Selassie Atadika from Ghana introduced ingredients like baobab powder, teff, moringa and bambara groundnuts. Manuela Buffara, from Curitiba, Brazil provided tastes of amburana and tucupi. Pierre Thiam, from Senegal, now cooking in New York City, extolled the advantages of fonio, a West African supergrain.
And Sean Sherman, a Native American known as “the Sioux Chef,” encouraged listeners to rediscover lost, forgotten knowledge of the land and indigenous plants and animals because “if you can control your food, you can control who you are; if you can control your food, you control your destiny.”
These are morsels from the Worlds of Flavor conference held in April at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena.
For the past 20 years, the CIA has held these global gatherings at its Greystone campus, inviting chefs from around the world to share their food traditions with an audience of culinary professionals, chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and journalists.
Past themes have explored the culinary scenes of Spain, China, Japan, the Mediterranean, India, and wells as trends like wood-fire grilling, spice routes, street foods, and fast casual dining.
It’s always a dazzling culinary United Nations, but this year Worlds of Flavor brought the event home in a different way. Titled “Legends of Flavor,” the subtitle was “World cuisine, immigrant kitchens and the future of American food.”
The event underscored how what we eat in the U.S. has changed profoundly in the past 20 years, as interest grows apace, not only in the food of first immigrants to America, the traditional, Americanized versions of Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, and German cuisines, but in newer trends seeking out Korean, Thai, Japanese, Peruvian, Turkish, Moroccan, new Nordic foods, and exotic blends thereof.
“There is less interest in food of the motherland than in what happens when it comes to this country,” said chef Edward Lee, who was born in Brooklyn to parents who had emigrated from Korea, who studied cooking in France, fell in love with southern cooking in Louisville, Kentucky and combines all of these traditions in his successful restaurants in Washington, D.C. as well as Kentucky.
The distinctions between “high and low cuisine, comfort food, grandma’s food” have all but collapsed Lee said, “There’s a world of cuisine out there that we’ve yet to tap into. Food is a layer of culture that reveals who we are.”
Over the course of three days, the participants listened to — and tasted the fare of chefs from Texas to Tasmania who celebrate their heritage through food, be it grilled grasshoppers or turnip pudding.
American chefs ran the gamut from Justin Carlisle, from Milwaukee, Wis., a James Beard nominee who extols support of American farms chef to Kwame Onwuachi whose Washington, D.C. restaurant Kith and Kin is based on “cooking from my heart, showcasing the soul food of my life, and celebrating my diverse Caribbean, Creole, and African roots.”
J.J. Johnson whose Harlem restaurant, The Cecil (now merged with the Minton) described his cooking as, “the food of who I am, the African disapora”; Rick Bayless, who spoke at the first Worlds of Flavor conference in 1998 and whose culinary career has been devoted to seeking out and cooking authentic Mexican dishes, continued to present new discoveries — and recipes.
Chefs also brought news of what they are doing abroad in Spain, Italy, France, England — and Africa. Selassie Atadika, after traveling the world and studying at the CIA, returned her native Ghana to focus on “plant forward, climate conscious, underdog ingredients.” She promotes “the new African cuisine” through Midunu, which gets its name from from Ewe language; it means “Come let’s eat.” She was a founding member of Trio Toque, the first nomadic restaurant in Dakar, Senegal.
Italian chefs Stefano Masanti and Diego Rossi acknowledged their profound respect for their grandmothers’ cooking and then shared how they are changing it. “Whatever the grandmother does, it is good,” said Rossi, chef at Trippa in Milan, “and I am transforming what Grandma does in the world.” Masanti demonstrated how he takes Italian comfort foods like minestrone and makes them dishes for his Michelin star Il Cantinone in Madesimo in the Italian mountains. (He roasts all the vegetables individually to get the right texture before he combines them in the hearty, much loved peasant soup.)
Another highlight was British chef Zoe Adjonyoh, owner of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen in the Brixton section of London. The daughter of an Irish mother and a Ghanan father, for whom “food was a connection to home,” Adjonyoh fused two traditions in successful pop-ups and opened her first restaurant in a shipping container.
Northern California chefs held their own amidst these culinary adventurers. Among them was Oakland’s Reem Assil, of Palestinian-Syrian heritage, who became a baker because of the positive effects of the scent of baking bread. After garnering fans at pop-ups at the San Francisco Ferry Marketplace, she opened a bakery in the Fruitvale district of Oakland and just this spring has opened a new restaurant, Dyafa, in Jack London Square.
Add to this list, Val Cantu, whose Californios restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco was described by San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer as “creating some of the most exciting interpretations of Mexican food in the U.S.” (And he uses Napan Steve Sandos’ beans, of course.) And Mourad Lahlou, chef/owner of Mourad told the audience, “my food always starts in Morocco.”
As for excitement, it was hard to top Kyle Connaughton, whose Single Thread restaurant, farm and inn in Healdsburg, earned two Michelin stars the first year it opened. Connaughton recreated for the audience a sample of the table guests experience at Single Thread: a flower-banked artwork that melded exquisite Japanese artistry (Connaughton studied in Japan before working in England) with ingredients from the five-acre farm his wife tends and from the Sonoma coast.
The Sioux Chef
The standing ovation, however, went to Sean Sherman, the Native American chef from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, whose 30-year mission has been to rediscover, re-educate and revitalize the indigenous foods of America.
Sherman recalled growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, receiving government shipments of foods — canned foods, white flour, lard, white sugar — that were alien to his people “and made us ill.”
Going into cities, he said, “I realized find food from all over the world, except for Native American. You couldn’t go online and order ‘Joy of Native American Cooking.’”
Setting out to discover what Native Americans ate before the arrival of Europeans, he said, he also learned, “how little people understand our own destiny.”
“It is not that I want to make it look like it’s 1491,” he said, “but to take all of that generational knowledge and apply it to today. We have to learn our history to move ahead.
“This begins with rediscovering the knowledge we’ve been oblivious to for so long, that’s right underneath our feet. The biggest piece for us was reconnecting with the earth, getting to know the plants, not just being lazy and calling them weeds. It’s unfortunate that our kids know the names of more Kardashians than they do trees.
“There is so much knowledge all around us,” said Sherman, who noted that here in Napa Valley, he had hiked up beyond “that castle thing” and found a trove of edible foods. “There should be no food deserts. Even in the desert, where every plant looks like it wants to kill you,” there is abundance, he said.
He has founded The Sioux Chef, to assemble and pass on all that he can find of traditions from food preserving to seed-saving.
“Indigenous people all around the world hold so much strength and knowledge of how to live sustainably on the earth. We should be celebrating the diversity,” he said. “Everything has a purpose — except ticks.”
Sherman’s book, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Cooking” promptly sold-out but can be ordered in Napa at Bookmine.
The entire text of Sherman’s talk at the CIA can be found at sioux-chef.com/about/