2008 International Chefs Congress Wrap-Up


September 16, 2008


n the savory room, two of New Zealand’s finest came together to prepare a dish using one of the country’s best-known products, Cervena venison. Deer farmer Lyndon Matthews (recipient of the 2008 New Zealand Deer Industry award) and Executive Chef Graham Brown (The Cookhouse, New Zealand) demonstrated how a green kitchen can also make for a tastier meal. The workshop commenced with a slideshow of Matthews’ eco-friendly Puketira Deer Farm, describing how his innovative pasture management skills help make Cervena venison one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly foods out there. Next, Brown dove into preparing his venison loin with osso buco ravioli, a dish which incorporates bone marrow and venison stock into the sauce so that nothing is wasted.

2008 International Chefs Congress Grant Achatz on StarChefs.com
Chef Grant Achatz on the main stage
Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell

Next, Anthony Bombaci (Nana, Dallas) discussed his philosophy of plating in “The Art of Presentation.” “Creativity on the plate should never hinder flavor,” he said as he passed out caramelized bananas, banana crisps, and foie gras truffles. He encouraged students to play with every element of the dish but first went through the whys and hows of each component. The pork belly, he explained, was pressed to achieve a completely flat surface which would encourage even browning of the skin—not just prettier, but crispier too. The foie gras truffles, a way of sophisticating scraps of leftover foie, were beaten with cream, sherry, butter, and vermouth then piped into little balls. Bombaci wore an oven mitt for the piping process: "If the mixture gets overheated from the warmth of my hands," he explained, "it could split." His final plate wasn't just stunning, it made sense in terms of flavors, textures, and proportions.

“Being a responsible chef is putting forth new ideas in a respectful, purposeful, creative way.” Grant Achatz

In the pastry room, Jacques Torres (Jacques Torres Chocolates, New York) jumped right into the fundamentals of his chocolate techniques—ganache and tempering. Back at the shop he makes the ganache in a vacuum (the cream and chocolate are combined in a bowl set inside a machine that sucks out the air during the mixing) because air quickens the oxidation of the product and shortens the shelf life. He stressed efficiency, precision, and technique; Torres tempers his ganache for extra smoothness, and also uses inverted sugars because they help retain moisture in the final product.

Pastry Chef Sherry Yard (Wolfgang Puck Group) put everyone to work making soufflés. Yard demonstrated the Austrian dessert Kaiserschmarren, which has become a classic at Spago in Beverly Hills, and is served to thousands of attendees at the annual Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards. She served the Kaiserschmarren hot right out of the oven with a side of strawberry sauce while directing separate teams to make chocolate, banana and raspberry soufflés.

Chefs, bartenders, and cocktail enthusiasts came to hear Simon Difford (Diffordsguide, England) elaborate on his approach to making cocktails, which he summed up by saying: “it’s about quality, accuracy, and dilution.” Quality means excellent ingredients like fresh squeezed juices, beautiful glassware, and proper sugar syrup (in Britain, bartenders use a 2:1 sugar to water ratio). Accuracy means having recipes that anyone can follow, using a measuring cup rather than a jigger, and understanding the ingredients such as the variations in limes that will vary the cocktail’s profile. Regarding dilution, ice cube size dictates how quickly a drink becomes diluted, and shaking, rather than stirring, introduces air bubbles, making the drink smooth and creamy on the tongue. He ended by making a twist on the classic Sazerac, and giving a word of advice: “A good cocktail needs a good name with a good story behind it.”

In the Tasting Room, Steve Olson (aka Wine Geek, NYC) took his group on a tour of Spanish wine country, starting at the southwestern costal region of Jerez and moving clockwise. Touting Spain as “the most exciting winemaking nation today” and “the new France,” he demonstrated how the age-old traditions of Spanish agriculture and the wine industry’s increasingly experimental attitude are coming together to make Spain the world’s fastest growing wine exporter. Each of the 10 wines sampled (each featuring an indigenous grape) had its own uniquely rich and complex aroma and taste.

The Chef Blogging seminar brought together Michael Laiskonis (Le Bernardin, New York), Traci des Jardins (Jardiniere, San Francisco), and Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot (Ideas in Food) with moderator Andrea Strong (The Strong Buzz, New York). The group talked about the how’s and why’s of blogging—from the different tools available to readers’ expectations.

