2008 International Chefs Congress Wrap-Up


September 14, 2008

Day 1 of the International Chefs Congress started with a philosophical note. In her welcome address, CEO Antoinette Bruno’s spoke about major industry trends and the importance of coming together as an industry. She discussed the theme of the Congress – “The Responsibility of a Chef” – and tied it to a philosophical shift that has occurred in recent years as chefs embrace a new power and more responsibility. Heston Blumenthal’s (Fat Duck, UK) keynote address traced his philosophical and geographical journey to create a Christmas meal incorporating gold, frankincense, myrrh, and reindeer (what’s Christmas without the three wise men and Rudolph?). Blumenthal traveled to Oman and Siberia so seek inspiration firsthand; the end result was a dinner that, along with the edible components, was rich in history, entertainment, and surprise.  The journey showed two of his core culinary philosophies: that restaurant food can have an orchestrated emotional component, and that chefs can and should journey outside their kitchens for inspiration. “The most exciting thing about being a modern chef is broadening horizons and working with others.” His next collaboration: with a magician, who will teach servers to ignite his flaming sorbet with a snap of their fingers.

Chef Heston Blumenthal on the main stage
Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell

Enrique Olvera (Pujol, Mexico City) followed with his tribute to Mexican native ingredients and street-foods such as esquites, multiple styles of tacos, and deep-fried foods that can be re-imagined for fine cuisine. Hands on workshops started during lunch. In the savory room, Paul Liebrandt (Corton, New York) ran a tight ship: attendees were immediately asked to wash their hands and put on aprons. "If you thought you'd just be watching me do a live demo, you were wrong," he joked. The attendees, including chefs Robbie Lewis and George Mendes, and Craig Koketsku of Quality Meats, each took a piece of seared lamb loin through the entire process of sous vide, from the sealing of the bags ("not too tight so the life of the meat is squashed out, and not too loose") to bringing up the temperature to achieve a rosy meat. Liebrandt guided over 25 cooks and other industry professionals through what one attendant called "an amazingly detailed look at the technique of sous vide." At each workstation, two cooks from Liebrandt's crew at Corton were ready to answer questions or explain a point in further detail.

“The most exciting thing about being a modern chef is broadening horizons and working with others.” Heston Blumenthal

In the pastry room, Dave Arnold (French Culinary Institute, Culinary Technology Department) and chef Nils Noren (vice president of The French Culinary Institute's culinary, pastry, bread and Italian food departments) tag teamed, leading a workshop focused on coldness. Using a dehydrator, vacuum, and Randell's FX Series refrigerator drawer chilling system, they treated participants to various recipes including caramelized banana with Thai black sticky rice and lapsang souchong tea-infused whipped cream; habanero-infused vodka with clarified, frozen grapefruit juice garnished with pickled watermelon rind; and pork rind cracker jacks. Chef Noren shared a story about a challenging menu he once prepared consisting of classical French preparations from French onion soup to tarte tatin—the trick was that he had to present them in reverse, using the dessert ingredients in the appetizer, and so on. So he did a gruyere tarte tatin appetizer and onion ice cream, both of which he shared with the workshop.

In the wine room, Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon (the first woman to earn the MS title) led attendees through her approach to: “tasting in a primal way.” The group blind-tasted 3 whites and 5 reds and described the wine’s character in terms of acidity, dryness, body, fruit, and old world/new world. Triffon said she considers South Africa to be the most interesting wine region in the world—its geographic variety and drama make for wildly creative and masterful wine-making, in both old and new world styles.

“Everyone always asks how I motivate, how I inspire my cooks – but I can’t inspire them. Inspiration and motivation has to come from within. It’s all about being your own strongest leader.” Charlie Trotter

In the mixology workshop, Toby Maloney (Violet Hour, Chicago and Alchemy Consulting) led the group through the complex art and flavors of bitters. Maloney is a passionate advocate of the stuff, and his workshop involved sniffing, tasting, and mixing—and attendees left with a vial of their own bitters mix. Maloney incorporates bitters into his drinks in the mixing stage to add a dimension of depth of flavor, and floats them on top for an aromatic finish to a drink.

