If you had more than the usual trouble getting a table at Blackbird, Avec, Alinea, Frontera, Hot Doug’s or any other local celebstaurant last week, it’s likely because they were already booked up by thousands of out of town chefs, food writers, marketers, photographers, and entrepreneurs here for the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference. The four-day schedule of talks, workshops, tasting, tours, and dinners was thoroughly interesting, convivial, and so huge that it was damn near impossible to do anything without missing three or four other really cool programs.
This was particularly painful on Thursday morning, as I stood in the Hilton lobby trying to decide between cod, raw milk cheese, and butter tastings, a discussion on herbs and spices with Madhur Jaffrey, and a localism panel with Erika Lesser of Slow Food USA. I settled instead on “The Doctor is In” a Q & A with food science gurus Shirley O. Corriher and Harold McGee, in large part because ten years ago I’d been given Corriher’s demystifying Cookwise at a formative time in my life (I’d forsworn vegetarianism), and it quickly became my best friend in the kitchen. The jolly, cherubic Corriher and gaunt, wry McGee had a winning Julia and Jacques-like chemistry as they fielded tough technical questions about brining, natural and unnatural transfats, and what it means when chopped garlic goes green (it’s really fresh from high protein soil). Someone asked about how to work with flours with unknown protein content and Corriher said that in the old days German bakers would thrust a sweaty arm in the barrel. If the flour stuck to the arm they knew they were dealing with low protein stuff. The session provided the first of many we’re-all-in-this-together, geek-out moments when Italophile Faith Willinger, in large metal cow earrings, rose from the crowd to ask what she could do to improve her zabaglione when she couldn’t get Italian eggs (the answer: use extra yolks).
I followed that with Going Underground: Roots, Rhizomes, and Tubers in Asian Cooking with Viet World Kitchen’s Andrea Nguyen, Saveur editor James Oseland and Elizabeth Andoh, whose presentation on konnyaku, “the ugly duckling of the Japanese kitchen” was bizarre and fascinating. This highly fibrous, zero-cal “elephant yam” is extremely labor intensive to produce; it requires three transplants over three years before it’s mature, it smells repulsive when it’s pollinating, and it has to be processed with an alkaline liquid before it can be digested. If you buy a package that smells sweet it’s spoiled–if it’s fresh it smells bad. At some point I realized that I had eaten this last year, extruded into noodles. The flavorless end product has a good chew, is an ideal flavor absorber, and has been used for centuries in Japan–there were 82 recipes in a 1864 cookbook and 80 of them are still used. But as Andoh marveled, “Who had the courage to think you could eat it?”
For me, Friday’s panel with Rick Bayless and Donald Bixby of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy about the Renewing America’s Food Traditions project (RAFT), and cooking heritage breeds was the most hopeful and inspiring segment of the conference. Bixby explained how the heritage breed movement got its start in the 70s, when bunch of agricultural historians working on bicentennial commemorations discovered that they couldn’t find any any of the breeds our forefathers raised. Back then their few stewards were hobbyists who just thought it was cool to raise Buckeye chickens, Pineywoods cattle, or Mulefoot hogs, and for whom the thought of eating the endangered (but tasty) animals was counterinterintuitive. But eventually the idea that “You have to eat them to save them” prevailed–an idea Erika Lesser called “eater-based conservation. ” Bayless explained that people will reconnect with these animals first through restaurants, so chefs have a serious responsibility to work with farmers, and learn how to properly prepare the animals before foisting them on to the eating public. And it ain’t easy. You can’t just throw a Buckeye into the pot and expect it to taste right. Bayless said his kitchen tested chickens from Lagrange’s Gunthorp Farms for nine months before they appeared on the menu at Frontera (gotta brine them first). It took a year before they could figure out how to get grass-fed beef on the menu–but it was worth it. Now the grass-fed (and more expensive) carne asada outsells the the regular one, which he said was the biggest selling weekend item for 20 years. Bixby summed it up: “Education starts with the chefs.”
Bayless, incidentally, won the IACP’s 2007 Humanitarian Award, recognizing “individuals who have contributed significantly to improving conditions for the underprivileged in our society,” for his work with the Frontera Farmer Foundation.
My conference ended with a butchering workshop at Kendall College on Saturday conducted by David and Michael Brown, two soft-spoken Canadian brothers who had just three hours to teach 40 inquisitive, and at that point rather cranky conference goers how to cut blade steaks, top sirloin, lamb shoulder, and chicken. This was a lot of fun, and if nothing else underscored the fact that the craft of butchering takes years to master. Oh yeah, and that the infinitive “to butcher” is not as relative as it should be. You can see the atrocity I committed trying to butterfly a pork loin in the attached pictures.