The smell of grape must surrounds me as I drive through sunny Napa Valley, I love that smell! It reminds me of the grape harvest, good wine and the great food that is found in this area. Every November, the Culinary Institute of America hosts a food conference at their Greystone location in St. Helena, CA. Greystone is centered in the heart of California’s northern wine country and offers the perfect location to immerse in all things culinary. All while drinking wine. Not a bad days work! The Worlds of Flavor conference brings together the top chefs and experts in the industry to immerse the attendee in a sea of culinary knowledge. This year’s topic was Japan, a cuisine I profess to know little about, so I was anxious to dive in and learn.
The conference started with an opening welcome and reception, with the chefs and sponsors preparing their specialties in the Barrel Room, a huge open space decorated to the theme of the conference and full of incredible smells.
The next day started with a discussion on the art of Ryotei and Kaiseki, the formal fine dining traditions of Japanese cuisine. With chefs speaking of family restaurants that have been in the family for over 400 years, it became apparent how traditional and ancient theses styles were. Then the gears switched to more modern concepts: street food and noodle bars. While these styles have been around for years, it seems their widespread global popularity is new within the last decades as opposed to centuries ago! This part of the conference really excited me; this is how chefs can bring Japanese food to the masses, in an approachable way. Bring on the airstream trailers serving up piping hot bowls of Ramen! We are ready!
Lunch was a great affair, with a sampling of Japanese flavors scattered throughout the historic Culinary Institute main building, allowing the attendee to sample incredible fresh noodle bowls (which bear NO resemblance to pre-packaging Ramen noodles found 10 for $1!), Yakitori (beef and vegetable skewers), tempura, artistically prepared sushi, various pickles, and a delicious Kurabuta squash gyoza. Breakout sessions followed lunch, allowing the attendees to gather in smaller groups and hear chefs speak on a specific specialty or topic. Finally, ANOTHER meal awaited us in the Barrel Room, a huge sampling of the conference chefs and sponsors interpretations of various Japanese foods. No one left hungry!
The final day of the conference started with more breakout sessions, then a general session about Japan and the World Table, how all cuisines have been enriched by the influence of Japanese cuisine. It was impressive to see how Japanese cuisine and techniques have been embraced by chefs all over the world to influence their styles and menus. All the lectures during the conference included vibrant pictures, chef demos and food preparation. Photos of the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, the largest fish and seafood market in the world made me want to jump on a plane to see it in person. They even had a Live Fire kitchen that was set up outside for grilling, where the camera could broadcast live to the entire group in the lecture room, if only they had smell-o-vision! Next up was a lecture on Japanese food styles. The food styling was also amazing; the attention to detail of plate presentation is unparalleled in Japanese cuisine. Every element is considered, the color, shape, aroma, flavor and meaning or story of the ingredients and the final dish all intertwine to create the final masterpiece. In every presentation, the evidence of the attention to season and surroundings were evident. Fall leaves as garnish, seasonal ingredients, even a sushi plate designed after the geography of San Francisco! Simplicity, beauty, and meaning were reflected in every dish. The conference then wrapped up with a session on how chefs are interpreting Japanese cuisines in new ways and fusing ingredients and techniques to their own styles and menus. Chef Morimoto cured and thinly sliced tuna then topped it with chives, white truffle and cured tuna heart to create “torsciutto”.
Chef Tim Cushman created sushi with nori, pickled sancho berries (a type of pepper), seared foie gras, and a sauce with chocolate and balsamic vinegar. Certainly not traditional, but definitely unique!
The event ended with a mini “Iron Chef” competition, with matsutake mushrooms as the “secret” ingredient. Then a final champagne toast and wishes for more to come and high expectations for next year.
Japanese cuisine seems to exemplify the opposite of what Americans demand from food. It is not fast food or portable. The flavors are mindful, delicate, and beautiful. As Americans learn more about Japanese cuisine the simplicity and fresh, subtle flavors will invite them in and capture our imagination. Sushi is only the start of great things to come from Japanese cuisine.
Stay tuned, next year’s Worlds of Flavor conference is scheduled for next November and the topic is WORLD CASUAL: The Future of American Menus, exploring how the casualization of fine dining and the consumer ‘s need for global foods are influencing American menus.