Worlds of Flavor

What I Learned From Some of the Best Chefs in the World

Worlds of Flavor

As a food writer with a special passion for the foods of Southeast Asia, I was excited about the 2000 Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival. I had seen ads for the event featuring the flavors of India and Southeast Asia in publications, and both Saveur and Food Arts magazines had raved about the previous year's event, which covered the regional flavors of Mexico. My pulse quickened and I salivated uncontrollably every time the possibility of attending crossed my mind. I would love to go, but my financial picture was in its usual bleak and blurry mode. Then came the call from my editor.

I had gotten a surprise, last-minute press pass (with sumptuous hotel room included) and an assignment to cover the 2000 event. The timing couldn't have been more serendipitous, since my partner and I were researching recipes for that portion of Southeast Asia for the book we are writing. I would be mingling with, learning from, and eating foods prepared by some of the best chefs in the world, from India, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

The event was held November 9-11 at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., at the upper end of the picturesque Napa Valley. The 1888 National Historic building is a three-story, cut-stone, 400-foot-long winery that used to house the Christian Brothers champagne operation. Surrounded by state-of-the-art organic vegetable, herb, and fruit gardens and vineyards, the facility underwent a $15 million renovation and opened as the continuing education West Coast operation of the famed Culinary Institute of America in 1995. A more perfect place to hold the event would be hard to imagine.

The 15,000-square-foot teaching kitchen is composed of at least a dozen of the most modern of food preparation islands, with the entire west end devoted to the baking arts. The equipment there is the stuff of every foodie's fondest wet dreams. Granite and oak countertops are the norm instead of stainless steel. Slate floors and big fireplaces surround you in one of the world's most technological yet comfortable kitchens. Surprisingly, every attendee had the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side with the world's best chefs.

The lecture areas are state-of-the-art as well. Twice daily, concentrated lecture-demonstrations were held in the 125-seat amphitheater, with video cameras to bring the action up close to the overhead monitors. Nary a nuance or detailed movement was lost during the demonstrations. The huge exhibit hall was configured as if it were an Asian street vendor market, with all of the chefs and restaurants having vibrant, colorful food booths much like they would in their native countries, where you could go and watch the foods being prepared. You were free to ask anything you wanted and get personalized demonstrations, then eat the foods being presented. All the while, there were vegetable-carving demonstrations, native bands playing music, dance troops performing, and food product booths to explain the details of all of the raw products involved, such as the differences in the unlimited varieties of rice or the many different types of citrus or herbs. Not a cent changed hands after payment of the initial registration fee.

After hearing horror stories of traffic delays from previous year's attendees, I decided to take the advice of a good friend of mine who grew up near Sacramento. His recommendation was to fly into Sacramento (to avoid the gridlock of the San Francisco airports and roadways) and take the scenic back route to Napa. There was a brief delay in actually finding someone who knew the path to the elusive mountain pass around Lake Berryessa, but I soon was en route with Paginini cranked up to maximum volume on the CD player. The trees were brilliant hues of crimson and gold with the colors of autumn, the lake, and its wild canyon tributaries magnificent, the twisting and spiraling road all but deserted, and most importantly, I had evaded the legendary traffic morass that is usually found in Napa Valley.

I arrived right on time, picked up my materials, and went to the assembly hall on the third floor in the massive 117,000-square-foot building. There were roughly 200 attendees, most of whom were food professionals of one type or another. I also found there was a surprisingly large contingency of devout foodies who were there simply to learn for themselves. They were all gathered for a total immersion baptism in Southeast Asian food theory and practice, available to pro and amateur alike.

The format of the conference was relatively free-form for such an event. The first night opened with a keynote address given by representatives of the Culinary Institute emphasizing the need for hands-on learning and the necessity to get away from immigrant-derivative cuisine and back to the authentic foods of the regions. To that end, chefs were imported from the native regions, many of whom had never left their countries, or in some cases even their villages, before coming to this event. Native-speaking chefs from America, who are also restaurateurs and cookbook authors (foremost authorities themselves), served as interpreters for the non English-speaking instructors.

