Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chef's Congress?

I will be the first to admit that I am not as into politics outside of the kitchen as I should be. My catering clients will be glad to know that I search for new ideas and the latest trends in food to bring to their table on a regular basis. The web can provide an endless supply of ideas for the novice chef out there, but somehow, it just does not feel as “educational” as the classroom environment. The student/teacher relationship makes it much more educational.

So let me explain what a Chef’s Congress is.
What feels like about a hundred years ago now, an idea came to me about why there weren’t any culinary emporiums that offered continuing education for an experienced chef like me. I was a hairdresser prior to my catering career, and there were an abundance of classes sponsored by hair care product suppliers, and conventions around the nation and world, that I attended on a regular basis. But honestly, I never felt that hairdressers could command the respect that we deserved. I felt that way even more when I got my big break as a chef about seven years ago.

Sure food suppliers hold shows for the food industry, but walking around tasting different foods and drink samples is not the type of education most of my fellow culinary artists nor I want.

StarChefs.com, a company offering online education, job placement and is a magazine for the food industry, introduced a “Chef’s Congress” learning forum a year ago that doubled in attendance this year. I attended this year’s congress, which had a “Kitchen Without Boundaries” theme. Three intense packed days this September from a food-artist perspective, it was a glorious experience.

The organizers brought in top, name-brand celebrity chefs from all over the country to teach some of their secrets for presentation, like gadgets for making large bubble foam soups and turning solid forms of food into space food, using liquid nitrogen. They all let us chefs pick their brains. I took classes and watched forums that involved cooking with chilies from Stephen Pyles, Chef/Owner/Author from Dallas, Will Goldfarb a New York Pastry Chef build a beautiful tower of natural ingredient dessert that was topped with edible flowers, and was marveled by chef’s who traveled from Errenteria, Spain, France, and the rainforests of South America. I participated in using new cooking techniques, to unusual wine and food pairing; and I saw the latest in dinnerware and was able to fine-tune my presentation demonstration skills.

From my past experience as a foodie and after dropping hundreds of dollars on tasting menus—or even just eating a cheap breakfast in a small corner bistro —I have found that many chefs are so very protective of their recipes. One time, at a restaurant in Bar Harbor, Maine, I asked the waitress if the cook would tell me what the wonderful flavor in the corned beef hash was. The cook had the waitress tell me that the secret ingredient was ‘”love.” Later that afternoon my sensitive taste buds and experience told me it was maple syrup. I was not feeling the “love” when I left their restaurant that morning.

I share my recipes when someone asks me. At the time, I was living in Dallas, Texas, so would I have destroyed their Bar Harbor business if I brought their maple syrup idea all the way down south? Art inspires other art, as they say, and someone will figure that out soon enough.

This “Kitchen Without Boundaries”-themed congress was so inspirational for me, and I’d like to thank all my fellow culinary artist presenters for sharing their secrets.

I also got to meet one of my favorite authors, David Kamp. He wrote United States of Arugula: How we Became a Gourmet Nation and other food/culture books. His book is a good read and I highly recommend it. I can only hope that if he reads this blog, he finds my writings as interesting as I find his!

~ E Stelling

PS The picture of the purple corn is something I brought home from the convention; it is blue corn from South America.