setting.

We’ve brought not only the products, but the producers too: Brown Foreman has their master distiller here to talk about the process, pairings, and history of spirits – he’ll be leading tastings and lectures during all of the breaks. Deer Farmer Lyndon Matthews came from New Zealand to tell his story in the Cervena Venison workshop, and Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese came from Wisconsin to be on a panel with Dan Barber.

***

This year we’re taking our title – “A Kitchen Without Boundaries” – more literally than ever before, by celebrating – and focusing on – the ways in which the boundaries of the culinary world have changed… Or how they’ve been obliterated, you could say.

Obviously geographical boundaries no longer limit a chef’s knowledge and style. Most every type of cuisine has a place on the world’s restaurant tables – in the next three days we’ll see Swedish and Danish cuisine, Ethiopian cuisine, Mexican cuisine – in the form of street food and fine dining, Spanish cuisine – in both classic and modern forms, and much, much more.

The internet has broken down boundaries of communication, and the web is now home to forums like this where chefs share their ideas on a daily basis. On the web, chefs interact with diners and with each other. Some, like the members of our chef blogging panel, keep records of their experiments, experiences and thoughts, creating a virtual cookbook and diary that gives access to their creativity.

Best of all, the walls of a restaurant no longer mark the boundaries of a chef’s creativity and influence. Chefs have a more direct line of influence than ever before. With influence comes opportunity – and responsibility.

What is the responsibility of a chef? We’ve come up with three areas – sustainability, community, and mentoring – but we don’t have a clear-cut definition. It’s different for everyone… and one of the main goals of the Chefs Congress this year is to begin a dialogue that helps to better describe and define this broad, but important, subject.

This afternoon you’ll hear Charlie Trotter discuss his charitable ventures, his experience as a mentor, and his involvement in the Chicago community – not just the culinary community, but the community as a whole.

On Tuesday, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern will talk about his work with first graders at an elementary school in Greenwich Village. Trotter and Anthony are examples of the ways in which chefs can be leaders, and can have a meaningful, positive impact – not just on their kitchens, but on the community of which they are a part.

You’ll hear Barton Seaver and Rick Moonen talk about the future of our oceans, and the role that chefs have in shaping that future – and then you can talk to Alaska Seafood about the future of fishing.

You’ll see Daniel Boulud take the stage with three of his executive chefs, and talk about mentoring as they demonstrate their three individual approaches to one ingredient.

15 years ago, the Daniel Bouluds and Charlie Trotters of the American culinary scene were fighting to be respected and appreciated for their unique styles. They paved the way for today’s chefs, who now receive unprecedented attention and respect – who have a new role in society.

With that new role comes the power to be more influential and successful – whether that means supporting your employees, getting involved in your community, or taking a stand on environmental issues. Everyone exercised this power in different ways, and it means something different to everyone.

[Trends ]

I’d like to say a little bit about StarChefs.com, and what it is that we do. StarChefs’ ultimate goal is to make our industry stronger. We pursue this goal in a number of ways – this Congress being one of them. We travel the country, and the world, tasting with and interviewing chefs for our Rising Stars awards, and our industry-focused website, where you can find everything that we’ve seen on our journeys: flavors, techniques, tools, trends, and so much more. The stage presentations, seminars, and workshops at this Congress come from our travels: when we tasted Enrique Olvera’s cuisine at his restaurant in Mexico City, we knew we wanted him to share his compelling, modern vision of Mexican Cuisine with an international audience. We thought the same thing when we met Carlo Cracco at his restaurant in Milan.

When we tasted Uyen Ngyuen’s hyper-modern, artistic desserts at Guy Savoy in Vegas, we knew not only that she deserved to be recognized as a Las Vegas Rising Star, but that we wanted her to share her vision in a workshop on The Zen of Modern Pastry.

While tasting Eben Freeman’s creative cocktails at Tailor, we got into a conversation about balancing smart bar management with one of the most creative cocktail programs in the country – and his knowledge and philosophy was so impressive that we brought him here to share it with you.

We’ve long hoped to bring Grant Achatz to our stage to show you, firsthand, the ways in which he is revolutionizing the dining experience. On Tuesday he’ll bring some of the elements of his cuisine to the stage – specifically, the form-meets-function service pieces he creates with the help of a sculptor. Through his desire to modernize and re-conceive the dining experience, he’s introducing concepts that will no doubt shape the future of food.

Each of the five people I just mentioned embodies a compelling culinary philosophy and trend.

Carlo and Enrique are interpreting their native cuisines in a hyper-modern way, and bringing them to the global stage. This is happening in almost every country around the world – this year we saw it across South America, in Italy, and in Britain. These cuisines are finding a place on modern restaurant tables – and it’s thrilling to see the creative ways in which they are interpreted.

Uyen is one of the pastry chefs modernizing the craft. In past years we’ve talked about the infusion of savory ingredients into pastry – but now we’re not just seeing creative ingredients, but creative shapes and forms. In his pastry workshop, Rick Billings of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in New York will show how he freezes dense chocolate foam to make a form looks like a piece of volcanic rock. It’s a hyper-modern chocolate mousse… and visually, it’s downright otherworldly.

