Worlds of Flavor Conference 2009
I was fortunate enough to attend the Worlds of Flavor Conference held last weekend at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, CA. It is considered to be one of the most important events among food and wine professionals due to the depth and diversity of topics explored in the realm of global cuisine. Leading chefs and experts are flown in from all over the world to lead a three-day symposium on contemporary culinary themes. Each day of the conference is packed with lectures, demonstrations, culinary workshops, and extraordinary tasting extravaganzas that surprise and delight even the most seasoned palates.
This year’s topic: Street Food, World Comfort Food on the surface may seem amateur and inconsequential when many people consider the refined elegance of “haute cuisine” to be the epitome of fine dining. Yet the significance of this theme, and its place in American food culture, would gradually unfold over the course of the conference. Leading chefs, representing over 19 different countries, served as ambassadors of the local “street food” that so vividly reflects their culture and forms the backbone of their regional cuisine.
From skewered beef hearts and ceviche in Peru, Brazilian chickpea patties, tamales and tacos from Mexico, aromatic soups and noodles from Thailand and Singapore, Vietnamese Banh Mi, Indian chaat and countless other craveable bites, this street food epitomizes the most delicious option in any given country. As Paul Bartolotta, the Italian chef of Bartolotta, Ristorante di Mare, put it “even though there has been a revolution in Italy in restaurant food over the last several years, the best food you can find there still comes from home kitchens”. There is a clear consensus among chefs and well-traveled foodies that in many countries the best food can be found either on the street or in the home.
In the U.S. several influences have supported the trend towards more global comfort food on restaurant menus. It can be argued that the current recession has encouraged dining that is both more affordable and casual, but there have been signs of this movement as early as the late eighties. Ruth Reichl, a renowned food writer and editor of Gourmet Magazine, observed the evolution of the American food culture during her years as a restaurant critic for the LA Times and later for the New York Times. She credits the emergence of pizza at Chez Panisse and subsequently at Spago as the first traces of a shift in the restaurant scene from formal fine dining towards more casual cuisine.
It was during these years that we began to see the appearance of rustic comfort food on the menus of top chefs, and restaurant kitchens became integrated into the dining experience. It is now commonplace for restaurants to design their dining room around a fully visible kitchen so that every diner may observe the chef at work.
Reichl’s belief is that street food is compelling because it enables direct contact between the eater and the cook, and allows one to eat with their hands. “People want a relationship with the person who cooks for them,” Reichl remarked at the conference. Indeed, one point that was made abundantly clear is that there is a conviviality of the home and street kitchen that you don’t experience in a formal restaurant setting.
My feeling is that Americans identify with global street food because it is so intrinsic to their melting pot culture. The influx of immigrants has brought with it a growing marketplace of ingredients and an ever-expanding palate of flavors. Experiencing these international tastes on the street, as it is cooked before our very eyes, further enhances the sensory experience. We enjoy the interaction with the cook, the ability to dictate exactly what we want, and the convenience of having it prepared within a matter of minutes. When you bite into a warm, crispy taco, or take that first slurp from a steaming bowl of Pho, the gratification is instant.
In upcoming posts I will highlight a few of my most memorable experiences from the conference, and continue to delve into the world of global comfort food.