Nov 12, 2011
Tim Lester

Pineapple, Chili and Crab? Crossing Borders in a World of Flavor


rie-nozu-website

Last weekend in Napa Valley, at the 14th annual Worlds of Flavor conference hosted by the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, some of the world’s most notable chefs were taking culinary diversity to new, somewhat dizzying heights. 

For instance, on Saturday, Rie Nozu, the chef-owner of Koshinbou Ramen restaurant in Tokyo, spooned out a combination of American and Japanese traditions in the form of macaroni and cheese baked in ramen stock.

Nearby, Jose Garces, from the “Iron Chef” television show, juxtaposed Latin American street food and French haute cuisine by topping arepas with foie gras. Across the room, Pepsico representatives blended fine dining and American fast-food with Asian and Italian ingredients by serving Ruffles Molten Hot Wings flavored potato chips with daikon, sugar snap peas and romanesco broccoli.

Each November at this exclusive food conference, the C.I.A. campus fills with literal taste makers: internationally renowned chefs cook bite-size dishes while American restaurateurs take notes on the latest trends and corporate food consultants seek the next flavor to capture the public’s imagination. 

Janet Fletcher, a food writer who has been attending the event for a decade, said that its main goal had always been to “raise the bar, so that American chefs have a deeper understanding of other food traditions.”

In past years, the conference tended to focus on the foods of a particular region, but this fall, with the theme “World Casual: The Future of American Menus,” more than 700 food professionals gathered around the idea that Americans want diverse, affordable, unpretentious food from around the globe. 

On several occasions, speakers raised the possibility of culinary mash-ups, dishes that draw from multiple cooking traditions and represent a multiethnic society. 

These kinds of unlikely combinations have been the mainstay of some modern chefs. At a session called “Urban Asia: Mash-Ups Flavor Adventure From Bangkok to Seoul,” Bill Kim, a Chicago chef, explained how he and his wife had combined their fine-dining training with their ethnic backgrounds to create a Korean-Puerto Rican restaurant. 

Other experts approached cuisine-mixing differently. Rick Bayless, the chef-owner of Frontera Grill and a winner of “Top Chef Masters,” said that over the generations indigenous Latin American and colonial Spanish cuisines had merged and produced an authentically Mexican style. 

“Cuisines evolve,” Bayless said. “The best chefs are drawing from a deep understanding of different ethnic cuisines in a way that tastes good to them.” 

To demonstrate his point, he made a street food popular in Michoacan — jicama, mango and pineapple cubes sprinkled with chili powder — and added his own flair by finishing the dish with crab meat.

But while mash-ups have made a play for attention, both inside and outside the conference (like the sushirrito, a sushi-meets-burrito concoction), not every nontraditional flavor pairing works. 

At the final dinner buffet of the conference, Nozu’s ramen-baked macaroni and cheese stood unclaimed, while a line of 40 people gathered for a taste of her tried-and-true pork ramen. Murmurs of appreciation rose like steam from the hot broth. 

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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