The same exciting blossoming of ingredients, shapes, and forms can be seen in contemporary cocktail culture. There’s both a resurgence of cocktail styles that pre-date Prohibition, and also an entirely new approach that is influenced by the kitchen – we like to call them culinary cocktails. Across the board, there’s a thrilling level of maturity – a focus on more flavorful ingredients – like bitters and gin – and a focus on precise techniques. Of course with today’s cocktails, precise techniques can be anything from specific shakes to ices with particular shapes and densities to agar gels and xantham foams, as Junior Merino will demonstrate in his workshop.

We’ve also seen non-alcoholic cocktails around the country, and cocktails paired with food. Beer pairings are on the rise – high-quality, artisan craft beers from around the world are getting more attention in all types of restaurants. The approach to beer is becoming as diverse as that of wine – from organics and various alcohol contents to the rejuvenation of old regional production methods. Like wine, beer has a stunning variety of flavor profiles, depths, textures, and aromas – and in our beer pairing seminar with Unibroue from Canada, you’ll taste and evaluate the way craft beers pair with everything from cheese to chocolate to charcuterie. In the Belgian beer café we have three kinds of Belgian beer, and a Belgian chef here to talk about the beer – its history and food pairings – at the café during lunch and the breaks.

Whether served on a plate or dangling from a custom-made steel bow, the way food is presented is changing. Deconstruction has trickled down to more casual restaurants, and across the country, chefs are feeling empowered to play with the way they serve their food. We’ve seen crudo served on salt blocks, soups served in sea urchin shells, and dishes that look more like paintings than sustenance.

With all this travelling we’ve obviously seen our fair share of hotels – and we’ve seen a new role develop in this context. We call it “Chef and B” – which refers to a chef holding the role of both f&b director and executive chef of a hotel’s dining outlets. In the best examples, this leads to a high level of cuisine and creativity in all the hotel’s outlets – including room service. We’ve also seen an influx of upscale casual restaurants in hotels… which can be a smart economic move on their part.

I say this because in our travels we’ve seen half-empty white tablecloth restaurants and packed casual dining spots. Business is down across the board – the restaurant market is definitely affected by our current economy, but it’s also very resilient. It is a strong, growing market that is integrated into our lives. But the way we dine is changing. Across the country – and across the world, really – there are examples of fine-dining-trained chefs opening more casual restaurants. French Laundry alums are opening neighborhood restaurants on the Upper West Side of New York. El Bulli alums are opening casual spots in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona.

The level of food in more causal restaurants is higher than ever before. Fine dining techniques and approaches – from the level of ingredients to the styles of presentation – have trickled down, much in the way that avant-garde techniques have trickled down and become incorporated into more styles of cuisine…often at unlikely places.

But back to the economy: we gathered information from hundreds of chefs this summer – and some diners, too – and here is a bit of what they told us:

Over 80% of fine dining and upscale casual chefs say their covers are down, but far less say that business is down. Around 50% of fine dining chefs say that business is down, followed by around 40% of upscale casual chefs.

To adapt, you told us that you’re coping by controlling portion size, by minimizing or tracking waste in the kitchen, by keeping inventory to a minimum, and in some cases, by raising prices – though the majority have raised prices by no more than 5-10%.

And of course the other major continuing trend – that is less a “trend” and more a shift in philosophy – has to do with sustainability. A few years ago, this was a “buzz word”… today, it’s a philosophy that more and more people in our industry understand as not only an approach to food, but an approach to an entire business and way of operating.

There are great strides being made in green kitchen equipment and design. Some of the country’s experts are here to lead panels on restaurant and kitchen design, and the most innovative new equipment – like System Filtration and Natura – is here in the products fair.

We have seen incredible changes in this regard over the last few years. This year we travelled to Miami and Las Vegas – two areas that we hadn’t visited since 2005. Even in these two cities – which are known more for opulence than sustainability – we found examples of sustainable philosophy. Chefs are beginning to source local products – in Las Vegas they are reaching out to the few farmers in the area, and building relationships with the agriculture program at the University of Nevada to spark what they hope will turn into a full-blown movement for the Vegas culinary scene.

On a national level, 80% of chefs told us that they’re taking steps to become a greener restaurant. The most popular steps are: recycling fryer oil, recycling glass, paper, and plastic, and sourcing local and seasonal ingredients.

38% percent of you are listing farm or producer names on your menu.

Over 50% of you said you’re using green cleaning products and cutting down on packaging.

57% of you said you consult sustainable seafood lists before purchasing, using sources like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Seafood Choices Alliance to make your decisions.

And by doing these things, you are teaching your staff and your diners a new, more responsible way of thinking about food. 

***

Coming together like this moves the industry forward. What you’ll see on this stage and in the workshop rooms and in the products fair sets the bar – the chefs, the techniques, and the products establish a standard of excellence and creativity.

Every year we approach a number of chefs about presenting at the congress, and from a few we hear a common concern: “I don’t have anything new,” they say. But everyone running kitchen in this country does have something to share. Everyone who walks through the front doors of the Armory over the next three days will learn something.

This Congress isn’t only about what’s “new.” And really, we think the most exciting “new” thing in food isn’t a technique or a tool, but an attitude – specifically, the attitude that being a chef is about more than just great food. It’s about creativity, leadership, community, and, of course, responsibility.

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...Published: September, 2008

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