Back To The Future at the CIA

And God said: Behold I have given you every herb-bearing seed upon the earth, and all the trees that have in themselves seed of their own kind, to be your meat. – Genesis 1:29

Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness. – Sir Robert Hutchinson

It was food nerd heaven…or at least as close to heaven on earth as a food nerd can get. A convocation of chefs, restaurateurs, teachers and journalists from around the world once a year the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. This year’s theme was: A Mediterranean Flavor Odyssey, subtitled: Preserving And Reinventing Traditions For Modern Palates, and the CIA flew in the most famous chefs from Tunisia,Turkey, Morocco, Israel, Sicily, Greece and Spain to educate the movers and shakers in the American food industry on what they could learn from the way the rest of the world eats.

It wasn’t just snooty critics and Michelin-starred chefs in attendance (although there were plenty of those) – as the conference counted as its attendees the head corporate chefs from McDonalds, Frito-Lay, and…believe it or not: Pizza Hut. All of them came (and have been coming for eleven years) to discover “the next big thing” in how America eats.

This year it was all about the vegetable and legume-heavy cuisines of the countries that surround the Mediterranean – because America is finally getting with the program – that program being: getting back to basics in how we eat; or as Michael Pollan preaches in his books: The Ominovre’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: eating the way your grandparents and great-grandparents did. With that as your guidepost, the foods of the ancient world have special resonance for these times – when our industrial meat and corn-fed everything has fueled our dietary dysfunctions and made America the unhealthiest industrialized nation on earth.

When I commented on the irony of seeing all these corporate chefs in attendance – corporations that got us into this health and obesity crisis in the first place – CIA Strategic Director Greg Drescher urged me to look upon them in kinder and gentler ways: “They’re constantly reinventing themselves.” He said. “And looking for different options for diners. Bringing new flavors to the table are what we’re about, and the large chains are always looking for broad trends to tap into.”

Watching dozens of world-class chefs strut their stuff – performing alchemy with everything from Sicilian tuna to Istanbul eggs – I was struck by many things including:

> How great chefs can do so much with so little. Las Vegas’s Paul Bartolotta (whom Drescher commented: “…has one foot firmly in tradition and one in modernity.”) deftly tweaked modest Ligurian seafood recipes into stunning and simple restaurant dishes, while Sicily’s Corrado Assenza dazzled crowds large and small with desserts made without butter, refined sugar or processed flour; relying instead on fruit juices as sweeteners and even lentils and fresh made almond paste for his inspirational dishes;

> Whether inspired by Sicily or Sapporo, small plates are in, and likely to stay that way for a while. Call them mezze, tapas, grazing menus, sushi or pintxos, the whole world seems to be downsizing its appetite. And in that same vein;

> How sooo 20th century our obsession with big portions is. We’ve been a land of plenty so long we’ve forgotten about the excellent edibility of eggs, spinach, beans and potatoes, and how healthy foods can be deliciously transformed in the hands of an artisan. Insist on a large slab of steer muscle (or half a chicken), means you now risk branding yourself as an unhealthful barbarian (something the Chinese have thought about our eating habits for a long time). Along these same lines, the conference’s subtext subtly conveyed the message;

> How overrated meat is. We’re not going all vegan on you, but Piero Selvaggio (a Sicilian by birth, and a guy ELV knows likes a good veal chop) highlighted (and interpreted for) the four greatest chefs in Sicily (Franco “Ciccio” Sultano, Assenza, Guiseppe “Pino” Maggiore, and Carmelo Chiaramonte) , and made a point of how each eschews large amounts of animal protein in their menus – preferring to use meat and fish in more traditional (and economical) ways, while sacrificing nothing to creativity. And finally;

> What common sense and sound advice hasn’t done for the American diet, the economy will. Easy, cheap animal protein is dying on the cornstalk, so one way or another, we’re all going to be eating more plants whether we like it or not.

Almost on cue, as we returned late Sunday night from the conference, in ELV’s mailbox was a brochure for the newest thing at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza: hummus and artichoke pizza on special this week! How likely is it that such ingredients would have found their way onto a chain pizzeria pizza (even a wood-fired one), ten years ago?

Food nerd or not, more Americans are becoming aware of the harm mass-produced meat and fish has caused them. Click here to read Mark Bittman’s article on the ecological harm caused by America’s excessive meat production (and consumption).This awareness will directly translate into a variety of menu choices at restaurants large and small, as they seek to profit from the movement away from a meat ‘n taters food economy. If the CIA is a bellweather of such things (and history suggests that it is), we are headed back to the future — eating the way we used to, and the way Mediterranean peasants always have — as we hurtle forth into the 21st Century.