The Culinary Institute of America will kick off the 15th annual Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival on Thursday in Napa Valley, Calif. I spoke with Anne McBride, culinary program and editorial director for strategic initiatives at the CIA, about the theme of this year’s conference and what trends attendees can expect.
What is special about this year’s theme, “Arc of Flavors: Re-imagining Culinary Exchange, from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia,” and how did the CIA choose it?
It’s easy to focus only on geopolitical borders when thinking about these regions, particularly those one might be less familiar with. However, talking about them in the context of flavors, ingredients, dishes and techniques, looking at that arc historically and contemporaneously, offers a different way of thinking about the world. The conference will dig at the origins of many foods we think we know and uncover many others that are completely new to American diners. This is not done haphazardly but rather by following an arc of flavor that is ancient and results from journeys and conquests centuries old.
This year’s theme features a very wide range of countries and cuisines. To cover them all, or at least try to cover as much as we can in three days, there will be 73 presenters who represent 26 cuisines, from North Africa all the way to Asia. Looking at the similarities and differences in flavors between those regions offers a real understanding of why we cook and eat the foods that we do today. Some of the connections are obvious, some will be really surprising.
Past Worlds of Flavor conferences have focused on one area, such as Asia or the Mediterranean, so how will this year’s conference address a wider range of cultural cuisine and culinary exchange?
Some of the sessions will focus on regions so that attendees gain a deeper understanding of the flavors of the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, or South Asia, for example, and then be able to see the connections and differences between them. In that vein, there are also some country-specific sessions — for example looking at the cuisine of Sri Lanka, Iceland or Indonesia since those are probably lesser known to American audiences. Others will focus on specific techniques, such as live fire grilling, fermentation, or one-pot cooking, and looking at how different cuisines use those methods. Some will look at ingredients, such as seafood or grains, and how they are used in different cuisines. Others will look at the flavoring agents — herbs, spices, aromatics — of particular regions.
How can American chefs utilize flavors and techniques from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia?
There are ways large and small, as they will learn this week, ranging from having a full menu that represents one of the cuisines of the arc of flavor to incorporating new aromatics or spices into dishes chefs might already be cooking. Techniques like grilling and braising are part of just about every type of menu; by looking at how they are used in Thailand, Persia or Japan, American chefs learn new strategies to build flavors into their food. Understanding a connection between the cuisines of Vietnam and India, for example, frees up chefs to think about the foods they cook in a global, long-established context. They’ll discover new flavor pairings — a vinaigrette made with figs and Menorcan sweet peppers, prawn and kumquat on skewers, mussel soup with rye bread, for example.
Worlds of Flavor will also examine cuisine from the Americas. How are U.S. chefs interpreting global cuisine?
Worlds of Flavor will look at the ways in which cuisines and influences from the arc of flavor are interpreted by chefs in America. For example, what do Portuguese or Indian cuisines look like in New York restaurants, as created by chefs who are influenced not just by their heritage but by their professional training and their global city environment? Or how does an Italian restaurant in New Orleans reflect the history of the city’s Italian immigration on its menu, incorporating Italian and Southern elements … [C]hefs are in motion more than ever, traveling, eating, staging, attending and presenting at conferences around the world. U.S. chefs are very much part of that global network; through these exchanges, whether it is by giving a presentation or hosting a guest chef from another country in their restaurant, for example, they are able to communicate their culinary philosophy and share ingredients or flavors that might be U.S.-specific very widely.
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