Chef Norman Van Aken (Norman’s, Orlando) and Mark Stech-Novak (Restaurant Consultation and Design, Oakland), a former chef turned restaurant kitchen designer, sat side by side to deliver a business seminar on restaurant design—specifically kitchen energy efficiency. The average restaurant kitchen effectively uses only 12 percent of the energy it consumes; Stech-Novak went through a list of basic kitchen equipment and introduced alternative products developed with the latest green technology, including steam cookers, holding cabinets, ventilation systems, self-washing floor systems, and water electrolyzers, which could make cleaning chemicals obsolete in a restaurant kitchen. Stech-Novak strongly encouraged the culinary industry to embrace induction cooking, which delivers 85-90% energy efficiency (gas ranges only produce 30%).

Jamie Tiampo (See Food Media, New York) and Antoinette Bruno (StarChefs.com) led a food photography seminar that taught attendees about equipment, settings, lighting, and angles. Tiampo explained the mechanics of the camera and Bruno spoke about her favorite equipment and favorite settings for shooting food. Attendees received a list of equipment needed to create their own photography kit, and experimented shooting fruit and a plated dish.

“The art of mentorship is not to only teach the French, but the young American as well… and they can cook French better than me sometimes!”
Daniel Boulud
(about his American executive chefs)

To start the day on the main stage, Daniel Boulud (Daniel, New York) gathered three of his executive chefs and a plethora of pork products (including a whole, glistening pig) for a presentation on mentoring and on pork from head to tail. Each executive chef—Olivier Muller of DB Bistro, Jean-François Bruel of Daniel, and Damien Sansonetti of Bar Boulud—prepared a different part of the pig, sharing their recipe and technique while Boulud chimed in with stories, anecdotes, and advice. A mouth-watering spread of Bar Boulud’s charcuterie was described by the young, 3rd generation charcuterier Sylvain Gadson—with Boulud piping up with tales of the charcuterie his father made (and hung in their cellar) as he was growing up.

Carlo Cracco (Ristorante Cracco, Milan) showed the technique for his seafood sheets, essentially edible paper made of raw seafood flavored with olive oil and salt, and dehydrated. The process is simple enough: seafood put through a grinder on a fine-grind setting, seasoned, and rolled out between parchment paper. Some sheets are dehydrated and bound in a book for display in the front of the house, but those for the kitchen are cooked until just solid, cut into ribbons, and incorporated into a simple salad of seafood (both whole mollusks and a variety of seafood sheets), greens, lemon juice, and olive oil. It was an example of Cracco’s approach to modern Italian cuisine: innovation rooted in tradition.

During the lunch break, Nils Noren and Dave Arnold (French Culinary Institute, New York) came together again to lead a group (including Master of Ceremonies Mike Colameco) through their newest techniques: flash-carbonization, flavor modification, and distillation. They spoke about the rotovap (rotary evaporator) they use for distilling—one recent dish they created was a cheese course of Wisconsin cheeses paired with distilled Madeira. The clear Madeira distillate was served as an intensely flavored shot and the remainder was on the plate as sweet, flavorful syrup.

Michael Laiskonis (Le Bernardin, New York) discussed the three tiers of petit fours served at Le Bernadin, with specific focus on the 3rd tier: tiny a la minute bites that go beyond chocolate bons bons and nougats. He first demonstrated a chocolate and corn caramel topped with piment d'Espelette and smoked sea salt and garnished with a corn tuile. Second, Laiskonis composed a menthol crystal gelee gelled with a mixture of agar agar and gelatin on a chocolate base. His petit fours are incredibly small for a reason: at the end of a multi-course fine dining meal, guests can hardly manage dessert. A small portion encourages people to taste, and an unexpected presentation or flavor combination is a nice surprise. He cited the book Why We Eat What We Eat as a great resource for the sociological and anthropological connections between foods. For example, his corn and chocolate petit four isn't particularly experimental, since both ingredients grew and were eaten together in South America before they ever traveled to Europe, where they were separated.

In the "Modern Cocktail Techniques: Exploring Density, Textures and Sensations" workshop, Junior Merino (The Liquid Chef, New York) walked the class through a four-layer cocktail consisting of a ginger julep, tequila and roses, pastis espuma, and hibiscus-rose salt air bubbles. The recipe contained over 20 different ingredients including Woodford Reserve, Chambord, pineapple juice, pastis, granulated soy lecithin and xantham gum. Using immersion blenders, an IsI Thermowhip and signature ingredients from The Liquid Chef line, Merino brought the worlds of spirits of science together.

