Starchefs Day One: Keynote Panel: VanAken, Trotter & Lagasse on “American Cuisine.”

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The
Starchefs ICC dove head first in to the question of "What is
American Cuisine" with the first Big Stage event a Panel
featuring superheavyweights Norman Van Aken, Charlie Trotter, Emeril
Lagasse and moderator Clark Wolf discussing the question.

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Clark
Wolf (CW) set the stage with a little history and background. While
NYC has a reputation for having everything, that is not precisely
true. According to Wolf, You actually cannot get every ingredient in
the world in NYC – “the omissions tell a story”. Even here
there are limitations to true ethnic authenticity. Back in the day
quality restaurants were defined as refuges from regional cuisine.
They were basically "classic French."  Clearly that
has changed. "What makes American cooking so exciting today is
that we’ve largely brushed off those cultural inhibitions – all
varieties of regional cuisines are welcome, which makes the American
culinary scene the envy of the world.

Clark
Wolf Moderating Emeril Lagasse (EL), Charlie Trotter (CT) and Norman
Van Aken(NVA). What follows is a very close approximation  of
the bulk of their discussion transcribed as best we could. While a fair amount is paraphrased, the items within quotation marks are direct quotes. Short
segments are missing due to an inability to transcribe everything as well as some editing of less pertinent materiel.

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  • CW
    – Europeans get a reputation for being rude –
    is there something about American cuisine that is connected to being
    nice or generous?

  • NVA
    – I think it has something to do with being in the hospitality
    industry and being the underdogs that kinda promotes working more as
    a team than as single handed stars

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  • CW
    – a lot of people talk about elitism in food, and you talk about
    excellence. What is the difference?

  • CT
    – "I think we all have the same philosophy … we just want to work
    with the cleanest, freshest most pristine product." What really
    propels this cuisine forward is that we can borrow from any culture
    in the world and take ideas and bring them together to make our own
    personal statements. A 4star restaurant and storefront restaurant
    can espouse excellence.

  • CW
    – you come from all over, how important is that to your personal
    connection with American cuisine?

  • EL
    – "…if you have great ingredients, you have great food… My background is ingredients
    and techniques from two different cultures then meeting one of America's truest regional cuisines, Louisiana,…You have all these pockets and all these (regional) influences…it's incredible."

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  • CW
    – (Referring to NVA) "you coined the term 'fusion'…it was groundbreaking and enlivening when you started it… but it got to be 'con-fusion' for a lot of people…how does it work in America today as opposed to twenty years ago?"

  • NVA
    – "It was 1987 and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life." What I was
    interested in about living in Key West was high end food meeting the
    local food – that juxtaposition is what made me want to be a chef.
    Fusion was not so much about melding Italian and French as it was
    melding high end and so-called low-end food, local traditions. I
    wanted something liberating, that would give me wide access.

  • CW
    – Charlie, talk about the intellectual and the visceral. How much does
    American food have to come from your instincts (cojones) and from
    your head?

  • CT
    – we have these areas around the country that are just completely
    different from one another. "We have these true distinctive pockets
    of things that have  a history and are clearly defined as components of
    American cuisine, but what’s most interesting is that we have the chutzpah
    to travel around the world and bring ideas back." Back in the day in Europe things were "rigid,
    to distort a traditional dish would be discouraged, but not in the
    US. By the mid-90s, one could become a distinguished chef without
    needing the rite-of-passage through a European kitchen."One can completely come up through the ranks in this country…there was a period of time (prior) where you
    couldn't really  do that unless you had paid your dues and done some work in European kitchens."

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  • CW
    – (to EL)"you have reached America in a pretty broad way. How do
    you keep the balance between being accessible, still being American and being Emeril?"

  • EL
    – I always "treat people like I want to be treated…I am fortunate…I have great people." Most of my team
    from 25 years ago is still intact. "Longevity in our organization is incredible… (My) philosophy is to wake up today and try to do a little bit better than yesterday…If
    somebody has the passion to be a great line cook, with that
    attitude, its much easier to be a mentor. To those who think that
    the dues have been paid, they’re wrong. I’m still paying my
    dues."

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  • CW
    – how important is training, where they learned, to you today?

  • NVA
    – where they trained is not important to me… "What I would be more
    interested in (aside from their skills) would be if they worked at a
    restaurant that I thought highly of."

  • CW
    – what do you think of post WWII industrialized food? What do you
    say to people who think of American food as the unhealthy, bland
    crap?

