A bulging green bag is resting against the bookcases in my bedroom. Its stuffed with a weird array of disparate items: a bottle of vanilla syrup for espresso drinks; hastily scrawled notes from long seminars; chocolates from around the world; a menu for a gala dinner, with an antipasti platter from Salumi, Duck Three Ways, and a parfait passionfruit trifle; a wild Alaskan salmon refrigerator magnet; a glossy booklet filled with recipes from some of the best chefs in Seattle; an umbrella; and a pamphlet for pork recipes, printed in Spanish. (That last one I picked up by mistake, but I dont mind.) Somehow, even though the IACP conference ended a week ago, I havent had the heart to dismantle my goody bag. (Or the time, frankly. This is one of the last weeks of the grading period at school, which is one of the reasons I didnt post at all this past week.) I just didnt want that experience to end.
If you dont know what the IACP stands for, dont worry. I didnt either, until a few weeks ago. Its the International Association for Culinary Professionals. In other words, Shaunas new idea of heaven. Being around people who cook, take photographs of, and write about food? Bliss. Even though Im not really a culinary professional yet I just couldnt resist the chance to attend a conference like this. After all, it was taking place in my city, by some lovely chance. And some of my favorite food people in the world were going to be there. So, I handed over a chunk of change, took off a few days from work, and walked into the Washington State Convention Center, ready to learn.
The umbrella was tucked into the welcome bag for all the participants. Because, of course, this is Seattle. Jokes on them: no one in Seattle actually owns an umbrella. We all just brave the rain. Even better, every day of the conference, the sky was filled with sunshine outside. No darkness here.
The scrawled seminar notes? Those are the remnants of hours and hours of classes I took, on food writing and how to make a career out of food and how to use the five senses to describe the food we eat and the art of the food memoir and the politics of food. I have pages and pages of notes that seem strange out of context: the #1 food search term online is chicken; googlizing; culinarians; the fluctuations of oven temperature; kill fees; how to enrich the life of the reader. After the third, hour-and-a-half-long seminar of the day (and especially on the third day in a row of this), I thought I would be enervated and squirming. Nope. I was the student sitting forward on her chair, vigorously nodding, awake without coffee, writing it all down. I dread faculty meetings and education conferences; Im usually the student at the back of the room writing scurrillous notes about the drone in the room. But at IACP, I just couldnt drink it all in.
There were so many highlights from the classes. Denise Landis, the chief recipe tester for The New York Times, talking about the perils and discoveries of testing other peoples recipes in your own home kitchen, then being paid for it. (I want her job!) Barbara-Jo McIntosh, owner of the cookbook store, Books to Cooks in Vancouver, talking about the elaborate estivities they hold to celebrate the publication of cookbooks. Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn, and Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt and Cod, talking about the essential truthiness of writing food memoirs, the notorious inaccuracies of food history, and the general joys and exigencies of being a writer. (My favorite quote about the life of the writer? Writers write because …they cant do anything. They can only do what they do. Yep.) And, perhaps my favorite, the ever-feisty Marion Nestle, ranting eloquently about the politics of food. She reminded us that, no matter how they might try to make it look, the food companies are interested in only one thing: profit. Food companies are now arguing that they have First Amendment rights to advertise junk food to children. Ms. Nestle left me laughing and energized, determined to do what I can to spread the gospel of whole foods.
The glossy booklet of recipes from Seattle chefs? Ah, someone put that into my hand Wednesday night, at Pike Place Market. This was one of the highlights of a juicy week a gala evening at the Market, with 1400 people stuffed into the long hallways and surging around the stalls, plastic cups of wine in hand, standing close and talking fast. We were told this was the first time in one hundred years that the Market allowed a party of people to gather for an evening event like this. Behind every low table filled, during the day, with arts and crafts for sale, stood one of the top chefs of Seattle, cooking spectacular food on small burners. That blurred photograph above is of Tom Douglas, dancing around woks, making Szechwan salt-and-pepper prawns for people. Vodka-infused salmon with Douglas fir syrup and the top of a fiddlehead fern (from Cascadia). Fresh-made smores with marshmallows and graham crackers made from scratch (from the chefs at Crush, who were kind enough to make me a smore without the graham cracker, on the spot). Gorgeous, ineffably good cinnamon-basil ice cream from the Herbfarm. Seared Alaskan sea scallops with beluga lentils, bacon, and truffle salt, from John Sundstrom at Lark. I could hardly make my way around the square of stalls, for all the people pressing up against each other like rush hour on the subway in Manhattan, but I was happy and well-fed.
The next morning, some of the top chefs in the world spoke at a symposium over breakfast. (Terrible irony? With the exception of the nibbles at Pike Place and the gala dinner the last evening, the food at the IACP was universally bad. Rubbery and without taste. Conference food.) RW Apple, one of my favorite curmudgeonly journalists, moderated a discussion with Fergus Henderson from Smithfield in London, Charlie Trotter from Charlie Trotters, Traci des Jardins (wow! a woman chef!) from Jardiniere, and my new food crush, Dan Barber from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Once again, I was happily rapt, listening to a discussion about whether or not rescuing the rutabaga can be a creative act.
