Mushrooms Will Save the World

Senior Editor Lessley Anderson and Multimedia Producer Meredith Arthur attended the second Taste3 conference in Napa, California, where they got fully briefed on subjects ranging from how microwaves can know you inside and out to what kind of music will make your rib-eye taste better. Each session, loosely themed with titles like “Power” and “Senses,” featured three to four speakers drawn from all corners of the food industry—some well-known and others more obscure—as well as multimedia performers.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

SMALL GIANTS
Host: Andrea Immer Robinson

Ben Ripple is founder of Bali-based Big Tree Farms, which exports products like long pepper and sea salt grown and harvested by local Indonesians. Young Ripple had a fascinating story to tell about how he came to start the company: He and his girlfriend were traveling around the world learning about organic farming so they could begin what he described as their “penultimate company” back in the States (a badass organic farm). However when they were in Bali, the local English teacher barged in excitedly one morning and said he’d had a dream in which his dead father told him that Ripple was going to stay and start a farm. The teacher offered Ripple his farm that very morning, for free. Ripple took it. One of his successes has been helping the indigenous people calculate their production costs and what they need to sell their wares for in order to make a profit. Many had never considered this.

Maurizio Cellura, associate professor of environmental physics at the University of Palermo, spoke about the amount of energy it takes to produce a single bottle of wine. Turns out packaging accounts for the bulk of it: 45 percent. He advocated that the wine industry look for more environmentally friendly alternatives like recycled glass. We would have liked to have heard more specifics and case studies, rather than viewed slides of academic jargon.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, honeybee expert, addressed the topic of Colony Collapse Disorder, but not before offering some interesting tidbits on the insect he says he’s obsessed with. Some of our faves: Honeybees are not native to America. (We have other kinds of bees.) If you get stung, the longer you wait to remove the stinger, the more venom it injects into you; flick it off quickly. Drones live just to have sex with the queen, and if they do, they die immediately. As for the mystery of why bee colonies are disappearing, vanEnglesdorp has been doing some studies. He’s seen evidence of fungal infection, and has noticed that infected bees have black thoraxes rather than light-colored ones.

In the late 1990s, Kirk Azevedo worked at agricultural biotech behemoth Monsanto developing a strain of cotton that was resistant to the pesticide Roundup. That is, if you spray Roundup on it, the cotton will live and the weeds will die. The company inserted strands of DNA containing genes for resistance into the plant. But the results were unpredictable. Azevedo became disillusioned, believing Monsanto wasn’t conducting enough long-term research on the new breeds of cotton to see how they would affect the food supply. The presentation was one of the most popular—many people commented that you hear a lot about genetically engineered crops being scary and bad, but usually not with any clearly reasoned argument by someone with a scientific background.

VISION
Host: Chris Fehrnstrom

Blair Randall runs Garden for the Environment, an urban demonstration garden in San Francisco, where kids and adults can learn about composting and other leafy skills. He spent most of his talk discussing an inspiring self-described art project by artist Amy Franceschini. Mimicking the Victory Gardens of World Wars I and II, she took underutilized backyards and helped their owners set up small gardens. Randall’s talk inspired us to want to build a rooftop garden at CHOW. Perhaps he can help us get it off the ground?

Joseph Marcy, a food scientist from Virginia Tech, spoke about the challenges of creating food for astronauts and Mars expeditions. Some interesting things we learned: It takes 180 days to get to Mars. It’s not possible to take enough food to last the entire round-trip, so they’ll have to grow or somehow produce their own food out there. They’re considering bringing a trailer that the shuttle would tow, pulling a garden. Plus: Astronauts don’t like pellets or pills. They like to eat real food, because there’s nothing much else to do in space sometimes.

Greg Bradshaw is an architect and a principal for NYC design firm AvroKO. Using recycled table legs, old meat hooks, and industrial equipment scavenged from salvage yards and eBay, the group has developed a principle it calls “Best Ugly” (conveniently, also the title of its upcoming book). AvroKO puts it to use creating sexy restaurant spaces like New York’s Public, the Stanton Social, and Quality Meats. It has also designed apartments and furniture. (In an example of the former, it made the most of a tight space by allowing a kitchen wall that housed the oven to roll back, revealing a bed.) CHOW’s a big fan of AvroKO: We threw our launch party at Public.

