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International Chefs Congress 2006 Welcome Address

by CEO & Editor-In-Chief Antoinette Bruno


Good morning, and welcome to International Chefs Congress – A Kitchen Without Boundaries.

This year marks the 11th anniversary of, the first online culinary magazine. What was originally intended as a home on the web for super-star celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Todd English has grown over the last decade to become THE foodservice industry insider site – with a clear focus on working chefs. Despite our somewhat sensationalist name, StarChefs is about identifying and featuring the best chefs in the industry – not because they are on TV, but because they are talented, innovative, passionate, and driven individuals who contribute greatly to our culinary community.


StarChefs’ audience, both on the web and here today does not represent the average foodservice industry professional. In a recent reader survey conducted on our site, 60% identified themselves as Executive Chefs or Executive Sous Chefs in fine dining, upscale casual, or hotel operations, and over 50% are chef owners.

You in the audience are part of this elite group of professionals, and it is our goal to provide a forum for you – both online and on the ground – where you are challenged, motivated and inspired to succeed in this industry and to contribute to raising the bar on cuisine in America.

Believe it or not, what you do in your restaurants has a huge impact on the rest of the industry. The high quality of food, the creative presentations, and kinds of flavor combinations and techniques that you experiment with – all these things trickle down into the other foodservice areas – the quickservice sector, hospitals, corporate dining rooms, and yes, schools – where our most precious citizens develop habits and ideas about what is food.

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The next two days are intended to be an intensive exchange of ideas, and an opportunity to network and develop relationships with top chefs. Many of you know StarChefs by our JobFinder, the leading niche online classifieds service for the food & hospitality industry. We are committed to helping you get the best jobs out there.

We’ve also set up a live Career Counseling exchange that will take place all day tomorrow on the 5th Floor in one of the seminar rooms. These are one-on-one sessions with some of our presenting and host chefs, including Norman Van Aken, Wylie Dufresne, Todd Gray, Traci Des Jardins, Patricia Quintana, Tadashi Ono, and Waldy Malouf. You can sign up at StarChefs’ Booth for a Career Counseling slot. If possible, please bring your resume to the session tomorrow.

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One more mention about the Products Fair. As stellar as every single presentation on the stage and in the workshop and seminar rooms will be over the next two days, we invite you to take a break and spend some time next door. My partner, Will Blunt, and I spent a lot of time recruiting exhibitors and sponsors whom we felt were relevant to you – leading large and small equipment manufacturers like Enodis, Winston Industries, YieldKing, Hobart, Vitamix and Pacojet – all of whom you also see represented here on the demonstration stage -- plus interesting artisan purveyors like Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Millisime, and Devi Tea. We’ve brought in a selection of super-premium wines and spirits, including Zyr Vodka, Rhum Clement, Siembra Azul Tequila, plus an extraordinary offering of Beers from Belgium. And you can stay wired all day with espresso and capuccino, thanks to the Nespresso Professional Espresso Bar and Cyber-Café.

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The theme of our first Congress is “Flavor and the American Spirit.” While innovation and cutting-edge techniques have been industry buzzwords for the last couple of years, it is apparent that the pendulum is swinging; there is a renewed focus on flavor, and culinary techniques are no longer an end in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end (as they probably always should have been).

What’s more, America’s leading chefs have a distinctive point of view to share. The American spirit of rugged individualism and of bold risk-taking are at the heart of their personalities and, in large measure, the reason for their success. What distinguishes America’s top chefs and their approach to cooking is their lack of boundaries. They are not tied to strict cultural traditions in the kitchen but are free to interpret cuisines from every country in the world. The international luminaries whom we’ve invited to demonstrate alongside our US-based chefs embody the American spirit in that they have dared to defy the boundaries of their own cultures.

