When Chefs Gather: How Pros Influence Home Cooks

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By Rachel Willen

Entering the Park Avenue Armory for the first of three days that would be the 2012 StarChefs.com annual International Culinary Conference in New York City, I felt like I stepped into a full-color dream I might have had after eating spicy food and watching a weekend marathon of cooking shows.

The line-up for the conference geared toward industry professionals included culinary show veterans Seamus Mullen (Next Iron Chef competitor), Mike Isabella (Top Chef competitor), Paul Qui (Top Chef Winner), Michael Laiskonis (Iron Chef competitor), Alex Stupak (Iron Chef competitor), Jordan Kahn (Hell's Kitchen Guest Judge), Elizabeth Faulkner, (Top Chef Masters), John Besh (Top Chef Masters), Susan Spicer (Top Chef, Treme), Marcus Samuelsson (Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Chopped), Johnny Iuzzini (Top Chef: Just Desserts), Iron Chef Mario Batali, and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Award winning chefs from US and international top restaurants, food critics, cookbook authors, sommeliers and mixologists rounded out a program that promised to explore "Origins and Frontiers: The Archaeology of Modern Cuisine."

I was there to see what these culinary leaders were cooking up in their professional kitchens that would most likely filter down to home cooks in the years to come. I spoke with Jean Armstrong, director of brand marketing for Williams-Sonoma, at their booth for the conference. "Who would have thought, even five years ago, that one of our best-selling pieces of equipment would be a professional-grade blender that retails for just under $600?"

Armstrong noted that interest in high-end equipment and professional-level techniques has skyrocketed along with the growth of culinary entertainment. Trends that used to take a few years to show up in home kitchens, if ever, are now in our pantries and on our countertops within months of being viewed on favorite cooking shows.

Williams-Sonoma is a consumer retailer that walks the fine line between marketing to home cooks and professionals. Immersion blenders, sous vide circulators, vacuum sealers, heavy stainless steel pans and Japanese knives for pros and serious amateurs find shelf space alongside ready-to-eat sauces, easy-to-make mixes and colorful tablescapes for those whose culinary stirrings are less ambitious.

The next big thing in high-end equipment Williams-Sonoma is betting home cooks will find a necessity is The Kenwood Cooking Chef, hitting stores in early November 2012. The Kenwood is an all-in-one center for everything a home cook might need to feel like an Iron Chef. With its array of heavy-duty attachments and add-on pieces it can take on food processing, stand mixing, whisking, dough and pasta making, meat and grain grinding, cooking (it has a convection heating element) and more.

A demonstration by one of Sweden's renowned chefs, Mathias Dahlgren highlighted a humble head of cauliflower. He and his sous chef composed a dish that was nothing but cauliflower, cooked using six different techniques and producing no waste whatsoever. Steaming, grating, braising, sautéing, roasting and raw. A little acid. A little brown butter and he presented us with a plate that was both complex and elegant in its simplicity. A short film he showed, made about him in Sweden, highlighted his near-religious relationship with produce and how he grows it, forages for it and uses it in his two restaurants there.

The love affair with fresh ingredients, high quality, heirloom, heritage, small-farm, estate-grown, handpicked, and artisanally-produced was in evidence in nearly all the chefs' demonstrations and among the product and equipment vendors present as well. I felt great optimism about this trend making its way even further into our national consciousness. The more quality, sustainable, healthful farming and food-producing practices that mainstream consumers demand, the more our food-manufacturing sector will have to comply. The conference title "Origins and Frontiers" began to make sense. Perhaps the next frontier is to fully recapture our roots in food. The conference made me proud to be a chef, knowing that it is those who cook for a living that are leading this trend back toward eating, cooking and living well.

John Besh and Susan Spicer from New Orleans, along with the Louisiana Seafood Board provided another insight into a trend that has long been brewing in restaurants across the country. That trend, as John Besh put it while stirring up his Mom's Red Fish Court Bouillon, is "creating a relationship with food and where it comes from…and being passionate about our heritage…the stuff we grew up with…preserving that."

Besh continued this line of thought as he responded to a question from a chef in the audience about how he'd serve such a rustic dish in his fine-dining establishments. Besh said he makes an effort to include these regional, home-cooking dishes as specials now and then because "people aren't cooking at home, or learning how to cook at home as much as they used to, so it's kind of up to restaurants to preserve these traditions."

Is a big revival of regional, home-style foods going to make it's way back into home kitchens, inspiring home cooks to learn vintage recipes, make them their own and then passing them down to their children and grandchildren? Will we sit back and leave it up to the restaurant and celebrity chefs to do it while we watch? I purchased a copy of Besh's latest cookbook at the conference. Its title tells you which way Besh is hoping things turn out. It's called "My Family Table, A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking" and he signed it, "from my table to yours." He'll preserve the recipes in his restaurants if he has too, but he'd rather you gather your family around and make culinary history yourself.

StarChefs.com, an online magazine for culinary professionals, whose offices are located in New York City, produces the International Culinary Conference. This year's conference was its seventh annual event.

Ginger-Poached Trout with Citrus Vinaigrette

Recipe courtesy " My Family Table" by John Besh

Serves 6


2 lemons, sliced 1 onion, sliced 1 bunch fresh thyme (6-8 sprigs or so), tied with string 1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced 2 cloves garlic, sliced Pinch red pepper flakes 1 bay leaf Salt Freshly ground black pepper 6 trout filets

For the vinaigrette: ½ cup Satsuma or orange juice ½ cup olive oil 6-8 basil leaves, sliced into thin ribbons Salt, freshly ground pepper to taste 2 cups baby greens

Fill a large heavy-bottomed pot with 2 inches of water. Add the lemons, onions, thyme, ginger, garlic, red pepper, and bay leaf. Place the filets in the poaching broth and simmer for 6-8 minutes, until just cooked through. Remove the pot from the heat.

For the vinaigrette, whisk together the orange juice, olive oil, basil, salt and pepper until well incorporated. In a bowl, toss the greens with the vinaigrette. To serve, carefully remove the fillets from the poaching liquid, put a fillet on each plate, and top with the salad greens.

Rachel Willen is a chef and founder of the popular site Foodfixkitchen.com