A Trip to Japan at Napa CIA Worlds of Flavor

December 7th, 2010 · 11 Comments · Events


Last month I was lucky enough to attend the annual Worlds of Flavor Conference up at the CIA in Napa. This annual conference is one of the best professional forums on flavor trends, and has also been described to me as, "the best food you'll eat all year." Every year a different, current trend in world cuisine is selected, and chefs and other experts from around the world are flown in to present their techniques and philosophies; topics in the last few years have ranged from Spain to the Mediterranean to street food. This year the theme was Japan, one of my very favorite cuisines (as I'm sure it is for most of the Bay Area), so I was thrilled to go.

Above, the sprawling, handsome CIA complex. It was a particularly lovely weekend to be in Napa: the rolling vine-covered hills looked especially picturesque in the golden autumn sun, and many of the visiting chefs commented on how much they appreciated the terroir of Napa valley.

Note: All photos with the Chinese watermark are mine and copyright Dessert First. All other photos are by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America.


 Over 50 chefs from Japan, ranging from kaiseki masters to tempura specialists, flew in to participate in the conference. A huge number of these chefs are starred Michelin chefs from Tokyo and Kyoto, making this event a real once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of talent. From top left, clockwise, just a few of the chefs: Yoshihiro Takahashi, Yoshihiro Murata, Masahiro Kurisu, and Hiro Sone.


Japan is famed for its gorgeous, refined aesthetic, and its food is no exception. There's not much that needs to be said here, as the presentation says it all. Many of the demonstrations highlighted the importance of presentation in Japanese cuisine, how the selection and placement of the various components is as important as the taste of the final dish. Japan is such a visual culture.


Steady, unerring precision. I found it interesting that many "modern" food concepts here, such as using local, seasonal products and simple preparations, have been part of Japanese cuisine for decades. Although a small country, Japan boasts thousands of microregions that have their own climate and local edibles, and every region has its own specialties. You can only find some ingredients in certain areas – and only at certain times of year. In Japan, seasonality is practically built into the cuisine, and has never been discarded. Fascinating that in the US we lost this sensibility and are just now regaining it.


The list of guest speakers was equally impressive. From top left, clockwise: Harold McGee, Ruth Reichl, Thomas Keller, Elizabeth Andoh.

A surprise cameo from Iron Chef Sakai! Although he was not there to cook, chef Sakai nevertheless turned heads wherever he went and cheerfully posed for photographs with starstruck culinary students.

Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who clearly hasn't lost any of his flair for the dramatic from his Iron Chef days: he brought a smoker carved out of ice on stage (I think he was just showing off; I'm pretty sure this isn't found in his restaurant kitchens).


More food porn. Most of these dishes were prepared before our eyes on the demonstration stage – truly mesmerizing art. Many of the dishes shown here are prepared kaiseki style – kaiseki is the Japanese version of haute cuisine, the ultimate in showcasing ingredients of the season. Every element of the dish, from the garnish to the serving platter, are all chosen to convey a certain message  – the beginning of fall, for example, or the harvest moon. It's like eating poetry.

Chef Yatsunori Yashima, famous yakitori master and owner of three yakitori restaurants inTokyo and Fukuoka, demonstrating the cooking technique over bincho-tan, or charcoal. You must fan the meat constantly to keep the heat high and cook the meat evenly. As his fan stayed a constant blur over the skewers, chef mentioned that the temperature could reach up to 900 degrees. We ate some really good yakitori for lunch that day.


I have to mention, that of all the sessions I saw during the conference, the one standout that blew everyone away was a soba-making demonstration by Yoshinori Horii, an eighth-generation soba maker from Tokyo. I wish there were a video I could put up, because watching him turn flour and water into a perfect dough was like watching a dance – effortlessly graceful.


The speed with which he rolled and stretched out the dough into a flawless sheet, and then folded and cut it into noodles, was spellbinding. The only demo that received a standing ovation. For anyone who's ever made pasta, or any pastry dough, it was so amazing to watch a master in action.