Madhur Jaffrey and Mai Pham provided a broad comparative overview of the cuisines of the area, accompanied by cooking demonstrations that illustrated the basic similarities and differences of the various countries involved. Even though they use a common palette of spices, what makes each of the cuisines unique are the differences in how the spices and flavorings are blended and layered to compose a dish. The panel ended with a beautiful slide show illustrating the different environments that shaped each cuisine. Then it was off to the first of many feasts of such proportion as to test the very boundaries of the weak-willed. It was set up in the market area, and the scope of delights to be had was numbing. Bottomless glasses of wines, ales and beers, and sparkling waters were there to lube an incredible array of foods.

Of particular note was a rich Burmese duck curry that was searingly spicy and complex. I had multiple servings of a Laotian green papaya and fried catfish salad with fire-grilled chiles that was so delicious I became addicted with the first bite. The sponsors were all out in full force, and the Alaskan Seafood Council teased like the Sirens, with never-ending platters of succulent, buttery smoked black sable cod, smoked salmon, and gargantuan shrimp, all to the dulcet tunes of Thai music played by a band in full ceremonial costume. After two straight hours of conspicuous indulgence the bed beckoned, and I knew morning would arrive much too early.

Driving up Napa Valley at dawn in the crisp fall air was invigorating. The intoxicating smell of fermenting wine blended with the aroma of wood smoke from fireplaces. The emerging bright sun and long shadows of dawn found the valley floor deserted, save for the bustling attendees arriving for the 7am groaning board of baked delights prepared by the bakery lab students of the Institute. Paired with strong coffee and fruit, we were ready for the first full day of intensive learning.

The opening lecture concerned the rich tradition and amazing variety of noodles, breads, and pancakes found in Southeast Asia, led by Madhur Jaffrey, Mai Pham, and Sri Owen. To find myself actually sitting and learning from virtual gods of Asian cuisine in such an intimate atmosphere was difficult for me to grasp. I couldn't believe I was a part of this richly rewarding experience.

Worlds of Flavor

The next phase of the program involved going outside during the break and cooking breads in a tandoor oven with the likes of Jeffrey Alford and Rohit Singh. In casual settings like that, one is more apt to absorb technique much faster, and you have the benefit of learning by doing. I can't emphasize enough the value of mixing intimately with teachers who are the accepted gurus of their respective cuisines. They gave freely of their knowledge, and experiences like that just don't happen very frequently.

Coming back inside, we discovered the historical foundations of Asian vegetarian cuisine from Julie Sahni and Laxmi Hiremath, while the next lecture featured the role of preserved fish, fermented fish sauces, smoked fish, and dried fish, aptly presented by Naomi Duguid and Kasma Loha-unchit.

As soon as we had crammed our bellies with breakfast and stuffed our brains with a morning of enticing lectures, it was time for lunch! A veritable cornucopia of Asian salads, breads, and street food snacks awaited buffet-style in the teaching kitchen. It gave us our first close-up look at the unbelievable kitchen we would inhabit later, and the foods were as good if not better than those of the previous night.

The afternoon session set the format for the rest of the conference. On arrival, attendees had signed up for a series of hands-on cooking lessons taught by all of the experts, where foods to be served at the dinner that night were prepared. You had a choice of six different topics, such as dosas and flatbreads with Madhur Jaffrey, or Indian snacks and street foods with Neela Paniz. Attendees were organized into relatively small groups actually cooking and learning at the side of the masters. Or you could opt for a seminar on Indian vegetarian techniques with Julie Sahni in the amphitheatre, or cruise the market and eat all afternoon. My press pass gave me the opportunity to do all three, so I did.

At 5:30 we broke for a two-hour respite from cooking (and eating), and tried to build up an appetite for the night's street food feast, featuring all of the foods prepared that afternoon during the separate workshops. Espresso was in order to re-energize us before the coming calorific spread.

The festivities were more opulent than those of the previous night, the music more frenzied, the foods more diverse. I ate at least 20 completely different dishes, and spent the three hours wandering from food station to food station (set up as a buffet in the teaching kitchen, and as street vendors in the giant hall), meeting people, and asking details of how each dish was prepared. By 10pm I was exhausted, and knew if I were going to be fresh as a daisy and hungry by 7am the next morning, sleep would have to happen soon.

