By Beverly Stephen
Huron, Ohio--Some 250 culinary professionals gathered at the Culinary Vegetable Institute at Chef’s Garden for the 5th annual Roots Conference in late September. During the two-day conference, organized around the theme of innovation, participants listened and learned, shared their expertise, and networked with peers. Farmer Lee Jones called the conference “a successful, memorable and innovative event!”
The Chef’s Garden provides a magical setting. The farm is widely considered to be the leading grower of artisanal produce, one seamlessly devoted to respecting tradition while also focusing on innovation, developing new products, and pioneering food safety programs. A tour of the farm is a highlight of the event. An alfresco dinner, literally farm to table, and featuring vegetables, vegetables, vegetables, was served on tables set up in a spectacular wagon wheel formation to ease service.
Panel discussions ranged from business and employment nuts and bolts and the rise of fine casual to neuro gastronomy and the culinary diaspora.
Creativity, innovation, and always staying true to “soul” in the words of Steelite CEO John Miles, were the overriding takeaway.
Panelists grappled for solutions for staffing and paying cooks a living wage. “Why do cooks get paid less than the guys who give them tattoos?” asked Zane Holmquist, vice president of food and beverage and corporate chef of Stein Erikson Lodge Deer Valley.
Chefs like Bradford Thompson and Rich Rosendale who have left the restaurant kitchen for other venues proved that it is possible to reinvent yourself and “say yes to your dreams.”
The evolution to fine casual is a “huge wave” in the words of Brad Nelson, vice president culinary and global corporate chef of Marriott International “It’s more focused on quick service and has evolved into a real food play,” he said noting that “while it’s less formal” it still requires “quality execution.” Overall, he believes, “it’s the way people prefer to eat.”
John Miles says he first caught wind of the trend when he noticed prominent business people wearing expensive casual clothes rather than suits. “A lot of super creative chefs coming up recognized that. We’re very fashion driven. People were dressing differently and going different places to eat. Fine casual is where you would like to eat every day.”
Keynote speaker Dr. L. Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America dissected the creative process in his keynote address and explained “how we can learn from the greats.” He noted that the creative spectrum runs from copying to new but cautioned that “It’s very rare to come up with something wholly new. Most of us play in the murky middle.” To illustrate, he gave examples of artists and popular songwriters being “inspired” by others and brought down the house playing snippets of popular songs that weren’t exactly original. “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley sounded strikingly similar to Mario Lanza’s “O Solo Mio.” In 1918 Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” for the first World War. Kate Smith recorded another version for World War II. Woody Gutherie responded with “This Land is Your Land.” Bob Dylan’s “House of the Rising Sun” was inspired by Lead Belly. Then the Animals took it and had a big hit.
On the culinary front, he noted that Paul Bocuse’s iconic Truffle Soup served under a dome of puff pastry was inspired by Marc Haeberlin’s Truffle en Croute and an image of a chicken pot pie that popped into his mind. Thomas Keller’s idea for his savory Salmon Cornet was triggered by seeing the paper wrapped ice cream cones at Baskin-Robbins while his famed Oysters and Pearls dish came from a Eureka moment of seeing a package of tapioca pearls in the supermarket and thinking about pearls coming from oysters.
The takeaway: creativity is not a flash in the pan. It’s a process that involves “making the choice to be creative, focus, research and hard work, drafting and editing and evaluating and then finishing.” In short, the process is available to everybody willing to put in the effort and see it through to execution.
And that’s innovation.