Eleanor Coppola

Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis and mom of Sofia, was up next, talking about the over-the-top food in Sofia’s film Marie Antoinette. She showed designers’ sketches of the foods, which included elaborate towers of crawfish, striped Jell-O confections, and pastries in the shape of dolphins. Because Jason Schwartzman, who played King Louis XVI, is vegan, the food crew had to create tofu replicas of anything he put in his mouth. Each dish also had to be made four to five times to have replacements on hand. Food was a big part of the movie’s look; in fact, the pastel palette of the costumes was based on the colors of French macaroons. Sofia Coppola steered away from what would have traditionally been eaten in the French court at that time (heavy meats like roasts) in favor of more “feminine” dishes like poultry and fish. Eleanor also passed out bags containing one madeleine and a can of Sofia champagne from the family’s winery. Many participants popped open the can during her presentation and, thinking it was an energy drink, pounded it with much surprise.

ORIGIN
Host: Loretta Barrett Oden

Georges Halpern, professor of pharmaceuticals at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, gave a crowd-pleasing endorsement of eating and doing exactly what you want. The following things, according to Halpern, are good for your health (happiness boosts your immune system): chocolate, good hospital food, salt, well-presented food over ugly food, views of nature, getting your wrinkles removed (we weren’t sure if he was endorsing Botox), wine, and good sex.

Katrina Markoff, owner and founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, tried to map out her inspirations and creative process through a series of video clips. We learned that the following things inspired Markoff’s confections: Martin Luther King, motorcycles, yoga, Gandhi, birds flying, women’s rights in Afghanistan, and most of all, Bob Marley. In many cases, Markoff has created truffles in honor of movements or individuals. A recent chocolate tribute to African American music included a CD plus 12 truffles each representing a different style of music. The hip-hop truffle contained gold leaf, champagne, and bitter horseradish and wasabi.

President and cofounder of wine analysis firm Enologix, Leo McCloskey called for a new wine-rating system. The United States’s 100-point classification doesn’t do it for McCloskey (he’s not alone), and he wants wine to be evaluated by appellation. (We already have an appellation map, but wines are not ranked according to which region typically produces the best wine. They’re rated bottle by bottle.) To give a sense of how this would work, McCloskey looked at the November issue of Wine Spectator, in which many Napa Valley wines were rated the usual way, and he grouped them according to which region of the Napa Valley they were from. Turned out, the best-rated wines were from Oakville, in the center, with the lower-rated wines from the hillsides. However, this was where he lost us: How would this knowledge (obtained from the rating system he doesn’t like) translate into an appellation-based system?

David Molyneux-Berry, formerly head of wine auctions for Sotheby’s, talked about wine counterfeiting. Equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Robert Parker, Molyneux-Berry described the research that led him to discover that a rare bottle of Rothschild had to be a fake: Only five magnums had been bottled that year, and the real McCoys had been labeled with the small label of a regular-size bottle. When Molyneux-Berry saw a large label on the bottle, he knew it was an imposter. He also believes that the most expensive bottle of wine ever auctioned—a 1787 Château Lafite that came from the collection of Thomas Jefferson himself and sold for £105,000, or $160,000, is also a fake. He could tell that the three initials on the Bordeaux bottle had been made with a modern dentist’s drill. And Jefferson never used his middle initial.

LAST WORD
Host: Andrea Immer Robinson

Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California, talked about the concept of terroir in wines. That is, how certain flavors in wines reflect the soil and weather conditions of the specific vineyard where the grapes were grown. Grahm asserted that true terroir wines are usually more subtle, and require more oxygen and time to fully come into their own. He spoke of a friend’s winery in France, in which concrete poles were inserted into the ground to redirect “energy.” The vineyard itself had been constructed and arranged according to alleged energy vectors, a process Grahm called “alchemy,” and said produced great wines.

Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants in New York and Westchester County, gave a polished monologue describing his encounter with a beautiful young woman on a bus when he was a young student chef. Trying to impress the girl, he told her he wanted to “put the culture back in agriculture,” by putting the focus on the farm in his cooking. She recommended he serve radishes, plain, with salt. After unsuccessfully wooing the lady, Barber nonetheless is serving plain radishes with salt to adoring diners. His closing line: “I didn’t get the girl, but I got the restaurant.”