  • EL
    – the last people we want to get involved with our food is the
    govt. So much has been subsidized (corn, etc). We should just "let
    farmers be farmers, let cows be cows, let chickens be chickens and let's get back to being real."

  • CW
    – you, CT?

  • CT
    – "it’s a very complex subject, and it’s very easy to
    disparage." That said, "America has fed the world." Look at the man who
    just died from the U of Texas (Norman Borlaug)– he fed much of the
    world. Sometimes its not bad to genetically modify food. "I hear what
    you’re saying, but there are so many bigger issues."

  • CW
    – "so how do we get our world and our neighbors to realize that American food is
    not a reconstituted potato product?"

  • CT
    – that’s true, but today "you can do a Jack Kerouac, “on the
    road” moment and go anywhere across the country…" and eat decent
    quality food almost anywhere you stop. 

  • CW – Norman, where do you see…normal food being served in a simple but not oversimplified way? 

  • NVA – As per Paul Bocuse, "The food will be better when chefs cook the way they feed themselves…I think that is the way things are going now…I see food as being more honest, Earth and farmer driven…."

  • CW
    – "we make stars out of people in America … what about farm
    stars? Does that make sense to you as chefs?" 

  • EL
    – I think it’s great. It’s amazing, a lot of it is happening
    in America, where somebody can say they’re a farmer, cheese maker,
    fisherman, etc, and it’ll be “cool” to do that.  These people are taking these
    disgusting plots of land and turning them into “edible
    schoolyards” and teaching middle school students how to farm and
    have edible products.

  •  CW
    – we’re in NYC, is this a melting pot?

  • CT
    – "this is utterly a melting plot, perhaps more so than any
    other American city…is ultimately what makes America great… It’s represented in every aspect of our
    lives, from fashion to literature… When I was young my family would
    never really go out to restaurants, except for maybe a special
    occasion… they were pretty mediocre places, and we
    would order spaghetti or something like that. Nowadays, people go
    out they know 8 different kinds of pasta. They order sushi by the
    name of the fish in the original language…"

  • NVA
    – I hate the term melting pot. I would hate to go to a small
    Vietnamese family-owned restaurant and find that they have a fusion
    cuisine. I think it’s also important to keep certain aspects of
    what makes a cuisine unique.

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  • CW
    – "Is Las Vegas a place a melting
    pot, a museum, or Mars?"

  • NVA – …Jean-Louis Palladin said, "Everything about Las Vegas is fake, but the money."
  •  CT
    – "It's easy to make fun of Las Vegas"…Dennis Hopper in an interview recently said that he loves Las
    Vegas "because it has the best restaurants in the world."

  • EL – "now it is like every great restaurant in the world is in Las Vegas."
  • CW
    – going towards the future, are we going to be learning about new
    food, what we want from tv, from restaurants, where?

  • NVA
    – "The Starchefs Congress, there is no doubt about it… tv is the most powerful instrument
    because it has the the ability to reach so many people, but what gets through to their brains, I don't know. With rare exceptions I think it is still a vast wasteland".. the reality
    tv shows are now mainstream, and I don’t want to think about star
    farmers on reality television.

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  • CT
    – "We’re not in a tough moment, we’re in a perpetually moving forward brilliant  moment
    in our history, it seems to me, because we learn from so many things…As always, chefs will have influence even beyond
    the direct connection that they might have… it will somehow
    affect other people to be cooks… we are moving towards
    eating more healthfully… We still have the fast food and the  processed
    food, and there is a segment that may eat too much of that, but there is another segment who say, 'you know what? Next time I'm going to Burger King jalapeño (something) and then I'm going to go to Whole Foods and get another thing."

  • CW
    – EL, talk about tv

  • EL
    – I think tv is one arena… where there are a lot of people
    influencing America. Our journalists, for example – their job… is
    informing people about trends and stories. Food, seasonality. There
    are people at the grocery store who can talk to shoppers about
    varieties of apples and such. Tv is the most powerful driving force – and
    newspaper and radio.

  • CW
    "This is a moment of bloggers without editors. This is a moment of random writing. I'm not saying that there is not some good stuff about that too, but in terms of voices….We used to have really strong voices in America, but  newspapers are under attack…What are our voices?… Who do you listen to?… Who do you read? Where should we be looking?

  • EL
    – The most important way to do it is to have an intellectual
    conversation with the farmers, the fishermen, cheesemakers, the foodmakers. Having
    those ingredients is the most important thing.

