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Terroir and Technology The latest Worlds of Flavor conference underscores the flavor of nature and the promise of technology

The essence of the land factors heavily in chef Christopher Kostow’s rutabaga with browned goat’s milk, aerated maple, white truffle, vinegar made with maple, wild mustard flowers and nasturtiums.
PHOTO CREDIT: All Photos: © 2013 The Culinary Institute of America - Phil Mansfield

Global flavor discovery is pushing boundaries in all segments. Perhaps it’s delivered through a safe adventure, adding chimichurri to a chicken breast glaze. Perhaps it’s a flavor skydive, hitching bold global flavors to traditional dishes with thrilling results, like a pub-style fish and chips served with ponzu vinegar and kimchi tartar sauce. Both approaches color today’s foodservice landscape in Technicolor. The consumer, driven by these new markers, demands more curated flavor exploration—and with that exploration comes flavor expectation. Diners, whether wowed by chimichurri and chipotle or bowled over by global mash-ups, are looking to restaurants for satisfying, return-worthy culinary adventure.

As we widen our culinary sphere, welcoming flavor accents from different corners of the world, we crane to see what’s over the next hill, beyond emerging trends. We look to the fringe, the outer banks of culinary inspiration into the world of culinary aspiration. Intellectual food might not find its way onto our plates, but such loftiness can sharpen the focus on real-world ideation, informing menu innovation with solid takeaways and “a-ha” moments.

Global flavor discovery provided the backdrop for The Culinary Institute of America’s most recent Worlds of Flavor conference, held last November at CIA’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. The featured chefs from around the world provided a glimpse at that next flavor horizon. And from the conference theme of “Kitchens Connected,” we found a walkable path to culinary innovation. Forged by intellectual cookery and technological connectivity, the takeaways come in two themes—the next iteration of local and the more casual side of culinary science.

Place Tells a Story
Highlighting terroir on the menu isn’t just taking the local trend to the next level. Rather, it’s about honing local into a flavor narrative. Lisa Abend, a Madrid-based journalist who served as one of the moderators at the conference, describes terroir-based cooking as working “within the boundaries of place.” Matt Wilkinson, chef-owner of Pope Joan restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, distills it even further as “soil equals flavor.” So perhaps the carrots on the menu are local, which may lend premium positioning, but as “local” becomes a ubiquitous value, for many diners, the claim is turning into white noise. Communicating a deeper farm-to-fork connection may be what’s needed next. So that those carrots get a better flavor story, Wilkinson looks to the part most of us throw away. He chars the carrot tops, purées them into a pesto and serves them over heirloom carrots, celebrating farm-to-table in a fresh, unpredictable manner.

Christopher Kostow, chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif., brings terroir to its most primal interpretation by featuring flavor that was born five million years ago. He bakes rutabaga in Calistoga volcanic ash, creating a salt and soil vessel that encases the root vegetable. You’ll also find ash-roasted carrots on his menu. In both cases, the chef uses terroir to elevate the flavor narrative. He’s also demonstrating that terroir can move beyond cerebral to primal, and that it can be incredibly cool. Christian Puglisi, chef-owner of Relæ and Manfreds og Vin in Copenhagen, Denmark, underscores the role of the chef in bringing terroir to the table. “Chefs are a connection to nature,” he says. His demo illustrated a deft culinary hand with nature’s bounty: dried turnips, chervil, horseradish and mustard seeds.

Terroir falls beautifully into authentic expressions of cuisines. We learn this through wine, mostly. Look to Spanish sherries as an example—the humid salty breezes that blow in Jerez inform every delicious mouthful. Today’s exploration of food terroir helps us tell authentic flavor stories. As we tap into Peruvian ingredients, for example, authenticity of place plays a significant role. Virgilio Martínez, chef-owner of Central Restaurante, Lima, Peru, brought into focus the biodiversity of Peru. He also talked about indigenous ingredients that we’re seeing playing out on menus here: quinoa and quinoa leaves, aji chile peppers, purple potatoes.

“Merroir” is a new term bandied around in some food circles that refers to the sense of place derived from the ocean. Although it sounds a bit pretentious, it does tug at the importance of connecting ingredients to flavor and place. Lars Kronmark, chef-instructor at the CIA, demonstrated Sea Water Boiled Winter Potatoes with Sweet Pine Needle Cream, Rye Crisps and Suspended Mushroom Dust. Blaine Wetzel, chef-partner at The Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Wash., served Wild Seaweeds Braised with Dungeness Crab. And Dani García, chef-owner of Calima in Marbella, Spain, showcased Crispy Seaweed & Shrimp Wafers.

Foraging for Flavor
We’ve seen this to some extent on menus here, where chefs call out foraged mushrooms or foraged fiddleheads. Indeed, “foraged” is a direct extension of “wild.” Both hold the promise of flavor—the way nature intended. Foraging was one of the undercurrents at this year’s conference, with many guest chefs showing video of themselves roaming through fields, forests and shorelines in search of pristine ingredients. Although foraging for hyper-local ingredients might not fit into our modern foodservice reality, the idea resonates. Native ingredients plus flavor discovery tell a riveting story. In the hands of chef Isaac McHale of the new Clove Club in London, a familiar buttermilk chicken is transformed with pine salt, a heady combination of pine needles and salt. Sanghoon Degeimbre, chef of L’Air du Temps, Liernu, Belgium, makes a “Humus from Garden, Fields and Woods Around.” Shinobu Namae, chef-owner of L’Effervescence, serves Straw Roasted Modori Katsuo Autumn Skipjack Tuna with Black Vinegar Reduction, Yuzu and Meyer Lemon Chutney and Rice Salad.

Peter Gilmore, executive chef of Quay in Sydney, Australia, links foraging and terroir to the country’s strong Aboriginal roots. To express those unique flavor stories, he turns to native ingredients, such as muntries (berries that he says taste like red apple peel), lemon aspen (tart citrus fruit) and truffles (Australia is one of the largest producers of Perigord truffles).

Science Fuels Innovation
Consider the opposite end of the spectrum—the furthest you can go from foraging and hyper local and land-and-sea to table. Culinary science seems like a natural opposite, placing technology between the ingredient and the diner. But at the conference, the two intersected in rather stunning ways. The takeaway from that is simple: How can science advance flavor experience in everyday cooking? And from an operational standpoint, how can science further efficiencies?

One of the biggest flavor eye-openers at the conference was a pistachio ice cream made without cream. Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking, extracted oil from pistachios in a centrifuge (allowing the formation of a stable “cream,”) then added water and sugar. The result was the brightest, clearest pistachio flavor with a creamy mouthfeel. Most pistachio ice creams, apparently, feature almond extract, cream, almonds, sugar and green food coloring. Myhrvold’s version, even with a scientific assist, presents a purer flavor experience.

And what’s old is new. Pressure cookers are perhaps the latest discovery in modern kitchens. “The pressure cooker is the most fascinating equipment in the kitchen,” says Maxime Bilet, co-author of Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking. He demonstrated a classic pot-au-feu, employing this once-staple in the kitchen. “The pressure cooker acts like a still, concentrating flavors back into sauces. Otherwise, all the flavors you smell [in a braise or sauté] are gone,” he says.

Again, technology facilitates flavor. Here, it relays an authentic, classic dish using an expedited, efficient method—nothing lost, something gained.

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.