Worlds of Flavor 2007Napa Valley, CA
The Worlds of Flavor® International Conference & Festival, presented by The Culinary Institute of America, is widely acknowledged as our country’s most influential professional forum on world cuisines and culinary flavor trends. Now in its tenth year, the annual gathering has become a “must attend” for leading chefs, corporate menu decision-makers, foodservice management executives, suppliers, and journalists and other professionals—and always sells out many months in advance.
The event is the college’s flagship conference, and every November literally transforms the Napa Valley campus into an amazing crossroads of world food and culture. It showcases the “gold standards” of world cuisines—from the Mediterranean and Latin America to Asia—that are increasingly reshaping American palates and our industry. In November 2007, as part of this program series, the CIA staged the critically acclaimed ”The Rise of Asia” the largest and most comprehensive conference ever held in the United States on Asian food, cooking, and culture.
Asian Flavors, American Menus.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of its ground-breaking Worlds of Flavor Conference Series, the CIA stages The Rise of Asia: Culinary Traditions of the East and Flavor Discovery in 21st Century America, November 1-3, 2007. This spectacular, multi-dimensional event brought together a conference faculty of more than 75 top chefs, market cooks, food writers, beverage experts, food producers, and other authorities from throughout Asia, the Pacific, and across the United States.
Conference experts led seminars, conducted tastings and demonstrations, collaborated on special meals, and participated in the colorful World Marketplace held in Greystone’s historic 15,000 square-foot Barrel Room. Featured countries and cuisines for 2007 program included China, Japan, India, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Asian flavors are “white hot” among American menu developers today, reflecting changing American appetites as well as larger, seismic shifts in world economics, politics, and cultural forces. Asian ingredients, flavor dynamics, techniques, culinary strategies, and related cultural contexts will collectively bring unprecedented change to American menus over the next decade and beyond. The Rise of Asia: Culinary Traditions of the East and Flavor Discovery in 21st Century America explored the dynamics of this revolution, and helped attending chefs, operators and suppliers understand how they can stay “ahead of the curve” in integrating and leveraging this culinary trend.
Why Asia and why now? Why not simply talk of a bump of interest in Asian flavors as opposed to forecasting a wholesale change in the landscape of American dining—driven by “the rise of Asia”?
In charting what is arguably one of the culinary mega-trends of our time, here are some factors and influences to keep top of mind and ideas that shaped the development of The Rise of Asia conference:
• First, and of paramount importance, is the rise—the surging growth—of the economies of East and South Asia. To understand the likely impact of this phenomenon, one has only to travel to Shanghai or Guangdong province in China, or New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad in India, or experience the striking vitality of one of Asia’s smaller countries like Vietnam, whose economy now boasts Asia’s second highest growth rate (after China). These facts, together with Japan’s position as the second most powerful economy in the world, point to a different 21st Century—one increasingly dominated by Asian economic growth and influence.
American business and political leaders are increasingly focusing on Asia and so too will American diners. A generation ago, Asian products meant cheap prices, and often lesser quality. But with Asian automobile manufacturers and technology products now leading the way, and Asian technology engineers representing the proud faces behind those products, Asian increasingly means “top in class,” “cool and leading edge,” or at least “well made (or acceptably made), and of high value.”
• These economic gains come with political, social, and cultural influences as well. The widening circulation of Asian-made and Asian-inspired films, the growth of Asian fashion, design, art, and architecture, the widening audience for Indian and other Asian-rooted world music all parallel accelerating American interest in Asian food and cooking.
• Thirty years ago to most Americans Asia seemed like a risky bet for travel, given the image of wars and their aftermath, closed societies, the threat of diseases, and a general perception of discomforting foreignness. Now Americans are traveling to Asia in unprecedented numbers and if U.S. glossy travel magazines are any indication, Americans are dreaming of Asian urban and rural landscapes—including hotels, restaurants, and culinary traditions—even when not boarding planes.
• The cookbook publishing world is increasingly turning its attention to Asia, with more and more books coming on the market that de-mystify the ingredients and techniques of Asian cooking. Americans even have access now to books about sub-regions in Asia, from Sichuan province in China to Kerala in India.
• In the short span of 25 years, America has grown from being a nation of conservative, bland-food lovers to one embracing big flavors and culinary adventure. After collectively opening our minds and palates to chilies, salsas, and other Latin foods, it was an easy step to welcoming the hot, similarly enticing, bold flavors of South and Southeast Asia.
