A typical meal at Worlds of Flavor 2009: row upon row of thali plates
As a frequenter of street food stalls, where dishes are prepared by just one or two vendors one at a time, I wondered if the quality of the food at this year's Worlds of Flavors would rise to the level of the conference's themes (Street Food, Comfort Food). Much of what's been served here is street food, after all, and in my experience street food rarely translates seamlessly to a restaurant/institutional setting.
The kitchen here at CIA Greystone is turning out hundreds and hundreds of meals (and snacks) twice a day. I've never tasted food cooked on such a massive scale that is anywhere near delicious ... until now.
Mining the campus herb garden at CIA Greystone
The global street and comfort foods served at last night's World Marketplace was consistently stupendous. Today's lunch was fantastic. Every snack, sweet, and nibble has been fabulous. (And no, I wasn't paid to write that.)
How does the kitchen do it? In a few words: advance planning and lots of organization.
This morning I sat down with Scott Samuel, a Chef Instructor at CIA and the institution's Strategic Initiatives Conference Chef. Scott migrated south from Seattle to join CIA Greystone one and a half years ago, as planning for this year's conference was kicking into high gear.
This year's Worlds of Flavor is CIA Greystone's 12th.. The first year CIA hosted 20 Chef Presenters; this year there are 93.
Each day they, along with the institute's Chef Instructors, students (around 200 in all), and volunteers for the event converge on the kitchen, a cavernous but warm space with 7 two-sided main cooking suites (each meant to accomodate 20 cooks, with French, induction, and gas burners, ovens, and lowboy fridges), 6 baking benches with marble and wood counters, and banks of refrigerators and ovens along the back and side walls.
Imagine the organization involved. Scott manages with earphone, mouthpiece, and walkie-talkie. "I'm a chef, and this is my knife," he says, indicating the latter.
The nitty-gritty kitchen planning began two months ago, when Scott received a schedule for the conference from CIA Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives and planner of this year's conference Greg Drescher, detailing the responsibilities of various Chef Presenters (kitchen workshops, demos, speaking, manning 'stalls' at the World Marketplace). He then grouped the chefs by geography, and 'assigned' each group to a CIA Chef Instructor.
Each Chef Instructor was then responsible for contacting the Chef Presenters to get recipes for the dishes they planned to prepare and/or demonstrate. Foreign-language recipes were translated into English and rewritten into CIA format. Shopping lists were drawn up, ingredients ordered from around the world. And finally, the Master Recipe Document was generated. All 600 pages of it.
Sounds straightforward enough, but problems do arise.
"The biggest issue is making sure the right product is here at the right time," says Scott. "We need at least a week's advance notice" to obtain anything from overseas, "but we can't order an ingredient until the Chef Presenters tell us what they're doing" at the conference.
Many chefs take it down to the wire when it comes to submitting recipes. Others specifiy ingredients that can't be sources (an example from this year's conference: barnacles, for one of the Chef Presenters from Spain). Some just don't answer emails
But somehow it all comes together in the end, and the result is impressive.
"Minor emergencies do pop up," says Scott, pointing at his mouthpiece. "That's why I wear this."
As we were talking Scott jumped up several times to put out fires. "Chef Andy, I'm sorry, what do you need?" he said into his mouthpiece as we were talking logistics.
Worlds of Flavor has grown every single year since it's inception -- at last night's World Marketplace 2,000-3,000 small plates were served.
I asked Scott if the event will be even bigger next year, when the entire conference will be dedicated to Japanese cuisine.
He smiled. (Did I mention that the guy's demeanor is beyond calm?) "We're maxing this place out," he says, shaking his head almost imperceptibly.
"Last night we ran out of sheet pans."