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We look forward to bringing this event to the chef community in America on an annual basis and exploring different themes each year, based on the trends that we see emerging in the restaurants we visit, through our conversations and interviews with chefs around the world, as well as through the research that we conduct online through our reader surveys. You can mark your calendar and tell all your colleagues and friends to save the date for next year’s Congress -- September 16, 17 and 18, here again in New York. And we genuinely welcome your feedback on this inaugural event, so that we can make next year’s an even more valuable experience for everyone involved. We want to hear your ideas on topics, speakers, format, etc.

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Coming back to trends and research, I wanted to take a few minutes this morning to talk about some of the trends we see really taking shape in the American dining scene. In the industry survey we conducted this summer, we learned some interesting statistics about chefs in this country:

65% of our chefs surveyed told us they focus on locally grown, seasonal ingredients, and almost half of them use fresh, seasonal products almost exclusively. Before you roll your eyes about this seemingly obvious trend, I have to tell you that when I was interviewed yesterday by Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru on WOR, we got to talking about trends in the restaurant industry. And I told him how chefs are using more and more organic, local, seasonal product, and he looked at me like I was crazy -- “But what do consumers care about local, seasonal products?” he asked?!

So there is a striking disconnect between what chefs are putting out there on the plate for their customers and what customers are buying for themselves in their daily trips to the supermarket. I think the mandate is clear – and I hope that the panelists on tomorrow’s sustainability panel will agree with me and underscore this point – that the chef community needs to do more to educate their diners not only about the quality of the product they get in the restaurant, but where and how to get that kind of product in the markets. We need to educate consumers and give them the resources and the confidence to demand high quality, healthy food that respects and protects our environment and also helps support local economies.

Since our overarching Congress theme is FLAVOR, I thought I’d share some of the numbers on that as well. 65% of our surveyed chefs reported a significant integration of sweet and savory flavors in their dishes – something Sam Mason is going to be talking about in his presentation tomorrow afternoon. Again, this trend may seem obvious, but I think the average chef - again, whom none of you are - has a tendency to oversimplify this culinary concept. On one end of the spectrum are the chefs who put together really obvious combinations of sweet and savory. On the other end are those who combine completely disparate and esoteric ingredients without real thought - or more to the point, without really tasting the end result.

One other interesting data point on the topic of flavor: 71% of our chefs surveyed said they are currently using more familiar, classic flavors and ingredients in their dishes. I think this statistic will strike some interesting debate and conversation.

Two of our presenting chefs illustrate this debate through their demonstration topics - later this afternoon you’ll see Ken Oringer take the stage talking about inventive preparations of exotic ingredients. Ken travels extensively throughout Asia to source unusual ingredients to include in his cooking. Meanwhile Josh DeChellis, whom you’ll see onstage tomorrow, takes a different tack. In his demo, as well as in his cooking at Sumile, Josh seeks to build awareness of Japanese cuisine by presenting dishes that are created with ingredients familiar to Westerners but that are reflective of the philosophy of Japanese cookery.

Our audience online and in person here today represents the industry’s experimenters –
24% -- almost a full quarter of our chefs -- reported the use of gums, homogenizers, hydrocolloids or liquid nitrogen in their kitchens. In addition, 27% said they had amassed increased knowledge of science and chemistry, and 20% indicate experimenting with complicated techniques that use innovative equipment. When you think about it, these numbers are statistically significant – reflecting the behavior of one out of 4 or 5 of our chefs.

Tomorrow you’ll have a chance to see one of the young masters of experimentation in action, talking about his research and exploration of versatile chemicals like homogenizers and hydrocolloids, as well as with new equipment that allows him to achieve unusual textures in his dishes. Of course I’m talking about Wylie Dufresne.

Also in our survey, 18% of respondents reported using what we call “sensory deception”, where what you see is not what you taste. Again, at first this number might seem insignificant, but it actually points to a growing trend. I urge you not to miss David Scabine’s presentation tomorrow afternoon for an engaging and theoretical discussion on the Taste of Shape.

