I woke up in the dark of the Meadowood Inn’s suite we were so lucky to be staying in. The fireplace was pre-set with crumpled newspaper, kindling and split logs. I struck a match before I even started coffee. If there is one thing I want in the home of my dreams its a functioning fireplace. Its not the only thing…but its up there…with a pool table and well stock wine cellar. The deep canopy of trees in this lush part of Napa Valley provided a comforting gauzy light from too early a jump on the day ahead.
But we had a mountain of prep to do. In retrospect I had no idea just how much work the Soy Council gig entailed when I signed us up. But there was no turning back and I had an amazing team with Janet and our Norman’s Orlando Chef de Cuisine, Joseph Burnett. With his life’s experience as an unwavering vegetarian and fully versed eating all manner of soy we were really as mentally prepared as any client group they could have probably hoped to hire. But the physical part was daunting and the “army of students” proved, thus far, to be more mythic than actual. We had a good one, a real ace actually, named Amy. The lead chefs were incredibly helpful with the shifting needs of the army of workers too.
We had shipped in over 400 pounds of prepared food for the three days of feeding the attendees and doing our cooking demos but we had nearly half that amount waiting for us at the school to process in some form or fashion to complete our dishes.
The setting of the CIA-Greystone “Hot Kitchen” is nearly surreal when its in full on cooking mode like this. I asked one of the Chef-Instructors how many folks he estimated being in the room and working on the nearly 25 cooking “suites” and he ventured 200. We guarded our assigned area as best we could but it was a battle all the way. We hadn’t realized that we were situated next to an extremely popular “Rational” brand oven that cooks from all over the vast kitchen seem to desire. Everyone was intent on having their food be tasty and beautiful and there were only so many sinks, ovens, cutting boards, trash cans and cooler space. We fought for ours using bowls and knives for place savers when we needed to.
When I had a few moments of waiting for an ingredient or a stove or water to boil I took my opportunity and went out to see what my fellow chefs were up to. The CIA has changed with the American populace. The Latin and Asians were cooking in larger numbers than ever. Even though the theme of World of Flavors is “Street Foods” this year the shift from more European to less is a constant now and not solely due to the main topic of the conference. The mood in the room is festive and the smell is rich in spices and chilies that these walls didn’t know when we first started coming here years ago.
Bahian Chefs were cooking Vatapá with dried shrimp, coconut milk and big “shakes” of dende oil. When I inquired we spoke though the mediums of pointing, tasting and miming until a bilingual chef interceded and speeded up our mutual thirst for more knowledge. They were proud of their food and happy to share their passion and traditions. I was happy to be around people that care about deep, powerful, magical flavors as much as I do. Almir is a CIA chef from Brazil I had met in San Antonion. He dipped a tiny plastic “tasting spoon” in a small pot of a red hue and handed it to me. I stuck in my mouth and he then said, “Malagueta peppers give it the heat”. I was rocked momentarily by the chilies. “No kidding, they do!” But the fire gave way to much more complexity and when I factored it in as an accent sauce to the I knew how brilliant it would be. I wanted a kilo to take home.
Mexican chefs were dipping tortillas by hand in to a sizzling pot of oil enriched with an infusion of chorizo sausage and making bean stuffed tacos and folding them neatly and placing them in round wooden baskets to keep them warm. One chef explained that back home vendors would sell these from the back of bicycles. I was ready to be there with my pesos and beer.
All around the room people from Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and the Americas were working to make beautiful food. It was hard work but I would not wish to be anywhere else. Even though the beauty of Napa Valley was right outside the doors of this extraordinary school I wished only that I could be in more places at once and learning from all of these chefs from around the world. I wished I could speak every language needed.