Small Town Girl

altCalifornian gets taste of the Big Apple while taking in a culinary conference

On street corners, pedestrians swiftly dance by each other on a matrix of finely spaced perpendicular paths. It was the first time my feet had felt the pavement of Manhattan.

And what better place for the assemblage of the International Association of Culinary Professionals for its 34th annual conference? This city, known for diversity and creativity in the realm of cuisine, offers a juxtaposition of two extremes.

A walking tour of the Lower Eastside showcased one end of the spectrum where the current generation safeguards their families’ cultures. From Rocco’s Italian bakery with hand-rolled cannoli and 1920s ovens in the basement, and Joe’s dairy where fresh mozzarella is hand-stretched and balled, to Raffetto’s and a 1916 conveyor belt and guillotine which cuts sheets of fresh pasta to customers’ specifications.

Later in the week we heard from Grant Atchatz, executive chef and co-owner of Chicago’s theatrical Alinea, and now Next, a restaurant that not only charges customers for dinner at the time of reservation, but entirely reinvents itself quarterly. French Escoffier cuisine of 1906 was served on American antique dinnerware while street food from Thailand was served on Thai newspapers. On Next’s facebook page, you might find same-night tables ($365) inclusive of beverage pairings.

And Whole Foods’ parking lot is never empty. At the opening session, the company unveiled its monumental “no red fish” program, making it the first national chain that will not sell unsustainable seafood, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and others. The seafood classified as “red” is either in short supply, unsustainably farmed, or gathered in such a way that the environment or unintended species are harmed. Next to me in the theater was a woman from the Aquarium who pointed out that Safeway was working toward the same goal, and we agreed that this would greatly impact people, and help so many more fish populations.

There are numerous discussions in the industry about the future of our food systems, and potentially the lack thereof. Dan Barber proposes that good ecology makes for truly delicious flavor. Breeders focus on yield and flavor. Tasty food needs nutritious soil. Farmers make decisions about how and what to feed animals to change flavor, when to rotate crops, what crops to grow, and when to harvest. The distribution system plays a role as well.

Barber is co-owner and executive Chef of Blue Hill Restaurant in Greenwich Village. The name comes from a family farm in Massachusetts, where various farmers grow for numerous restaurants including the Barbers’. The website’s (bluehillfarm.com) ”know the farmer” section includes a map with videos of local suppliers in places such as the Catskills and the fertile Hudson Valley. From mushrooms grown on logs in the forest, grazing lamb, sheep and red deer, and pigs in the mud (they get their iron from the soil), to fruit and seasonal vegetables and a large winter greenhouse where plants are in the ground, the ecosystem is one that is understood and valued by all players.
Barber is also on the Board of directors for Stone Barns, an 80-acre not-for-profit working farm and educational center 25 miles north of Manhattan. The goal of improving the way we eat and farm is addressed through farmer training, kids’ tours and camps and awareness programs.

To me, New York’s pavement is personal. My dad’s grandparents walked these streets after passing through Ellis Island to escape religious prosecution; the Danish Petersens and the Russian Rudofskys. As the conference drew to a close, I had numerous unmet goals including a visit to Ellis Island, the 9/11 Memorial, Chinese dumplings, Pastrami from Katz’ Deli, and New York pizza. After five days riding the subway, a rescheduled flight, and a move to Chinatown practically underneath the Manhattan Bridge, I decided to walk a mile and a half to taste a New York pie.
I walked up Bowery past a succession of restaurant supply stores, through NoHo (north of Houston St.) amidst blooming tulips and cherry trees, to the site of my first tour and John’s Beecker Street Pizza, a fixture in Greenwich Village since 1929, and still co-owned by a family member. One half of the 14” pizza was covered lightly with mozzarella, the other half with paper-thin slices of dense, herbed meatball, and bits of fennel-seed-studded Italian sausage. Bright, tart sauce was added last. The coal-fired brick oven, which reaches temperatures above 800 degrees, crisped the thin crust, and occasionally blackened the bubbles.

International Association of Culinary Professionals, visit iacp.com.

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