And then there was the free stuff. Friday afternoon, I discovered, was the time for the food exhibition. Hundreds of stalls of food producers, all of them handing out free stuff. Crates of mangoes, bags of cheese, free recipes, spice rubs, chocolate bars, free lattes, pork t-shirts, maps and pamphlets and handouts, cherry juice you name it, there it was. Im not going to mention any names, however, because that would make me a shill for the food producers, and Marion Nestle warned me not to do that. So there. Besides, my favorite stall of all contained this chocolate grinder, which had been whirring for nineteen hours straight. The tiny plastic spoonful of fresh, warm chocolate tasted better than anything from a bright package.
The best part of all of this as always for me was meeting the people. I met more alive, interesting people in one place than I have ever met before. Some of my favorites were fellow food bloggers, of course. The inimitable David Lebovitz who brought me the delectable chocolates from France that you see above was a constant source of amazement to me. Sweet and tart both, he made the best breakfast companion Ive had in a long time. (Although, I was a mite embarrassed that the only restaurant open for breakfast in Seattle was a faux Parisian bistro. The man lives in Paris what was I thinking? The eggs with gruyere and ham were too oily.) And I felt enormously lucky to have bumped into him at the Market party, not only for his presence, but also because he seemingly knows everyone in the food world. The fabulous Heidi from 101 Cookbooks was also at the conference, with her Leica camera and a ready smile. And Cindy, from Food Migration, was one of the best lunch companions I could have hoped for on a Friday afternoon. We ate Vietnamese food at Green Papaya, then walked around the food exhibit with our mouths agape, almost wishing we hadnt eaten first. Shes a delight. They all are. I love the food blogging community.
And I met people I didnt even know existed, people who have become my new-found favorites. The hip and friendly Becky Selengut, who runs the excellent website, Seasonal Cornucopia. Dylan Bigelow, director of chocolate for Fran’s Chocolates, the impeccable local chocolate makers who concoted my favorite chocolate treat, the grey sea salt caramels. (David told me something that had never occurred to me, and Dylan confirmed it: eat the caramels upside down, so the salt lands on your tongue. Hm. I might have to buy some more now. And Linda Carucci, whose book — Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks — was nominated for an IACP award (and has been my bedside reading since the conference finished)? Possibly the nicest woman on the earth.
So, in essence (and obviously, I like the details as much as the essence), I learned one lesson over and over again at this conference: food people = good people.
I left the IACP conference with bags stuffed full of goodies, and my head stuffed full of ideas. It’s going to take months for my head to clear out. But that bag? Maybe it’s time to clean out that bag. Or else, knowing me, it will still be sitting against the bookcases by the time of next year’s IACP conference in Chicago.
Seared Ahi Tuna with Sugar Snap Pea Salad and Avocado Creme Fraiche, adapted from Ethan Stowell of Union
One of the lingering pleasures of having attended the IACP conference is perusing the little booklet full of recipes from the Pike Place Market gala. Of course, these recipes were some of the best these chefs have to offer. And, with a few exceptions, they were all naturally gluten-free. (Not only did I ask about ingredients, but I could watch the chefs make them in front of me.) So, now, I’m having a heyday, trying to make them at home.
This dish sounds and looks impresssive. In the making, however, it’s remarkably simple. And the taste? The snap peas crunch with a lemon bite, the ahi tuna slithers down the throat seductively, and the creme fraiche and avocado roll together in the mouth. Gorgeous.
I’ve adapted this, only slighty, from the mighty Ethan Stowell. His restaurant, Union, is one of the finest in Seattle. Just a few blocks from the Market, this sumptuous restaurant with creative tastes and fresh flavors has been praised throughout the food world. You can have a few mouthfuls in your kitchen, right now.
two tablespoons olive oil
one pound sushi-grade ahi tuna, skin removed
one-half teaspoon kosher salt
one-half teaspoon cracked black pepper
one-half pound stringless sugar snap peas, ends cut off, cut into two slivers each
zest of one lemon
juice of one-half lemon
two tablespoons fruity green olive oil
salt and pepper (same measurements as above)
one tablespoons creme fraiche
one-half avocado, cut away from skin and mashed
Season each side of the tuna steak with salt and pepper. Bring the olive oil to near-smoking heat. Sear the tuna for thirty seconds on each side. (Time this. Seriously — you’re going to think that’s not enough time. It is.) Remove the tuna and set it aside on a plate to cool.
Throw the cut sugar snap pease into a large pot of salted, boiling water. Cook them for about thirty seconds, or until they have turned a bright spring green. Immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water waiting in the sink. Drain them immediately in a colander.
Toss the blanched sugar snap peas with the fresh lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Arrange a bed of snap pea salad on a plate, then place thin slices of the tuna, appropriately. Before you allow anyone to eat, mix the creme fraiche and mashed avocado and dollop a bit on top of this gorgeous spring salad.