• An explosion of Asian ingredients—including key produce items—in American markets has also been vital in fueling this interest in Asian flavors. From Asian sauces to rice noodles, from Indian lentils to Thai aromatics, from Japanese-inspired soy foods to Chinese spices, American chefs and operators as well as home cooks can now more easily find the special ingredients they need to create authentic Asian flavors. One key element behind this is the increasing participation of Asian farmers in American agriculture, which has added Vietnamese herbs, Kaffir lime, Indian and Japanese eggplants, kabocha squash and the like to the bounty of American produce.
• Asian flavors are already reshaping the American restaurant menus, and as their customers respond to these flavors enthusiastically, this phenomenon will continue to accelerate. Japanese flavors have taken the high-end New York restaurant scene by storm, Thai restaurants have multiplied across the United States and globally, Indian restaurants are earning Michelin-stars, diners are falling in love with Vietnamese pho and salads, Las Vegas casinos are opening pan-Asian noodle bars, and chain operators are leveraging Asian flavor to create the next generation of hot multi-unit concepts.
• Part of understanding the Asian phenomenon for many American food and beverage trend leaders is simply that it is “the next big thing.” It is the inevitable follow-on to having spent much of the last 20 years mining contemporary American, Italian, Mediterranean, Latin, Caribbean, and other flavor-driven concept arenas for ideas. The foodservice industry is now discovering that Asia—the largest continent in the world, home to almost 60% of the world’s population—is overflowing with potential dining and food concepts. You want upscale? Think traditions of Chinese banquets, Japanese Kaiseki restaurants, and the cooking of the royal courts of Bangkok, Hue, and Rajasthan. You want quick serve or fast casual? Look no further than the street food vendors of Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and the home cooking traditions of India and Korea.
• The increasingly ubiquitous presence of sushi in supermarkets is a telling and influential trend in its own right. As American as apple pie, or as American as sushi? And it doesn’t stop there in the American supermarket sector. Asian flavors are increasingly finding their way into the packaged foods and delis of local supermarkets, led by the pioneering efforts of Whole Foods (hot Indian food to go, anyone?), Wegman’s, and others. And in California, Ranch 99 Markets showcase all-Asian flavors in an astonishing “superstore” format.
• Asian demographics in the United States have also had a large impact. Although Asian-Americans comprise only 4.3% of the total U.S. population (about 12 million people), this number represents a 63% increase from the 1990 census, making Asian Americans the fastest growing major U.S. ethnic/racial group by percentage growth. There are other significant factors that are multiplying their influence beyond these raw numbers: compared to other major racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., Asian-Americans now have the highest college degree attainment rate, the highest percentage of recipients of an advanced degree (professional or Ph.D.), the highest medium family income rate, and the highest rate of employment in a “high skill” occupation. What does this mean for American menus? It means that Asian-Americans themselves have become a potent force demanding more and better (i.e., authentic) Asian food in the communities in which they live and work. This will have ripple effects throughout the entire hospitality industry in the years ahead.
• Never underestimate the impact of single events to shape public opinion and fire up consumer interest. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing will undoubtedly educate America about the fascinating character of the cities and regions of China, the colorful, impressive history of the country, and its remarkable, unabated economic development—all of which are certain to spark more interest in Chinese cuisine and travel.
• The emergence of the pursuit of health and wellness—including an interest in alternative and complementary medicine, healthier diets, fitness, spa treatments, and weight loss regimes—as a top-ranked American avocation is giving another boost to Asian flavors. Many Asian culinary traditions, ingredients, and ideas are perceived as more healthful than others, including the traditional Asian approach of using small amounts of meat and other protein to flavor larger portions of plant-based foods and meals; the plentiful use of Chinese herbs, Thai aromatics, Vietnamese herbs, Indian spices, and more (with their real or perceived health value); the central role that fish plays in Japanese and other Asian cooking traditions; Indian Ayervedic medicine and its role in inspiring emerging American spa trends including approaches to food and beverage; and the rich traditions of vegetarian cooking throughout Asia.
• Finally, the wine world—from producers to sommeliers—has discovered the multi-dimensional opportunities of Asian foods and flavors. This is significant for the growth of Asian food, as wine is a key element in the financial and critical success of American fine dining as well as parts of the casual dining sectors. With wine lovers pursuing aromatic and/or off-dry whites (from Albariños and Reislings to Viogniers and Gewürztraminers) and spicy and/or low tannic reds (from Shiraz to Zinfandels to a host of blends) to pair with their Asian meals, these flavors only stand to grow in importance in the minds of operators and customers. Adding to this rising interest in pairing wine and Asian flavors is the growing appetite for premium sake and sake cocktails.