The presenters at the Worlds of Flavor general sessions have time limits: Flashing red lights warn them to wrap up, and gently prodded by Greg Drescher, the Culinary Institute of America vice president who serves as master of ceremonies at the annual conference, they rarely exceed their times.
If, however, these informative sessions begin to run over, the attendees sitting in the large Ventura lecture hall begin to slip out of their chairs and edge toward the exit: It’s time to eat.
While the audience sits listening to discussions on subjects like “Kitchens of the Basque Country: Tapas Crawls and Culinary Frontiers” or “Singapore: Outside/Inside Flavors at the Crossroads of Asia,” downstairs an army of cooks and servers is transforming Greystone’s historic Barrel Room into another country: a marketplace serving up the foods which, until then, attendees have only heard described.
In the past, food stands installed between the rows of huge, old wine barrels have turned the room into China, India, Japan and Spain. This year, however — in an interesting symbol, perhaps, of how much smaller the world is growing — Worlds of Flavor featured the flavors of the world.
Here was Spain serving up its incomparable bonito in olive oil, cheeses, breads and octopus paella, not far from Vietnam’s stand serving hua dumplings, Senegal’s seafood and okra stew, and Mexico’s Nopales Navengates con Camarones (cactus with prawns). In the course of one grazing you might sample beetroot cigars from Crete, Australian lamb neck ragout, Chinese noodles, and cauliflower parantha from India.
Dazzling, colorful, noisy and lively, it has the feel of an exotic marketplace; yet the food is coming from the CIA kitchens, carried by white-toqued chefs trying to weave their way through the crowd with platters of Calabrian stuffed pizza with chard and Sambal prawns from Singapore.
It’s an opportunity to talk to chefs who’ve come from all over the world: Silvena Rowe, the Turkish-Bulgarian chef/ owner of Quince restaurant in London; Marie-Claude Mendy, who has opened Boston’s first Senegalese restaurant, Taranga; as well as Napa’s Neela Paniz, Myung Sook Lee from Korea, Jose Garces from Ecuador, Musa Dagdeviren from Turkey and Abderrazak Haouari from Tunisia.
It’s hard to call this “work,” and equally challenging not to eat yourself into a coma and go find a corner behind a wine barrel in which to snooze. And this happens four times in the course of a three-day conference. Everyone survives, and no one emerges remarkably larger. Thank goodness you have to climb up and down stairs at the CIA; one hopes it’s sufficient exercise.
Interesting observations emerge.
Some speakers had predicted an international “mashup” of flavors as
citizens of the world get to know what others are eating; international restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman raised specters of cheeseburger sushi and spaghetti tacos. I did sample a Jerked Pork Mac and Cheese Egg Roll with Tamarind Sauce from Jamaica, and Indochine Lobster Curry with Ginger Garlic Chutney and Toasted Corn Doritos from event sponsor PepsiCo Inc. One Habañero Shrimp Martini, however, was enough to send me in search of simpler flavors. What I perceived in talking to chefs, many of whom were making their first visit to the U.S., was an immense pride in the foods and products of their country, be it Dennis Lee’s Korean pickled tongue or Senén González’s potato omelet, the national champion from the Basque country of Spain.
Even more striking, however, was the cheerful and curious co-mingling of so many nations — everyone talking and sampling one another’s dishes.
“We are all about hospitality,” said Charles Henning, managing director of the CIA at Greystone; and never do they live up to this mission more than at the marketplaces they create. It’s enough to make one think that maybe this CIA should be on hand at the United Nations.