Highlights from the International Association of Culinary Professionals' conference
If you see an explosion of stories, blog posts and TV shows about Austin food in coming months, you can thank the International Association of Culinary Professionals for bringing hundreds of food writers, bloggers, TV producers and publicists, not to mention chefs, food entrepreneurs and cookbook authors, to the city for its annual conference last week.
Association members from more than 20 countries attended educational sessions and social events from Wednesday through Saturday and spent an estimated $1.6 million while they were at it, according to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Here is a recap from the conference, which next year will be held in New York City.
First things first: Were you aware that the USDA has abandoned the Food Pyramid in favor of a circular chart called MyPlate? And congratulations, you're the millionth person to make the pie-chart joke.
MyPlate is a circle split unequally four ways, into fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. (Have a closer look at www.choosemyplate.gov.) Shaped like a wheel, MyPlate will drive its share of food trends, a subject explored by marketing researcher Eric Giandelone of Mintel Foodservice at a session on Thursday.
Trends that will roll out behind MyPlate or are already here include calorie-conscious menus from Applebee's and Taco Cabana and more soft drinks such as Pepsi's Throwback series, the one with cane sugar in place of high-fructose corn syrup, the one that generated $41 million in sales its first year. Giandelone said that corporate secrets are also going away. The Taco Bell 88-percent beef debacle or the Domino's Pizza campaign to fix what it admitted was lousy pizza ended up working out in the restaurants' favor because "contrition is the new PR."
Restaurants will incorporate more iPad and website ordering, which will allow them to reduce the number of employees. We'll see more regional ethnic foods. Not just Mexican, but South American. Not just Italian, but Tuscan and Sicilian. Not just Asian, but Korean. Giandelone also said we'll probably see the return of fusion cooking.
One of the biggest trends will be customization or "It's all about me" ordering. For example: Coca-Cola's Freestyle soda machine gives you more than 100 soft-dink options from one touch-screen fountain. (Jack in the Box is rolling them out in Austin. )
Then there's the economy. Higher unemployment equals more dollar menus. Higher beef prices lead to chicken, lots and lots of chicken.
Sue Torres set me straight on a few things about Mexican food. Chief among them: The Aztecs ate mostly grains, fruits and vegetables before Cortez brought the chickens. Torres is the chef and owner of Sueños Restaurant in New York, the daughter of Italian and Puerto Rican parents. "But my heart is Mexican," she told a session at the IACP conference last week called "Mexican Cuisine Before and After Cortez."
The arrival of Hernán Cortez in the 16th century is a stark divider between the Mexico of the Aztecs and the Mexico of the Spanish. That was Torres' bigger point. And while she cooked a corn-and-chocolate drink called champurrado and a guajillo chile sauce for tamales, she laced in some of Mexico's before-and-after shockers:
Before Cortez, the Aztec diet revolved around corn, a crop so sacred and treasured it was used as currency. We have them to thank for avocados, vanilla, chocolate, yams and yuca, too. Cortéz brought not only chickens but also pigs, cabbage and an eventual ban on amaranth, a grain the Aztecs sometimes blended with human blood and honey for ritual sharing.
Reporting and food writing used to be two separate jobs, but journalists who write about food can't ignore topics like sustainability, hunger, food safety, school lunches, public health, etc.
New York Times food writer Kim Severson led a panel, which included White House pastry chef Bill Yosses and me, about food as front page news. "Food used to be the recipe ladies, who taught America to cook," Severson said. "Then Craig Clairborne and a bunch of gay white men created the restaurant critic culture." All along, there were a few guys in suits in Washington, D.C., writing about the agriculture industry.
But as we learn more about how the way we eat affects our health and the environment, Americans are much more interested in topics like school lunch reform, pesticide use and what exactly goes into that box of Triscuits.
One of the biggest points I tried to convey is that it's important for journalists to see issues from many different perspectives. Grocery stores might not be as sexy to write about, but the vast majority of people get the vast majority of their food from traditional outlets.
This applies to cooking, too. Molecular gastronomy is a hot topic, but it's not that important when you consider that many people are still unsure about how to chop an onion. Having reported on school lunches, I've found out that the debate about chocolate milk in schools isn't as clear as Jamie Oliver makes it seem.
It's easy to vilify big agriculture, for instance, but when Tyson Foods donates millions of pounds of mass-produced chicken to food banks every year to feed people who can't afford any chicken, much less the sustainably raised kind from your local farmer, the conversation gets a little more complicated.
The trick is to balance lifestyle and news journalism to keep audiences both entertained (and filled with ideas for how to get dinner on the table) and informed about the consequences of what they eat.