In the tasting room, Chef Michael Tuohy (Grange, Sacramento) and olive oil expert Jeffrey Shaw (Trade Commission of Spain) taught attendees how to evaluate olive oil, and how to incorporate an olive oil tasting into a restaurant’s menu. The olive oils used were from Spain—Spain being one of the most prolific and varied producers of olive oil—and ranged in flavor profile, body, and weight. Tuohy spoke of the practical ways and reasons for featuring olive oil tastings, and Shaw supplemented with history and description of the many Spanish varietals available to chefs.

In the business seminar room, four chef-restaurateurs spoke of their experiences in going from fine dining to casual. Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Chicago), Ken Oringer (Clio, Boston), Traci Des Jardins (Jardiniere, San Francisco), and Anita Lo (Anissa, New York) each opened one or more casual restaurant after opening the fine dining restaurant that brought them acclaim. The panel, moderated by Heather Sperling of StarChefs.com, was a blend of history and logistics: the chefs spoke about the dining scene in their respective cities when they opened their first restaurants a decade ago, and about the concepts behind their casual restaurants. Each chef said they don’t yet consider themselves “CEOs,” but have considered forming restaurant groups, and rolling out more outlets of their scalable casual concepts.

“People think it’s freezing…that polar bears walk around on the streets”
Rene Redzepi
(on chefs’ misconceptions about Denmark)

Jeff Kadish and Steve Scher (Main Street Restaurant Partners, New York) provided a unique strategy on a restaurant management’s budgeting method—using future projections, rather than past performances, to budget your operational costs. Doing so requires clear reports and using past P&L statements to forecast next week’s sales, then applying those forecasted sales to future budgets. If done consistently, tracking expenditures and achieving profitability should become easier.

Back on the main stage, the 2008 ICC Innovator Awards were awarded to three chefs and four products. The chef honorees were Larry Forgione (Contribution to American Cuisine Award), Daniel Boulud (Mentoring Award), and Charlie Trotter (Community Award), and the products recognized were the CVap Cook & Hold Oven (Winston Industries), the Microplane Zester/Grater (Microplane), Sechuan Buttons (Koppert Cress USA), and the Tafelstern Showpiece Collection by Bauscher. The awards were voted on by Congress attendees, save for the American Cuisine Award, which was voted on by the StarChefs.com Chefs Advisory Board.

After the awards, Rene Redzepi (Noma, Denmark) took the stage, bringing an array of onions with him. “At Noma we are very seasonal,” he explained, “onions are in season now, so I brought 16 types.” Winter in Denmark is heavy on potatoes, onions, and cabbage, and so Redzepi incorporates them into many of the restaurant’s dishes—even desserts. His 6 dishes featured onions in some form, always highlighted by other local ingredients, like foraged herbs, ash from local hay, and seagull eggs. Redzepi spoke of the evolution of local cuisine, saying that as recent as five years ago, fine dining was French or perhaps Italian—but today there’s a movement towards the re-definition of Nordic cuisine. He spoke passionately of its variety and its wonderful products, saying that chefs have misconceptions about Denmark: “People think it’s a freezer…that polar bears walk around on the streets. Chefs come to visit and are surprised to find local pears in my refrigerator!”

Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern, New York) took the stage next to talk about his work with PS 41, an elementary school in Greenwich Village. Anthony has begun regularly visiting the 1st grade classrooms to teach the students about flavors and foods—the students in turn visit his kitchen at Gramercy Tavern and take trips to the Union Square Greenmarket, and then complete in-school activities relating to food and cooking. Since he’s become involved with the school, both parents and teachers have begun to use food as a tool to engage the students—and Anthony told the audience that it’s both easy, and important, to get involved. (For more on PS 41’s innovative greenroof project, see http://www.futurehood.info/.)

The last act of the day (and the Congress programming) was Grant Achatz (Alinea, Chicago)—and he did his grand finale duty well, scintillating the audience with his defense of modern, creative cuisine. In a response to Marco Pierre White’s histrionic bashing of multi-course tasting menus and creative food, Achatz listed “the most important restaurants in the world”—Heston, Ferran, Wylie, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges, Joan Roca, etc—saying, “Without creativity, ingenuity, our industry would be static. Cooking would be homogenous…food would be monotonous….cooks and diners would be mindless.” He went on to talk about the service pieces used at Alinea (designed by Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail Design), using them as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the ways in which a chef can control and enhance the dining experience—and showing the audience that everything at Alinea has a purpose. That, said Achatz, is what he considers to be his responsibility as a chef: “…putting forth new ideas in a respectful, purposeful, creative way.”

His talk was the culmination of a three day event that, at its best, changed the way its participants thought about food. That night it was time to party—at the New York Rising Stars tasting and awards gala under the big blue whale at the Museum of Natural History.

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   Published: September 2008