The tasting hall, where all the conference attendees congregated at dinner to taste dishes prepared by the visiting chefs. Obviously everyone was looking forward to this! Listing all the wonderful things I tasted would take another post in itself – just look at the food porn photos at the top of this one for an idea!
We also were served lunch from the chefs as well: I had more finely prepared sushi, meat, and noodles than I'd probably eaten in the last couple of months. Unexpectedly, I ate more pork belly in those two days than the entire rest of the year. One standout pork belly dish: Chef Ivan Orkin's ago dashi shoyu ramen. So. Good.


Chefs and culinary students of the CIA helping out during the lunch and dinner hours.
The CIA looks like a really fab place to learn how to cook!

So obviously I could go on and on about all the fabulous sushi and ramen, etc, but since this is a pastry blog (no booing, please!) I'll wrap up with a summary of the two pastry-oriented sessions I attended. Three pastry chefs from Japan, along with three American pastry chefs, demonstrated classic Japanese desserts as well as Western takes on Japanese flavors.


Chef Mitsuharu Kurokawa was one of the visiting pastry chefs and another person I was extremely impressed with. He is an eighteenth-generation confectionery maker and his family owns Toraya Confectionery, one of the oldest confection makers in Japan. Kurokawa heads up the Japanese branch of this shop in Paris. Not only was he extraordinarily skilled, but he also spoke English, and as the other two pastry chefs from Japan did not speak English, he also acted as their interpreter, describing their techniques as they demonstrated their craft. A very humble and talented young man.


This is one example of what Chef Kurokawa's family company makes: oshimono, or sugar colored and pressed into wooden molds to form intricately detailed candies. A mixture of sugar, potato starch, and mochi powder is combined with a little water and the combination quickly pressed into a mold before it dries. You must work quickly to pack in the sugar evenly. Otherwise, it'll fall apart when you unmold it.

Chef Akihiko Saka is the Japanese equivalent of a pastry career changer: he worked for a mayonnaise company for years before deciding he wanted to go into confectionery. Today he owns his own pastry shop in Tokyo. Here he is shaping his own version of mochi into seasonal forms.

Here, Saka's creations: a cherry blossom for spring, a peach for summer, a chrysanthemum for fall, and a santa hat for winter. Japanese sweets, or wagashi, are strongly tied to the passing of the seasons, and different flavors and shapes of these sweets appear at different times of the year. The skill required to make these is impressive – Chef Saka made these in minutes, and Chef Durfee mentioned that he had trouble forming a chestnut, supposedly the simplest of shapes to make.


Chef Hirofumi Ohta, a second generation confectionery chef, works on carving his nerikiri, soft mochi-like sweets made of a sweet dough covering a red bean filling, into delicate flowers. You can see chefs Bill Yosses and Stephen Durfee watching from behind.

Ohta's chrysanthemums. The roses in the background are made from long ribbons of the same dough.


Local pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner also participated in the pastry workshop. Falkner has long been a champion for molecular gastromony and unusual flavors, so not surprising that her dessert, a sundae of red bean and genmaicha ice creams, yuzu fudge and soy caramel sauces, and frozen red bean "rain" was a perfect encapsulation of Japanese flavors meet American pastry.


Chef Durfee of the CIA did his own tribute to Japanese pastry with a melon parfait: a melon formed out of melon puree to echo the Japanese tradition of modeling sweets in the forms of fruits and flowers; atop an almond cake with royal icing cookie with melon balls.


All in all, these were three of the best food days I've enjoyed all year and I'm humbled by the opportunity to have seen so many masters of the craft up close and in action. And itching to get over to Japan so I can have some more of their food. I'll end with a recipe for passionfruit mochi, by pastry chef Bill Yosses – just a tiny little taste of Japan.

Passionfruit Mochi

adapted from recipe by Bill Yosses

340 Mochiko sweet rice flour

400 Passion fruit puree

320 grams sugar

40 grams glucose or corn syrup

Adzuki (red bean) filling


Combine all ingredients together in a microwaveable bowl.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for about 5 to 6 minutes.

Scrape mochi onto a cutting board dusted with cornstarch.

DIvide into about 32 pieces. Roll each piece flat. Use a cookie cutter to cut round discs from each piece.

Place a small scoop of adzuki bean filling in the center of each disc. Pull dough around the filling and pinch to seal, forming a ball.

Freeze until ready to serve.


