After a week of culinary-themed panel discussions, tastings and wall-to-wall food events, the 34th International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference is coming to an end in New York City. This morning, on the final day, chefs Mario Batali and Gabrielle Hamilton, former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton, Culinary Intelligence author Peter Kraminsky, and event producer Doug Duda discussed the broad topic of pleasure and the palate. But in reality, this meant that the chefs and writers debated a wide range of subjects including the consistency in cooking, the use of Twitter in the industry and the term food writer.
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Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of NYC’s Prune, kicked off the conversation by lamenting the lack of proper chef’s uniforms in America’s kitchens today. Instead, she worried that short-sleeved dishwasher shirts had come in vogue to let chefs show off their tattooed arms, with little regard for the risk of burning them on the stove.
Mario Batali, whose orange crocs may be as famous as he is, used this as a jumping off point to deride the fad of cooking “week-to-week”— rather than cooking consistently “year-to-year.” “Part of the grunt work is to make veal chop or squab the same way year in and year out. It takes some of the arty-ness and tattoo-iness out of it,” he said. Sam Sifton chimed in to concur, saying that a dish is meaningful to him if it is exactly as delicious as when he first had it six years ago.
The panel generally embraced the constantly changing world of social media (with the one exception of Hamilton). Batali, an avid Twitter user, announced that he had already tweeted twice, 10 minutes into the panel. He thought Twitter was useful because it forced people to “edit” and allowed him to let followers know when ingredients, like ramps, were in season. He also agreed that Twitter is an easy way for wannabe critics to attack him, calling the Internet and Twitter the best place to “find humility.” Sifton, now the National Editor of the Times, felt Twitter wasn’t especially valuable for the consumer (i.e. to brag about where you ate last night), but that it could be informative in terms of breaking news.
Hamilton claimed she didn’t have enough “light crap” to say and that her ego was not big enough to make her think that users would want to hear her every thought. At which point, Batali reminded her that she just published a “tell-all” autobiography (Blood, Bones, & Butter) and clearly did think she had something interesting to say. Hamilton fired back that it wasn’t a “tell-all” and quickly brought the subject back to ramps—which she detests.
On the Label “Food Writer”
If a food term is debated at panels like these, it is usually the use of “foodie,” but today it was the label “food writer” that came under attack. Hamilton felt that it was better to be a writer first and foremost rather than approaching the writing as a food writer specifically. She went on to say that she thought the term “food writer” seemed less illustrious and allowed for poorer standards of writing. Sifton felt similarly, saying that labeling yourself as a “food writer” pigeonholed you unnecessarily. The panelists went on to name excellent writers who they admired. Sifton nominated Elizabeth David (prolific British culinary author), Hamilton and Batali praised Jim Harrison (novelist, poet and non-fiction writer), Duda mentioned food historian Bruce Craig, and Kaminsky pointed to Joseph Wechsberg, author of Blue Trout and Black Truffles.
And on the subject of snarky Yelpers and bloggers? The panel generally dismissed them, saying that unless they showed evidence of research, their comments were boring and unhelpful. Sifton noted that his most memorable comment on one of his restaurant reviews went, “I haven’t been to the restaurant, but I’m sure he is wrong.”