Sunday, March 02, 2008

Chefs Charm at Times Travel Show

I spent about five hours on Saturday at the New York Times Travel Show. I went mainly because I was interested in the Taste of the World stage, where I watched three hour-long presentations.

A talk called "Discover the Belly of Paris" was delivered by a food historian and an art historian who give cultural walking tours in Paris. Inspired by a Zola novel that is centered around the life and characters of Les Halles, Paris's central food market (until not too long ago), the talk combined Parisian culinary history with insights into the realist and impressionist artists who often trolled the market for inspiration. It was informative, in an academic way, but much more rewarding were the presentations by two charismatic chefs.

Rick Bayless, of Chicago's renowned Frontera Grill, talked about Mexican regional cuisines and his own passion for cooking, then prepared a shrimp pipian (pumpkin seed mole). The most endearing part of his talk was his tale of how, as a fourteen-year-old Oklahoma boy with dreams of far off places and an already developed culinary sense, he conceived, planned and booked a family trip to Mexico, their first trip to a foreign country. Rick's family owned a modest barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City, so he grew up in the kitchen. Because of the restaurant schedule, vacations were usually short and within driving distance--places like Dallas and Kansas City. Rick finally convinced his folks to let him handle the arrangements for a trip to Mexico, and the teenager pulled it off. He fell in love with the country and the food, and subsequently devoted his culinary career to authentic Mexican regional food. I've never seen his TV program, Mexico--One Plate at a Time, but in person he's eminently likeable. The pipian, which audience members got to taste, was excellent, though to my taste it could have used some more chiles.

Suvir Saran is the co-owner of Devi, probably New York's top Indian restaurant, which I've written about before, as well as a successful writer of cookbooks. Flamboyant and somewhat egotistical, his childlike enthusiasm is infectious. He's an evangelist for the greatness of Indian cuisine, and an enemy of all those who have foisted heavy, greasy drek upon Americans in countless Indian restaurants. He talked about the different regions of India as well as his own adaptations of non-Indian dishes to Indian cooking styles and seasoning. Then he prepared a Goan shrimp curry that was absolutely fabulous. He explained, while making the dish, that if decent fresh tomatoes are unavailable one can use canned or packaged ones, but only tomatoes without additives--"make sure it doesn't have anything that George Bush can't read."

Bayless, the easygoing Okie mensch, and Saran, the theatrical Indian divo, were both a pleasure to watch in action. These are two men who clearly love their jobs and the cuisines they've chosen to champion.


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