Monday, May 7, 2007

POWER
Host: Michael Krasny

Mycologist Paul Stamets kicked off the session wearing a Tyrolean-shaped hat made from a mushroom. He sketched the history of fungi: The first life on Earth, mushrooms survived two asteroid collisions with the planet that killed all other life. Stamets followed with a drawing of mushrooms rising like phallic statues from the soil, based on findings from a fossil. At one time mushrooms were as big as trees. Stamets has figured out a way to clean up oil slicks, kill pests, and create vaccines for avian flu, SARS, and smallpox using mushrooms. His bioshield program positions fungi as the front line against a bioterrorist attack.

String Theory

San Francisco Chronicle food writer Olivia Wu spoke about the market for wine in China. Pairing wine with Chinese cuisine is difficult: Things typically found in food in France (dairy, caramelized flavors that come from baking), where a lot of the wine the Chinese drink comes from, are not found in their cuisine. Few homes have ovens. It’s also not unusual for the Chinese to add 7UP or ginger ale to Bordeaux! Wu then segued into a discussion of how people eat in Chinese homes, which few foreigners get to really see: Guests are usually given “fine dining” treatment. Typically families eat four dishes and a soup, all placed in the center of the table, with a rice bowl. In fancy Chinese restaurants, Wu said, up to 250 different menu items are cooked and put on display.

Finally, String Theory, an atmospheric John Cage–y group from LA, performed. It fashioned a giant cello by stringing wires around the room.

NEW FRONTIERS
Host: Harold McGee

Roger Corder, a medical researcher and former pharmacist, spoke on the beneficial effects of red wine. We’ve heard a lot about this, but Corder gave us a useful shopping list: The most healthful wines are those that contain more procyanidins (polyphenols that may prevent heart disease). They usually are made from younger grapes and contain 11 to 12 percent alcohol. Best of all are wines from Gers in the South of France (where Corder discovered that men often live beyond 75 years old) and those from Sardinia (another area with many healthy old dudes drinking lots of wine). Corder got a gasp from the crowd when he claimed that resveratrol doesn’t appear in high enough quantities in wine to affect heart disease.

Mike Kuniavsky

“User Experience” designer Mike Kuniavsky gave us a glimpse of what the near future holds for food-related computing. He started by dissing the idea of an all-purpose computer in the kitchen, an idea that began in the ’60s and has refused to die. (“Putting a computer into a kitchen is the classic situation where a solution goes looking for a problem,” joked Kuniavsky.) Instead, he sees devices and tools we already use getting smarter. As an example, a new “intelligent” microwave knows what you’re eating based on bar codes on the packaging. It knows how long to cook the food and how many calories it contains; it then sends that information to your iPod, which is connected to your running shoe, which both keeps track of how many calories you burn off from your run, and feeds you more up-tempo music if you haven’t burned enough. This is not the future: All this technology is available now.

Dave Arnold and Harold McGee

Anil Dash, vice president of blogging venture Six Apart, spoke about—what else?—blogging. The gist was that everybody in the room should blog; the key to good blogging is telling personal stories that are “true.” Example: how your mom taught you to cook. He also touted blogs as a better way to keep in touch with people, rather than email or what’s-up-with-me Christmas letters. The talk felt very 1999; we don’t need boosters for blogging, we need to understand what types of blogs are out there, and what purpose they serve today in the food world.

Boy-scientist Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology for the French Culinary Institute, stole the session with a frenetic preparation of a gin and tonic without the tonic: He carbonated the gin itself using a big tank of C02. Why did he do this? Putting tonic in his gin waters it down. He also showed how he made clear lime juice through a process involving rotary vacuum distillation, gelatin, and powdered acid. Dude.

