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Imbibe & Inspire: The Coolest Food Conference You've Probably Never Heard Of

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Sep 8, 2014 8:30PM

While Imbibe and Inspire: The Roots of American Food makes tickets available to the public, it can be tough to figure out exactly what it is. And indeed the attendees are mostly industry, but the guest list itself is clue enough that the conference is a place to be.

Last year, the conference’s first, I saw it mentioned here and there and didn’t get a ticket because well, it was expensive enough that it seemed a little risky to buy given the surfeit of information. When I saw posts on places like LTHForum by people who went it made me regret my decision. This time, I was lucky enough to get a press pass.

Last year organizer Stephen Torres said their guest of honor, Hugh Acheson had to start late because there were only four people sitting there in the conference room at the scheduled start time. This year was certainly better attended, though it did start late. However, we were well-imbibed enough that it didn’t matter. I had already had a cup of Intelligentsia, a pistachio Do-Rite doughnut and a cup of black tea from Rare Tea Cellar that had been run through a fancy swirly contraption known as a cold coffee brewer containing wild blueberries and huckleberries.

The first speaker was Dave Beran, chef at Next, who explained the evolution of his restaurant’s menus. Many have speculated on how the menus have changed over the years, once trying to capture a time and a place before moving into more conceptual themes that now define them. In his talk Beran elucidated how and why that happened.

He said it really started with Kaiseki: “I didn’t know what kaiseki was, we went to Japan and ate all over the place. But something about [our menu] became not authentic. We re-identified what Next was…we want to take all these global world techniques like kaiseki and relate them to where we are now” Beran said.

An example he gave was that many traditional Kaiseki menus start with toasted rice soup. “With Alinea we would find best of world and bring it here…at Next with kaiseki it became what is kaiseki and how would we relate that to the Midwest?” The toasted rice soup became grilled roasted corn husk tea. “It represented the rice harvest, but it was corn, because corn is what grows here. My grandpa had corn in his backyard. It started a real evolution at Next, we wanted each [menu] to reflect on the last, with the final courses looking toward the next.” Beran says along with the Kaiseki menu, Vegan was one of his favorite menus and it was ‘less about telling a story and more about reflecting on the previous menus.”

Geoff Watts, co-owner of Intelligentsia followed with a talk about the growing importance of coffee in the culinary community. “For the first time in history, coffee stands next to wine, beer and food as something people are thinking about for taste” Watts said. But despite the drink’s newfound culinary high status Watts opined “most people who drink coffee aren’t coffee drinkers, but milk drinkers.” What people don’t know is that such additives might not be necessary “coffee should be sweet—it has naturally-occurring sucrose and other polysaccharides. If it’s good coffee.” Luckily good coffee is increasingly popular and available and people are finally understanding what it has to offer. Watts told us “wine has somewhere between 100-150 chemical compounds that contribute to taste and aroma, coffee has close to 1,000.”

We were promised a lunch of vegetable burgers, which didn’t inspire thrills. But I didn’t know what the attendees from New York City did, which is that these vegetable burgers were no ordinary vegetable burgers. These weren’t the kind of sad pucks of soy served at 90s vegetarian restaurants, but very special veggie burgers developed by Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley. The patties were thick with umami flavor and crunchy with tangy pickles. I ate two, I understand why New Yorkers wait in line for them, and also enjoyed the side of celery root with a sweet corn puree. We were also feted with creamsicle ice cream from Dana Cree’s Hello Ice Cream.

The talks after lunch started with Chef Jamie Malone, formerly of Minneapolis’ Sea Change and now in the process of opening her own restaurant. The talk was titled "Penis Or Vagina: Which Is The Better Kitchen Tool?" after her article in Esquire. She started off reading a study that associated feminine stereotypes with being considered less competent in the workplace. Malone says these are stereotypes describe her own personality—caring, warm, deferential. She strongly believes the food industry is a place where “if you put in work it shows, but being flippant about [sexism] is dangerous.”

Malone said many women find themselves trying to overcompensate to beat the stereotypes about women in the workplace, but that’s not something she personally wants to do. “I don’t have a lot of desire to adopt masculine traits if you want to label them as that” she admits. She told a story about a chef’s wife telling her she was “too modest and should be more self-promoting.” For awhile she considered making a change, trying to play up her achievements, but she realized that wasn’t who she was. It was almost a rejection of the Lean In ethos that tries to teach women to be more assertive in the workplace. But she also recounted examples of her normal behavior being perceived as "bitchy," behavior that may not have been seen as aggressive if she were a man.

I asked Malone about what the media could do about giving people who aren’t naturally self-promoting a voice without being patronizing about people’s genders. She agreed this was an issue, that people asking her about women’s chefs they should know about sometimes bothered her. That people not getting attention weren’t just women. “There are men too who aren’t self promoting, it’s definitely important to seek out those people so their contributions are recognized as much as the loudest people” she said.

After Malone, Mark Canlis of Seattle’s 60-year-old family restaurant Canlis took the stage, giving a frank talk about the way the industry treats workers and how he’s trying to value them more. He warned us we better go to his restaurant soon, because he isn’t sure the experiment will work. “Our industry is kind of broken place. It’s famous for chewing people and spitting them out" Canlis said. But he’s trying to change that. He asked the audience “What if every employee, knew that the employer’s #1 job was to take care of the employee? We just implemented that eight months ago.”

Canlis said his system starts at the hiring process, where they ask potential hires “who are you becoming?” and use that as a way to understand whether or not working at Canlis truly could benefit them. “We are other-centered instead of self-centered—most restaurants are self-serving” he said, describing the different ways they try to help employees achieve goals from sending them to stages elsewhere to helping them with debt reduction loans. It was a heartening approach given it often seems the restaurant industry prides itself on being a cruel place.

After that Chef Matt Jennings, formerly of Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island and now opening a restaurant in Boston, expounded on his journey and the influence of Jeremiah Tower, the guest of honor for this year. Tower, along with Alice Waters, is considered one of the originators of the “California” Style of cuisine. For Matt, his journey to California inspired him to bring elements of it, such as the use of whole animals and close relationships with farmers, to his restaurants he built on the East Coast.

Finally Michigan farmers Mike and Tina Werp from Werp Farms took the stage to chat about their farm and the challenges of growing year round in the Midwest’s often-hostile climate. Mike said he had been really inspired by Mark Canlis’ talk “[his] talk dumbfounded me, the most important resource for us is the people.”

The evening ended with a champagne reception and an extravagant (two pounds of truffles from Rare Tea Cellar was involved) dinner cooked by chefs from across the country. It ended with an art installation created by Dana Cree (Blackbird, Avec) and her pastry team that was basically several giant trash cans of chocolate and unorthodox chocolate truffles in flavors like blueberry and gorgonzola contributed by several pastry chefs. Guests were given an empty box and were able to raid the installation to fill it with chocolate. There was an afterparty apparently, but I don’t possess the ability to party all day and night that many chefs have.

The conference’s talks were refreshingly informal. Another attendee confided to me that the MAD Symposium, a food talks conference that is certainly not as under the radar as Imbibe & Inspire, had lost this in the past year. But Imbibe & Inspire still has it, feeling more like a symposium than a conference. It’s a chance to rub shoulders with chefs who are more famous in the world of chefs than they are with the public. It might not be this way always and the food was delicious, so if tickets are available to the public again, I’d snap them up.