Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Star Chefs 2009

Mike Love doing a demo at the VitaMix booth.

I've been in New York City attending the annual Star Chefs International Chefs Congress - a three day exposition of chefs and cuisine. Overall, it's an amazing experience that puts you in close proximity to some of the greatest modern-day chefs. This weekend, I've listened to people like Pierre Gagnaire, Juan Mari Arzak, Paco Torreblanca, Daniel Boulud and Grant Achatz discuss and demonstrate their philosophies and techniques. Just watching them in action has helped to prod and invigorate my own thoughts on processes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of the presenting chefs were a bit unbalanced and even downright poor showmen, meaning that while they can cook, not many of them are great in front of an audience. Jose Andres and Masaharu Morimoto, however, were brilliant showmen. Both commanded the main stage in their own distinct style. Andres was clearly the more experienced entertainer of the two, not only engaging the audience with humor and philosophies on cooking, but also directing the cameraman towards what he wanted us to see, not whatever random imagery the cameraman and technical director were cooking up.

Yoshihiro Murata discussing aspects of umami.

Which brings me to the weirder aspects of Star Chefs. The camera work was absolutely horrible. In a main stage presentation where the audience is up to a hundred fifty feet away from the dish that's being prepared, good camera work is crucial. Following the narrative of the presenting chef and the action is critical. It's completely infuriating that the camera is off watching water boil (literally) while Morimoto is discussing and demonstrating the intricacies of cutting a tuna.

Then there were the seats. Bleacher style seating with these molded plastic "chairs" that were uncomfortable to sit on. Sitting on them for any amount of time was excruciatingly painful - and the hosts kept asking everyone to stay.

April Bloomfield caresses the pig before butchering it.

By now, I've been to a lot of shows and events and I was struck at Star Chefs how the event hosts saved the front and center seats for themselves, as if they were the stars of the show. Never mind the guest attendees, they can sit in the back. The hosts seemed more concerned about hob-nobbing with the famous chefs and placing themselves front and center for everyone to see and adore than actually taking care of guests.

This was most evident when one of the lighting fixtures blew up overhead and cascaded various bits of lighting and glass on a part of the audience. The hosts, sitting no more than twenty feet away couldn't be bothered to investigate or check on the attendees who had been showered with glass. Instead, they sat there pretending that nothing had transpired. Certainly these two were not hospitality people.

Gifts from April.

After the first day, it struck me that these were like some of the coffee geeks I had observed in the coffee world - outsiders obsessed with wanting to be considered "insiders" and therefore, "cool." I remarked to a friend that this is how a coffee event would be if a particular coffee geek had been the one staging it. My friend noted that it would be even worse.

Speaking of which, I'm disappointed that I didn't see baristas at the event. No one from our end of the world was in attendance. Here, we have an amazing gathering of chefs from around the world discussing their philosophies and techniques and no baristas. All that lip service we give about product and there's no one else here exploring techniques and ingredients? I just don't get it.

Pierre Gagnaire!

Of course, the only other coffee person there was notable rabble-rouser and Man Critical of Coffee Cronies in the SCAA, Mike Love - former chef and owner of Coffee Labs. In a sea of cooks and chefs, Mike and I were the only coffee people. Sad.

What might have been worse was the espresso from La Colombe. I tasted a shot of espresso from their booth and tossed it after a couple of sips. My adventure was rewarded with forty minutes of charcoal in my mouth - and this from one of the most touted restaurant coffee roasters. We still have a long way to go.

Jose Andres commanding the stage.

Otherwise, it was a great time. Most of the chefs gave great presentations and I it's always great to catch up with industry friends like Philip and Jason from PolyScience, Giuliana from Waring Commercial, Howard from Winston Industries, Greg from the NRA and Alex from Ideas in Food.

One chef that did not disappoint was Paco Torreblanca. Perhaps you've read his book (and you should) but he came out to demonstrate his technique for making oysters out of white chocolate, acetate and some powders and it was absolutely amazing. I was furiously punching notes into my iPhone the whole time. The man is a wizard.

In spite of the weirdness and oddities, I'll definitely be back next year 'cause where else can you go and be surrounded by such talent? Plus, the official book of the event is killer and worth the price of admission alone.

Masaharu Morimoto showing his yellowfin technique.

Josh Emett saw through a lamb - New Zealand, of course.

Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz and Pierre Gagnaire waxing.

Paco Torreblanca ripping it up with chocolate oysters.

No comments: