The Research Chefs Assn. (RCA) was the first major food group to return to New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The group held its annual meeting and trade show at the Hilton Riverside March 8-11 under the theme "Culinology: On the Rise."
The theme just as aptly describes the Crescent City, which looks like it still has a long road to recovery ahead of it. But the fascinating culinary history of New Orleans is a great backdrop to any food meeting, and the RCA folks, in lectures and cooking demonstrations, did justice to the flavors, cooking styles, natural resources and confluence of cultures that created New Orleans' uniquely American cuisine.
Outgoing RCA president John Folse knows the region and the cuisine well. As owner and executive chef of John Folse and Co., based in Gonzales, La. (between New Orleans and Baton Rouge), he and his director of R&D Jay Kimball covered the culinary tradition of New Orleans and surrounding area.
Contributions came from the earliest Native Americans, explorers and fur trappers, the Spanish, French and British who alternately colonized the area, and later from Dutch, Germans, Italians and African slaves. Folse describes these influences as a layering effect culminating in a cultural terroir, a sense of place. His new book Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine, a four-year labor of love, is a must read for historians and the recipes a must try for culinarians. (See www.jfolse.com/encyclopedia.htm.)
"The Evolution of Cajun and Creole Cuisine" joined panelists Andrea Apuzzo of Andrea's Restaurant; Ray Berthelot of Louisiana Office of State Parks; Anne Butler of Butler-Greenwood Plantation; Leah Chase of Dooky Chase Restaurant (which will reopen soon); Janie Luster of Louisiana's Houma Nation; Henryk Orlik of Heinerbrau German Brewery; and Chef Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. When asked what foods have been most successful in their restaurants, Chef Apuzzo said crawfish ravioli, speckled trout and tiramisu; Chef Chase listed gumbo, oyster stuffing and lemon pie; and Chef Prudhomme divulged gumbo, blackened foods and sweet potato pecan pie.
There also were sessions devoted to African influence on foods. Discussing the continent's cuisine was Rochelle Schätzl, group product development manager for Johannesburg, South Africa-based Nandos Chickenland, which manufactures Peri-Peri Hot Sauces, rubs, marinades and stir-fry simmer sauces. "In Africa, nothing is wasted, food is always shared, and extra food is prepared for an uninvited guest," she says. Peri-Peri, also called African Birds Eye Chile (yes, with an e), is a blend of fresh lemons and exotic herbs and spices, a combination brought to South Africa by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century.
Regional spices vary, so we were treated to spice blend samples -- Peri-Peri, Raas Al-Hanout and Berbere accompanied by Rooibos tea, a favorite beverage choice. South Africa alone has 11 official languages. Incidentally, butter is added to coffee in Kenya to trap the volatiles.
Incorporating health and wellness in product development is one of the biggest challenges facing R&D professionals, according to a panel moderated by Craig (Skip) Julius of Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids, Mich. Superfoods such as acai and tea and juice-based beverages for kids and females are on the horizon.
Another challenge is flavor authenticity. Robert Danhi of Chef Danhi Inc. moderated a session "Asian Flavors: Translating Genuine Flavor Profiles." Susana Foo of Susana Foo Gourmet Kitchen, Ross Kamens of Noodles & Co. and Grace Yek from University of Cincinnati's Culinary Arts and Science Dept. did an outstanding job of tracing Asian dishes through their culinary evolution. "Stick to your vision," advised Kamen. "The dish must have consumer appeal, be craveable, relevant and compelling."
Some 1,400 attendees (chefs, food scientists, Culinologists and sponsors of the show) were treated to the warm hospitality of the city's residents and had an opportunity to celebrate the growth and success of Culinology, the blending of culinary arts and food science/technology.
Keynote speaker Douglas Brooks, president and CEO of the Dallas-based restaurant empire Brinker Intl. and a self-described foodie, discussed trends in the $535 billion foodservice industry. Consumers eat four meals a week in foodservice and want speed and convenience, an experience which makes them feel valued, choices for healthier meals, and incorporation of authentic multicultural ingredients. "Opportunities exist for suppliers who can reduce preparation time in the kitchen," he noted.
Another Brinker executive takes over the RCA. Stephen Kalil, the firm's director of culinary innovation, is the association's new president.
Hopefully many more of you foodies out there will return to New Orleans as soon as possible. Every bit of tourism helps this great city lift its people's spirits and revitalize its business and culinary communities. As Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu emphasized to attendees, "New Orleans needs America's support right now unlike any time spanning our nation's history -- perhaps more than any American city has ever so needed our nation's attention."