The 2008 New York Rising Stars gathered in the seminar room to discuss their culinary path—school, mentors, travel, mistakes, challenges—in the How to Make It panel. Each shared their perspective on cooking in the challenging New York market, what “making it” meant to them, and how they see themselves as future culinary leaders. In the business room, chefs and a producer came together: Dan Barber (Blue Hill, New York), Lyndon Matthews (Puketira Deer Farm, New Zealand), Tory Miller (L’Etoile, Wisconsin), and Graham Brown (The Cookhouse, New Zealand) had a conversation about working together (sadly Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin missed his plane). The chefs on the panel encouraged the chefs in the audience to take the time to build relationships with their producers—if you get to know them, and they get to know what you want and expect, you’ll be sure to get the quality and consistency of product that you expect.

After lunch, Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago) elaborated what he considers to be his responsibility as a chef. Trotter is passionate about the industry—in fact, he says he doesn’t really like the word “industry” because “service and hospitality is not just a business, but a calling and an honor.” Chefs are naturally generous, Trotter said— they get to give to people every day, and most of the times those people are strangers. But a chef can go above and beyond this elemental step by pursuing aesthetics (making every part of your business superior, from plating to the state of your dumpster and changing room), making a cultural contribution, and promoting excellence in others. Trotter’s “Excellence Program” brings high school students to Trotter’s to eat a restaurant meal—during the meal his cooks talk to the students about what they do on a daily basis to pursue excellence. Trotter then prepared two dishes, first in the way they appeared 18 years ago, and then in their current incarnation.

“Cooks have something to tell us that is more than about food. It’s about life.”Michael Ruhlman           

Next was “Barton and Rick’s Sustainability Hour”—not an official title, though no doubt the oceans would benefit if they took their show on the road. Barton Seaver (Washington DC) spoke first about a chefs responsibility to the oceans, imploring the audience to take the depletion of species seriously. Rick Moonen (RM Seafood, Las Vegas) echoed this sentiment in his demo: “If we continue our patterns of consumption, most of the species we like to eat will be gone by 2048. And they’re not going to disappear on December 31, 2047… it could be much sooner than that. Certain species could be gone 5 years from now.” Moonen graduated from the CIA 25 years ago and started visiting New York’s Fulton Fish Market soon after that. Over the course of 15 years he saw the market’s swordfish population decline from consistently gorgeous 200-pound fish to an inconsistent stock of pups (fish that haven’t reached sexual maturity). Moonen riffed on a salad frisee using one of his current favorite sustainable fish—sablefish, or black cod, which he brined, smoked—in lieu of the lardons. Both chefs extolled the virtues of American farm-raised bivalves: along with being delicious and affordable, they actually improve the ecosystems in which they’re raised (they both clean and fertilize by filtering).

To end the day, Michael Ruhlman, Anthony Bourdain, and Marco Pierre White got comfy (and critical and at times contemptuous) on stage for their hour-long conversation about “the role of a chef.” Ruhlman, a food lover and author of numerous books about food and cooking (most recently a sous vide book with Thomas Keller, and an introduction to the Alinea cookbook), prodded Bourdain and White on their thoughts about Michelin stars, chefs staying in the kitchen, multi-course tasting menus, and advice for young cooks. Bourdain described one of the trends in culinary business, saying “Marco made early on a transition that a lot of chefs are making now— today the successful chef is becoming more a CEO than a cook.” White (a man of strong opinions if there ever was one) spoke of his decision to renounce his Michelin stars, saying he had three options: keep slaving away behind the stove, live a lie by keeping the stars but not being behind the stove, or be honest and leave Michelin, and the restaurant, behind. According to White, restaurants that still charge high prices even when the chef they’re known for is no longer there every night are operating off of false pretenses – also, the character of the restaurant suffers, he says, when the chef isn’t there to guide them with his presence. Bourdain took a more practical approach, speaking of the “chef/CEO” and the Mario Batali model (creating restaurants with/for the talented chefs that work for you) as valid ways to evolve as a chef. White also railed against multi-course tasting menus and modern cuisine, expressing his preference for "fish, on the bone, with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt." When asked to give advice for young cooks, White said: “Cooking is a philosophy, it’s not a recipe—unless it’s pastry, then it’s chemistry. Keep your head down and learn your trade. As Fernand Point said, ‘perfection is a lot of little things done well.’” Bourdain said: “show up on time.”

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   Published: September 2008