The 15th annual Worlds of Flavor® conference was held at the Culinary Institute of America this November in St. Helena, California. This food centric conference brings the best and brightest chefs and culinary players in the industry together to discuss what is relevant; happenings in the food industry and what trends are emerging. This year’s theme was “Arc of Flavor”, re-imagining culinary exchange from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia. As always, there were many interesting discussions and lots of amazing food.
The conference holds general sessions based on relevant topics that tie the chefs and presenters together, relating to the central theme, Arc of Flavor. Along with this, more specific breakout sessions are also offered, and attendees chose these sessions based on their area of interest. Each day, the chefs from all of the sessions would re-create the dishes they demonstrated or discussed in the “World Marketplace”. This was an amazing combination of sights, aroma and tastes of the day in a large wine barrel room with decorations and live entertainment that made you feel like you were in a lavish street market in a foreign land.
One main focus of the conference was the discussion of SPICES. The fascinating history of spice origins and the trade routes that spread regional spices throughout the world were discussed.
The area of focus, the Mediterranean-Middle East-Asia, is a very diverse and large area to cover, and the spices and combinations used may vary, but spices are the cornerstones of each cuisine. Unlike the traditional American use of spices, which tends to enhance or season a dish, in these regions, the spice can be the dish’s focal point. The use of complex spices, combinations of spices, and even techniques (grinding, toasting, sautéing, drying, etc.) to change the flavor and dimensions of the spices were closely examined. Almost without fail, the chefs emphasized the need for fresh spices. Not just fresh, but spices ground as needed, or toasted a la minute. This is fairly opposite to the way most American consumers think of spices and their use, keeping containers of dried spices in their pantries for months.
The spices used in the regional dishes also screamed of local availability. Herbs and spices available in the area and in a particular season were used to create traditional dishes. It makes sense to relate this idea to a dish we may be more familiar with, such as lamb with mint sauce. Both lamb and mint being at the prime in the springtime, one of the reasons they are used and pair together so well.
I walked away from the conference with a list of spices to play with in the kitchen in new ways, a few examples are: grains of paradise, spearmint, Za’atar, Irfa pepper, sumac, Aleppo pepper, and curry leaves. I also pledged to re-examine some ingredients I have used in the past to find new ways to make the flavors pop in new dishes. I love preserved lemons and now plan try them out in new ways, as I fell in love with their aroma, texture, and flavor again at the conference.
I also tasted Sichuan peppercorns with Chef Bridget at the marketplace; we had both tasted these special peppercorns in dishes before but couldn’t remember eating them by themselves. My eyes grew wide as I chewed the Sichuan peppercorn, and I was amazed as my tongue became numb, not from the heat, but a unique reaction that I had not experienced before. We both agreed it was a foreign experience to us and might add a unique dimension to dishes. I think there will be more to come in future blogs about my experiments with Sichuan peppercorns.
CHILES also played a prominent role, a trend that has been moving upward slowly in the USA for some time. We had a great discussion in a breakout session around Sriracha, one of my favorite chile sauces, which is a chile based sauce that is more American than Thai. It was developed in the USA by Huy Fong Foods as an answer to an American version of the fiery traditional version. Sriracha can be found in fine dining, used by Jean-Georges Vongerichten in his crab toasts with Sriracha mayonnaise, to street food truck Kogi BBQ, offering a Sriracha bar coated in chocolate (now on my must try list!), to Pei Wei’s limited time offer of Sriracha Chicken or even more mainstream as Sriracha spiked mayonnaise dipping sauce at Applebee’s. Sriracha addresses the need for bold flavors for American consumers but still keeps a familiar flavor profile that isn’t too polarizing. A few other chilies that I saw around the conference (and have been playing with in the kitchen) that I think have great potential to be the next chipotle include dried cascabel (Mexico) with a wonderful complex, fruity flavor; Malagueta pepper (Brazil/Portugal); Aji Amarillo peppers; Birds Eye chilies; and Urfa/Isot peppers. A few chile based sauces that are big on flavor and have great potential for foodservice include: Piri Piri (made from African Birds Eye chile), Harissa, sambal, and sweet chile sauce. And please don’t forget Sriracha, in just about any sauce, or alone as a condiment.