At StarChefs, our editorial staff talks a lot about the role of experimentation in cooking, and how we as a organization have to be vocal in our support of those chefs who take the greatest risks, rather than criticize them. Whether chefs play with tradition, tastes, textures, or words, and whether they succeed or fall flat in the eyes of the public, experimental cuisine is an invaluable pursuit for the following reason: it takes the industry to the next level. It challenges all of us to rethink and reconsider what we hold as fact. The price of revolution is the risk of failure, and the likelihood of many pitfalls, even along the way to success. And all intelligent and creative chefs must be praised for taking such risks. This important topic will be brought to life tomorrow afternoon when Paul Liebrandt takes the stage and talks about the role of a chef as artist or artisan.

The last area that I want to report on to you today has to do with revenue and the bottom line. As chefs struggle to find the right venue to be creative and to express themselves as artists and inventors, there is always the reality of the bottom line, keeping food cost in check, and serving and satisfying their customers - in order to stay in business and have their restaurants thrive.

We asked our chefs to identify various actions they have taken to increase their check average. Three of the actions that stood out were: 1) Adding small plates and lower priced appetizers to the menu; 2) Offering a prix fixe tasting menu, and 3) Taking time to thoroughly educate staff on dishes as well as wine pairings.

35% of the chefs who were surveyed said they charge between 16 and 24 dollars for entrees in their restaurants. Another 30% said they charge between 25 and 33 dollars per entrée.

Of those who offer tasting menus, the largest group of chefs – 22% -- said their charge per person is between 31 and 60 dollars, followed by 20%, who charge between 61 and 90 dollars. Of course if you’re from out of town and you go out to dinner at Per Se or Jean Georges tonight and order a tasting menu, don’t come crying to me tomorrow and tell me you got charged upwards of 120 dollars! This is New York!

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I’d like to thank everyone who has made this event a reality – our Chefs Congress Advisory Board, especially Norman Van Aken, Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, Ken Oringer and Josh DeChellis, who really helped conceptualize and shape this event. I can’t thank enough our tiny but incredibly talented, energetic, dedicated staff who worked countless hours to make this event happen. A special thanks to George Mendes, for pinch hitting as our Culinary Director and coordinating all our chef presenters.

Thank you to all our generous sponsors, without whom this event would not be possible, especially Lex Poulos at Jade Range, who took Daniel Boulud’s hand-drawn sketch of a demo cooking table - mocked up on the back of a menu - and turned it into this phenomenal demonstration kitchen. A huge thanks to Greg Rowehl of Commercial Kitchen Design, for installing this monster and making sure it and all of the other equipment here on stage actually works!

Never-ending thanks to Kevin Starkey of Covenant House for having us here for our inaugural event. We’re delighted to work in partnership with Covenant House to support Ezekiel’s – the organization’s culinary arts training program for at-risk youth. In addition to a cash contribution, and a portion of ticket sales going directly to Covenant House, we are pleased to have the students in the Ezekiel’s program attending and helping out at the Congress. These kids have an incredible opportunity to work alongside an amazing roster of world-class chefs, and these are the kinds of mentoring and learning experiences that can deeply impact their lives.

We’ll also be contributing the proceeds of the Jade Range Raffle at Rising Stars tomorrow night to Covenant House. If you don’t already have tickets to tomorrow night’s push-cart gala at Crobar, you can either buy tickets at registration or at StarChefs’ booth. I promise you, you don’t want to miss that event tomorrow night, where we celebrate and honor New York’s top up-and-coming culinary talent. And you can win a professional quality range for your home kitchen, for only ten dollars!!!

One last acknowledgement, to StarChefs’ original founders -- four restaurant industry visionaries who came together in 1995 to create the site, before the internet was even a household tool: they are Bob Giraldi , Patty Greaney, Phil Suarez and Fern Berman. Although they are no longer part of StarChefs’ day-to-day operations, we are grateful for their original concept of an online community of chefs. And we are proud to be able to extend that community through the International Chefs Congress.

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...Published: September, 2006