A tale of two conferences

A few take-backs from conferences I've attended.

I spent a very interesting time last week at the 16th annual Chef Culinary Conference at the University of Massachusetts. More than 100 college and university chefs gathered to hang with and learn from an eclectic group of restaurant chefs and chef-instructors from Johnson & Wales University.

This is the fourth year that I have served, at the request of UMass Dining Services Director Ken Toong, as the conference’s master of ceremonies. It is a golden opportunity for me to learn more about the trends and challenges in college foodservice, to meet some fascinating people and pick up a kitchen tip or two as I observe the chefs in workshops.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the conference is watching the shift in attendees’ demeanor as the week flows by. There are, in essence, two distinct events that blend into one conference, a fact the chefs are aware of but don’t really consciously glom onto.

The beginning of the week is given over to a kind of mutual admiration. Restaurant chefs and consultants such as Joyce Goldstein, Jet Tila, James Sanchez and John Ash share their stories—this year the conference theme was “Home Cooking,” and most chefs told tales of their childhoods and how their food experiences colored their careers—and work with the college chefs in two-to-three-hour workshops.

During the first half of the conference the atmosphere is light and airy. Attendees sometimes get a taste of cuisines they aren’t entirely familiar with and learn a couple new recipes, but the event is very peer-like. There is a lot of praise flowing from both sides, with visiting chefs admiring the skills and work ethic of the attendees and the college chefs expressing their admiration for the skills and success of the restaurant chefs. It is almost like seeing Roger Federer giving tennis tips to Tiger Woods.

But when the chefs arrive at Berkshire Dining Commons on Wednesday morning, their mood has changed. The “celebrity” chefs are gone, replaced by three or four instructors from Johnson & Wales. Instead of playing around in another chef’s kitchen, the attendees are back in school, so to speak. It doesn’t matter their title or their length of service. They all are equal in the eyes of these teachers, and they know it.

Gone is the easy banter and light mood of the previous two days. The ambiance is quiet, subdued, serious. The intensity of the workshops has been ratcheted up. No grades will be given out over the next two days, only instruction—and yet these chefs know they will be graded all the same.

The chefs work for the better part of five hours each day to learn from their instructors—the cuisines this year were Brazilian and Regional American. At lunch, the J & W chefs take an hour critiquing the dishes that have been prepared, and they can be brutally candid. During his critique on Wednesday, Chef Rainer Heinerwadel addressed one dish, which had a garnish draped over the edge of the plate, thusly:

“Why do you put something on the rim of the plate? This is your artwork. I have been to many museums, and I never see paint on the frame—only on the canvas.”

Some of the comments are subjective, to be sure, but they are all meant to be constructive. And the chefs can’t help but learn from them, if they are attentive.

So, in a sense, these 100 or so chefs have gotten a “two-fer” during their time at UMass. It’s a fact they appreciate—savor, in fact. Many of them will return next year, so valuable are the lessons they’ve learned. Their bosses couldn’t ask for more.

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