QUALITY was another main theme of the conference. Many of the chefs told stories of how they could not get the same ingredients in the United States as in their homeland, so they had to substitute what was available locally in California. They found it amazing that Americans did not visit the grocery store every day to get fresh, local food and that the food we are eating might be from Chile, instead of from down the road. Everything in the USA was pre-packaged, they couldn’t even tell what the original origin was. This was a unique perspective on our “convenience” foods.
The quality theme shone through when the founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, told the story of how he created his company. His story and passion around quality was so moving. If he were to stand in the grocery store aisles, no other yogurt would be purchased! His philosophy was inspiring, wanting to bring the best quality product to the market that can also be accessible by everyone. His company is tightly tied to the farmers that produce the milk used for his product as well as the communities where his company has plants that produce the finished product. He convinced farmers to stop giving growth hormones to their cows since he strongly felt this produced better quality milk. He put his money where his philosophy is, paying more for this milk that he felt was superior. His story made me confident that American consumers value quality products, and Chobani will continue to thrive if they keep true to their philosophy.
The chefs also emphasized the need to try the foods in the native ENVIRONMENT and this makes perfect sense. Imagine a spit of lamb, slowly roasting over a hot wood fire in a vibrant marketplace in Bursa, Turkey, full of street sounds and smells. The lamb is slowly caramelized on the outside as it is cooked, then sliced thinly and served on a warm, steaming flatbread to enjoy while wandering the streets of the market.
This dish, Cağ kebabı, would be completely different served on a formal white dinner plate in a restaurant; the atmosphere creates part of the enjoyment of the dish. You are a participant and can see the cooking in progress. Chef Suvir Suran may have put it best when he stated that foods are only “authentic at the moment”, the place, time, ingredients, people ARE the dish and you can never replicate them exactly.
Along with the environment, the place from where food originates was also a common thread in the presentations. Angel Leon is the owner and executive chef of a Spanish restaurant called Aponiente. He calls the ocean his source of inspiration, creating new, exciting and innovative dishes inspired by the sea. He has an Iberian sausage on the menu, but one made from seafood since that is what is available to him locally. He believes simplicity always tends to produce the greatest results and is dedicated to producing amazing food from simple ingredients. He mentioned he would rather create a truly unique and flavorful dish from a lesser-known fish a customer has never been exposed to than to create a dish from something familiar and known. He also makes an important link of the dishes he creates to where the food originates. The restaurant menu looks more like a marine biologist chart of the ocean than a typical menu, and he truly ties food to its origin. This local focus on ingredients has made success stories of ingredients, such as Iberico ham, and of whole cuisines, such as the insurgence of Nordic restaurants emphasizing their local ingredients. One great example of this is restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen, stayed tuned to an upcoming blog on my visit to this epic restaurant that has been the #1 restaurant for the last three years. It was an amazing meal and I can’t wait to share the experience and the pictures.
Just as important as what WAS presented, was what wasn’t. Interestingly absent was the idea around convenience and health. Convenience almost seemed to be a dirty word, indicating lower quality, ease of use over flavor, and mass production, antithesis to the conference themes and discussions. And while I say that health was not a focus, I mean this not in the way one might assume. It was not a conference of indulgent foods; rich, decadent use of butter, oils and fat, with little vegetables present. Instead, it was a conference with an emphasis on flavor, with small amounts of healthy fats, plenty of whole grains, fresh, local vegetables and fruits, and small portions. Also key are quality ingredients, simply prepared and full of flavor and sense of place. But these facts were not new, they have been the way of life for these cultures for hundreds of years. Meat plays a very small role in the center of the plate, and the flavor is derived from the unique use of spices, quality ingredients and simple preparations. So, the idea of “healthy” cooking wasn’t emphasized, it was innate. I have a strong belief this is how the obesity epidemic can start to turn around here in the USA by focusing on healthy foods that taste great naturally, smaller portions and food that has amazing flavors naturally.
One final observation about the conference – it covered such a wide and diverse range of cuisines: Turkey, Japan, Spain, Lebanese, Netherlands, and Israel just to name a few. There was not a singular focus on fine dining but discussions on menu items such as the “Camel Rider”, a pita filled with cold cuts from a fast food restaurant called The Sheik in Jacksonville, FL. And learning about ancient Japanese binchotan charcoal, introducing me to a new technique for charcoal grilling and then onto a discussion on the joy of fresh turmeric.
The huge variety of topics, ingredients and techniques offered up ideas, concepts, or a vision as a starting point only. It is up to the attendee to take them home and make them their own, recreating new dishes along the way.
Let the innovation begin!