  • CT
    – "It’s so important for all chefs to be obsessed with really all
    things, not just the mainstream journals and trade magazines… It’s
    important to take in as much info as possible and find a way to process
    it and see how it affects you… Michelin decides to come into the US,
    and we say we’ve got Zagat. It's apples and oranges… Lets talk about
    reviewers for a goddamn minute… we have certain reviewers who insist upon
    extreme and complete anonymity… and then there other reviewers who call
    you up, famous people and say, 'It's me. I'm coming for dinner.' and these same kind of people will say things like, 'I can't believe Emeril is opening a second restaurant', yet these kinds of people are willing to not just review one city, but review fifty cities…, The interesting thing is that you can gain information from a lot of sources. "

  • CW
    – "Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle – used to say
    he’s got to be anonymous so he would dress up to look like Ruth
    Reichl…

  • CT
    – "I have to ask you a question – I want you to ask a question to
    the world at large: who in the hell has the time to go online and have your own little pathetic blog? Do you have a job? What do you do for a goddamn living?" (Me? I have a
    full-time job as an Anesthesiologist. I happen to have a passion for
    food and use my blog as an outlet for that and as a very poorly paid
    second career 🙂 )

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  • CW: This is where America is going and this is where America is interacting, right?
  • Will
    Blunt
    intercession: I want them to talk about B’Ocuse
    D’Or,
    to address the issue about the world-wide perception of American
    food as crap.

  • NVA
    – "the whole landscape has shifted so dramatically… I think it must
    be so confusing for the young chefs… in the audience today… because
    there are so many voices to listen to, how do you figure out which
    ones to listen to, which ones are
    important, which ones are valid… I wouldn’t prefer
    to be a young chef today… To become a great chef, those things
    happen incidentally – if you really want to become a great chef  you have to turn a lot of that stuff off and get
    with the cutting board, get with the pig, get with the fish, maybe some great books…12 or 15 that are really guides for you… I am pleased to be part of the  Bocuse D’Or, which Charlie was just the American judge for and Emeril is involved with as well, because the Bocuse D'Or is actually coming
    to America and opening doors for young chefs who wish to compete on a world stage…"

  • EL
    – I think we don’t want to get too wrapped up in this
    competition stuff…we have all served on boards of culinary schools throughout America and seeing a beautiful piece made of sugar and pastillage …etc….and you go in the kitchen and they can't boil water…where is the balance? For me personally?  I stopped competing a long time ago because I wanted to learn how to boil water better."

  • CW – "You also won...let's be honest… Give us an iconic American food that warms your heart, that you're proud of."

  • NVA
    – "I’m not sure if it’s American, but I'd say pizza. I think that the artisanal pizza thing that's going on right now makes me very happy… I love the taco trucks probably as equal."

  • CT
    – "Potatoes, anything with potatoes."

  • EL
    – "Crawfish"

  • Question
    1 from Brazil: how do you feel about competitions? What you’ve said has
    encouraged me to participate in these competitions.

  • Answer
    (CT): "I think the competitions are fine….It doesn't matter to me… One of my young chefs is probably the leading
    candidate to represent America in this year’s Bocuse D'Or USA…I'm more in the moment.. but here's the real competition, the day to day marketplace…"

  • Question
    2: in my area I have a lot of conversations with people who travel a
    lot, who say that the corresponding food in the US is nothing like
    the food in the locations to which they travel. How do we instill pride in the citizens of America about our own food?

  • Answer
    (NVA): "People often say that I want to cook like you do, chef, and I
    ask where do you live and they'll say some place far away and I ask, then why do you want to cook like me? I think what you should focus on is expressing where you live and that time and try to elevate the cuisine of your area and then the country at large… That's why we love places loke France and Spain, because you can go to the tiniest little neighborhoods, little villages and have extraordinary food. Going to New Orleans, years ago, with Emeril, I was knocked out by the little, tiny places… Find out where the farmers, the fishermen, the herbs, the flowers, all these things are grown and try to create a commerce opportunity with yourself as part of that chain and then I think every part of the United States becomes much more valuable."

  • (CT)
    More advice – journey within. Enough with this traveling, if you
    have the cojones to do it, if you want to be exceptional then have
    the strength to go within.

  • (EL)
    and I think that if you understand, no matter where you are in the
    world, if you understand people, and understand the culture, then
    you will understand the food. And until you understand those two
    things, you will never understand the food.


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One Response to Starchefs Day One: Keynote Panel: VanAken, Trotter & Lagasse on “American Cuisine.”

  1. Lucy says:

    That was a nice read. Thanks.

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