Knowing the quantity of incredible food available to me during the coming day and night, I went much easier on the baked treats the next morning. We opened with an amazing roundtable discussion moderated by Naomi Duguid, Julie Sahni, Su-Mei Yu, and Sri Owen regarding the finer points of the galaxy of various curries to be found in the region. The group then broke into a new assortment of six workshop groups for cooking, or a lecture-demonstration by the Vietnamese contingent on layering flavors in the Viet kitchen, or of course, more eating at the street vendor marketplace. A gargantuan feast of curries, biryanis, and other stew-like dishes that are eaten with rice followed, featuring foods that had all been prepared by the groups that morning. The assortment of flavors was intense, and the breadth of spiciness ranged from mild to incendiary.

Afternoon found us once again starting with a lecture on the future influence of Asian cuisine on the American palate within the next 10 years, emphasizing the importance of authenticity versus fusion. We then broke into another completely different set of groups for the last afternoon session. The theatre demo was a comparison of Thai, Indian, and Cambodian curries, and I was drawn to two different workshops: Indonesian cooking from Bali to Sumatra with Sri Owen, and Maya Kaimal's class on the tropical flavors of India's Kerala coastal cuisine.

I did make a list of dishes consumed one morning at the marketplace: a Cambodian raw shrimp ceviche-like salad that beat anything Mexico ever produced, delicate Vietnamese chicken sandwiches with herbs, Indian coconut and green chile "trail mix," fried tiny turnovers with chickpea curry inside, mint-cilantro broth, and a green chile-cilantro chutney, Laotian eggplant stuffed with pork and shrimp, duck and green curry Burmese sausages, Burmese thick noodles with shrimp and spinach curry, Burmese rice vermicelli with a vegetarian coconut curry, Laotian coconut sticky rice with shrimp in tamarind spicy sauce, Vietnamese dried shrimp and garlic sticky rice bundles, and a bowl of incredible beef pho with egg noodles. Keep in mind that this was between breakfast and lunch!

That same morning I came across Julie Sahni making homemade panir cheese. I wanted to ask her a question about some of the finer points of Pakistani culture. The next thing I knew, she and I had spent two hours making cheese while she gave me a running, nonstop, one-on-one lecture about the history of Indian cuisine, the eccentricities of the vegetarian Jain caste in south India, and the similarities between the foods of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Access of the first order that I could get no other place on Earth, for any amount of money! And now I can make panir cheese with the best of them (and have).

The final evening's affair was a complete blowout. It was Thai New Year's (the full moon of November) and the Institute had booked a Thai dance group and band in beautiful gold lamé traditional costumes. The foods that night were predominantly seafood-based, and the array of dishes was more elaborate than on any previous night. I had eaten all I possibly could (all of it fabulous beyond belief) and was watching a gorgeous Thai woman doing an intricate dance.

I commented to the Thai gentleman next to me what an athletically precise dancer she was, and he agreed, telling me how proud he was that she was his daughter. This led to a discussion of traditional Thai New Year's festivities. Author Jeffrey Alford materialized with Singha beers to share. After consuming several while the discussion raged on, I found myself dancing onstage with Su-Mei Yu, Julie Sahni, Naomi Duguid, Jeffrey Alford, and the old man, doing our clumsy version of some traditional Thai dance. We were tipsy on Thai malt liquor and good fellowship in the most technologically advanced teaching kitchen in the world.

The CIA Greystone staff prides itself on their continuing education programs, covering an amazing range of topics. All of the classes are rated by degrees of difficulty and knowledge required, making it easier to tailor classes to meet individual capabilities. They have also started a Worlds of Flavor Travel Program, featuring expert chef-guided trips to exotic locales (Tunisia and Sicily, April 30-May 13).

At the close of the conference I left Greystone with a 300-plus page loose-leaf notebook cradling every recipe cooked, and had a Rolodex filled with unbelievable contacts in the culinary field. I ate foods prepared by some of the best chefs from around the world, foods that I'm convinced were at least as good as the best of what one could find while traveling in all of Southeast Asia. I had also experienced a level of accessibility and hands-on learning like no previous experience in my life. My bags are already packed to attend this year's Worlds of Flavor International Conference. end story

The 2001 Worlds of Flavor International Conference is currently in the planning stages. It will be held November 8-10, and the topic will be "Spices, Aromatics, and the American Table: In Pursuit of Bold Flavors From North Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean, from Mexico to Brazil, and from Southeast Asia and India." The cost is $595. For further information on Greystone programs see or call 800/333-9242.

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The 2000 Worlds of Flavor International Conference, Madhur Jaffrey, Neela Paniz, Su-Mei Yu, Sri Owen, Maya Kalmal

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