What a great time at this year’s Research Chefs Association annual meeting in Montreal! The sense of the “chef family” was strong, with a true sharing of ideas and information, not just a string of speak-or-be-spoken-to sessions. The best way I can describe it is the meeting resembled an enormous family reunion more than a professional conference.
The general buzz was that the field of culinology appears to be much stronger and more cohesive than ever. The 700 or so attendees and exhibitors proved it. But is the face of the RCA about to change?
A generation ago, when one thought of research chefs, hardworking bench-top barons of big processing come to mind — institutional wonks running a team of white-coated R&D experts through their paces to dumb down third-hand recipes for a few into mainstream meals for the indifferent masses. In discussing with such specialists their approach to flavor, an unspoken question hovered in the air: Have you forgotten what food really is?
Talk of chemical analogues and artificial enhancement from folks who may have started out as I did — in some cramped sauna of a madhouse restaurant kitchen careening through a Saturday night rush with the only goal being to see each plate go out as an isolated masterpiece painted from the freshest, highest-quality components — divided us into two worlds. There were the artists who stayed true and the scientists who either lost their connection to cuisine or, more likely, never had it.
That paradigm is no longer worth even a plugged pair o’ dimes. The RCA has described this quantum leap in food technology best with its definition of culinology as “the blending of culinary arts and food science.” What makes that more than just words is that the membership of the RCA evinces an enormous collection of culinary talent truly dedicated to “defining the future of food.” These chefs are sincere, working with flavors, natural and derived, to achieve results with integrity, not compromise.
It’s the emerging composition of this group that will bring about a complete art-science blending. Restaurant chefs, chain chefs, culinary students, small-company chefs and institutional chefs not only made up a large portion of the audience, they were active and vocal with their desire for inclusion with the “big boys” — the Kraft, Kerry, ConAgra et alia of the field.
I predict that a key change under incoming president John Folse’s leadership will involve the broadening of the association’s focus to better serve these small- and middle-size food creation companies (companies just like his). This is a good thing; it will open up the field and increase the possibility for some major clout to be wielded by chefs of the future.
It also bodes well for food itself. Mingling for the better part of a week with hundreds of chefs of various stripes, all working with the same goal in mind of elevating the level of quality, flavor and total meal experience in processed foods, I saw the beginning of the end of a problem that has long vexed me. Products foisted on the hapless masses with taste being the very last consideration.
The overall impression I came away from the RCA meeting with was of solidity to the field of culinology, coupled with a growing sense of fellowship among those of us who play with our food for a living.