The Power of Change
Every January the press calls chefs, restaurateurs, and wine and food professionals to ask what the new food and wine trends for 2009 will be, as if we know. This annual routine of predicting what’s going to be “hot,” and instantly discarding what’s past and now “cold,” grows tiresome. I recently participated in the Eleventh annual World of Flavors Conference at the CIA in the Napa Valley. This year’s theme was A Mediterranean Flavor Odyssey: Preserving and Inventing Traditions for Modern Palates. Instead of predicting and discarding, signs of a disposable culture, the key words are preserving and inventing traditions, for a culture of endurance and continuity.
At the conference Sicilian superstar chef, Ciccio Sultano, used an Italian play on words to describe what he was doing in the kitchen. In Italian, tradizione is tradition. And the verb tradire means to betray. He said that he had to betray tradition when creating his unique and modern food. An older, wiser Italian saw change from another perspective. In the classic historic novel, The Leopard, author Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s nobleman Don Francisco says” if we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.” Most change is a reaction to current events and an attempt to restore equilibrium. (Only a small proportion of change is truly innovative.) To progress and prosper we must study past events, respect and preserve valuable traditions, and still feel free to invent the new.
There were over 700 participants at the Worlds of Flavor conference, an educational, stimulating, highly enjoyable dine, drink, and think session. Food historians, cookbook authors and wine experts talked about tradition and the history of the Mediterranean as well as current culinary and cultural changes. Chefs from Spain, Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Israel and the Italian regions of Apulia and Sicily, cooked alongside American chefs whose cuisine is inspired by Mediterranean kitchens. The chefs demonstrated both traditional and contemporary interpretations of dishes from their homelands. The kitchen was a hub of activity and spoons were dipped into bubbling pots by smiling chefs and attendees, nodding, talking, and tasting together. There were wine and food pairings where chefs re-created their regional dishes to pair with sommeliers’ selected wines.
Conference attendees reveled in the opportunity to taste new dishes and sample unfamiliar wines. They learned that healthy food is not deadly dull – in fact it is delicious and economical, and probably the ideal role model for our present time. In 2009 as we find ourselves on the brink of exciting change coupled with nail-biting economic stress, it is to our benefit to revisit the Mediterranean diet which is timeless, healthy, delicious, and good for the bottom line. In the Mediterranean wine and food have always been in harmony and a part of daily life, sensual pleasures to be savored.
Today we talk about foods using the buzzwords “fresh, seasonal, local, and sustainable.” These seemingly new concepts are ancient. In the days before refrigeration and interstate and international transport of food, before government and common market regulations, people in the Mediterranean went out into the vegetable garden, or caught a fish or slaughtered an animal that they raised responsibly, and every day they cooked their meals from scratch. They baked bread, cured salumi and cheeses and made their wine. The food always was fresh, seasonal, local and sustainable. It was the traditional Mediterranean way of life.
A blast from the past still has relevance today. In 1971 Harvard professor Richard Alpert, turned guru named Baba Ram Dass and wrote a book called Be Here Now. He called it a “cookbook for a sacred life.” It was about mindfulness. We will always have a foot in the past because that is where our culinary traditions come from. And we’ll need to have an eye on the future if we want our businesses to be sustainable. But we need to be here now and pay attention to what is going on in our city, our nation, our world wide community so we can be appropriately reflective of our time and embrace meaningful change, not change for change’s sake
What we learned at the conference can be our prescription for 2009, to be taken daily with a glass of wine.
Find the balance between time-tested techniques and established traditions, and the hopes and goals for the future, in order to take meaningful action.
Temper our current reality with the enduring values of the past and apply them with skill and sensitivity. Aspire to be creative and inventive but not disrespectful of tradition.
Keep informed and open minded. Read trade publications, magazines and newspapers to learn what is going on, but don’t be seduced by fads that promise success and often turn out to have a very short shelf life
Embrace a way of life that supports our environment, our community, our financial picture and our fondest aspirations.
Choose and promulgate a healthy diet that tastes good without turning diners off when they hear it is healthy. Healthy should not be a dirty word or an enthusiasm dampener.
Eat and drink in moderation.
Don’t eat in the car or at your desk or in front of the television set and expect a culinary epiphany. Be mindful. Take time to taste as you eat your meal. Be conscious as you drink your wine, and savor each sip. Enjoy the company of those with whom you dine. Treasure your time at the table with friends and family. Create your own traditions for your family to build on in years to come.
Watching chefs from Lebanon share tastes with chefs from Israel reminded me that the potential for peace is present in the kitchen and at the dinner table. Let’s lift a glass to that.