STORYTELLERS
Host: Jean-Michel Valette

Jeffery Henderson, a.k.a. “Chef Jeff,” told his rags-to-riches story. A poor kid from South Central LA, Henderson rose to be a drug kingpin and Vegas high roller, landed in a federal prison for eight years, and learned to cook in the commissary. He used the flavor packets from ramen noodles to give veggies a savory kick, and made a popular dish he dubbed “Penitentiary Nachos” out of leftover Pepperidge Farm goodie-basket cheeses received by inmates at Christmas. After he got out, Henderson begged for a job washing dishes at a restaurant in LA, and moved up the ranks to be head chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas. His memoir, Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras, is being optioned for film by redemption pro Will Smith.

Nikki Silva, half of the radio journalist team the Kitchen Sisters, spoke about the duo’s popular “Hidden Kitchens” series and played some favorite clips. One moving segment profiled one of the Angola 3, imprisoned for 35 years, who made what he called “Freelaines,” his version of praline candy, using prison scraps. Another explored alternative uses for the George Foreman Grill (homeless people use it in place of a stove) and tied this narrative into Foreman’s own history of growing up dirt-poor in Texas.

Rives (just one name, like Madonna) is the 2004 National Poetry Slam champion. He performed a lighthearted, narrated slideshow parodying conspiracy theories (particularly The Da Vinci Code) with the phrase “Four in the morning” as the missing link. Apparently Rives performed this piece at the TED conference last February. It was moderately funny.

Andrea Fazzari, a travel, portrait, and lifestyle photographer, showed her work for Vanity Fair, Gourmet, GQ, and Travel + Leisure. In a quest to create “authentic” stories about food, Fazzari pairs pictures of nonfood stuff, like tango dancers and gauchos, with pictures of Argentine beef.

SENSES
Host: Marie Wright

Alexandre Schmitt, founder of Olfacto, a firm that teaches people (like winemakers) how to smell better, is also a perfumer and novelist. He passed out test strips scented first with orange, then with mandarin—it was surprising how different they smelled. Winemakers, says Schmitt, should practice using their sense of smell every day, the way that musicians practice scales. Out of 100 sensory transmissions the body receives, 60 to 65 are visual, 20 to 25 are auditory, 10 to 15 are tactile, and only 1, 1, is olfactory. So it takes some practice.

Nemo Librizzi is a professional mix-tape maker; he creates soundtracks for upscale restaurants and hotels. Librizzi said that the best music to eat by is right in the middle, tempo-wise, and “hopeful.” (Tip: Edith Piaf is a good bet.) Excessively sad, fast, or slow music can negatively affect digestion. He’s had some hits and misses: One soundtrack he put together featuring bluegrass “ballads” and Zulu songs “emptied out” the restaurant in question.

Mark Zoller is chief scientific officer for Senomyx, a company that studies how our taste buds work, then uses this knowledge to create new products for the packaged foods industry. Humans’ ability to taste—bitter, sweet, salty, umami (meaty protein), and sour—evolved from specific nutritional needs when we were hunters and gatherers. Being able to sense bitter protected us from eating plants containing poisonous alkaloids. Identifying sweetness led us to calories. Umami provided us with foods containing protein. And acid, well, we got a little lost on the explanation for that. Maybe it’s so you can get vitamin C. Now that the way we eat has changed, folks like Zoller are looking for ways to enhance or block certain taste receptors so, say, people especially sensitive to the bitterness of broccoli won’t taste it as much and can eat more nutritious vegetables. Senomyx is growing fake receptor cells in a petri dish to figure out how to do this.

Ben Roche, pastry chef of Chicago restaurant Moto, was one of our favorite presenters. Last year, his boss, Homaro Cantu, attended. Roche, only 22 years old, presented a funny video that showed three of the restaurant’s weird-science cooking techniques. The first was carrot cake batter frozen into a hollow orb using liquid nitrogen. The next was the infamous “dessert nachos” dish, in which candied corn chips are topped with shredded frozen mango (cheese), chocolate beads (ground beef), and kiwi jelly pieces (green salsa). Lastly the video demonstrated a Moto dish called Food and Wine Pairing, in which the chefs burn a vanilla bean using a powerful laser and entrap the fumes under an upside-down wineglass. The wineglass is turned right side up at the table, and the fragrance combines with the taste of the meal. Roche didn’t appear to take himself very seriously, and despite the high-tech equipment used at Moto, he couldn’t figure out how to work the laser pointer he used in his presentation.