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{SF} A Foodie Weekend in Three Acts

October 14th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Events, San Francisco, SF Events

Act I. “Pour Yourself a Stiff Drink, There’s a Lot More to Come.”

The kickoff party for Scharffen Berger’s annual Chocolate Adventure Contest has become an Orson tradition. Exotic drinks, whimsical nibbles, and a whole lot of chocolate cupcakes. The theme this year for the Chocolate Adventure Contest is cupcakes – devise a cupcake made with one or as many of the 14 “adventure ingredients”, including beets, adzuki beans, stout beer, and bee pollen. Elizabeth Falkner, one of the judges, led the way with a bartop full of cupcakes.



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{SF} A Soy and Chocolate Pairing with Michael Recchiuti

September 9th, 2010 · 18 Comments · Events, San Francisco, SF Events, Sweet Spots


A week ago I got the opportunity to attend a most intriguing presentation and I'm eager to share the experience with you! The event was a Soy and Chocolate pairing, part of Michael Recchiuti's Taste Project where he combines his renowned chocolate with another unexpected ingredient, such as cheese, beer, or salt. As Michael explained to us, he loves learning about other food artisans and he enjoys the challenge of turning his master chocolatier's skills to a new and unknown product.

His latest discovery was Hodo Soy Beanery, an Oakland-based company dedicated to making fresh tofu. This tofu is completely different from the chalky white slabs you see in stores – its shelf life is only days long, and it tastes astonishingly rich and fresh. I've grown up eating tofu, but even I was surprised at how much of a difference there was in the flavor of fresh tofu, and how little I actually knew about the making of tofu! The founder of Hodo Soy, Minh Tsai, was also on hand at the the tasting to talk about his product.

We arrived at the Recchiuti kitchens in San Francisco to a candlelit table scattered with soybeans – elegant but whimsical, the tone of the whole event. As the guests chatted, a steady drumming we initially took to be background music grew louder and louder until we realized it was live drumming – by Michael! Michael Recchiuti is a drummer! With a guitarist husband and drummer brother-in-law, I could totally appreciate this!

I think everyone at the tasting was curious to see what Michael and Minh would do with soy and chocolate. Tofu is not an easy product to pair with chocolate, because of its high water content. Tofu will shed water as you work with it, and of course water is the natural enemy of chocolate. Michael admitted he did a lot of experimenting to discover how best to use all of Hodo Soy's soy products – tofu, soy milk, and even the rarer side products like okara and yuba (which I'll discuss below). The following is the tasting menu we experienced that day:


Soy beans given the Michael Recchiuti treatment: lightly caramelized, then dusted with wasabi and matcha. Devilishly poppable.


This was my favorite of the tasting: a custard made with soy milk, topped with a financier and fresh cherries. The financier was actually created with a "flour" of the dried pulp from pureed soybeans, called okara. It had a nutty flavor and lovely pillowy texture – all in all a really tasty combination. The custard was so silky too – reminded me a little of Japanese chawanmushi.


This appears to be a shot glass of chocolate milk, but in fact is a more complicated concoction – a mixture of hot soy milk and chilled chocolate milk swirled with caramel. The soy milk was poured over the chocolate milk right before it was served to us, resulting in an interesting ever-evolving layering of flavors. Very fun.


We then got to visit the room where Michael's chocolates are created. The majority of the space is occupied by the enrobing machine: you can see Michael and the rest of us gathered around it and a portion of the conveyor belt. A veritable yellow brick road, upon which chocolates travel, to be covered in chocolate and blow-dried to a perfect shiny finish.


Squares of tofu topped with a marzipan made from okara (who knew it was so versatile?) and ground almonds, ready to be enrobed. I think this is so emblematic of Michael's approach: he doesn't just dip tofu in chocolate, he thought of a multi-component concept that used several soy products. The soft, mild tofu against the richer, denser marizpan. Reminiscent of the chocolates with pate de fruit on top of ganache – a nice play of textures and flavors.


The tofu squares, now covered in dark chocolate and topped with a nougatine disk. Gilding the lily indeed.


This is Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy Beanery, talking about the process of making tofu. He then proceeded to demonstrate how to make tofu, an eye opening process that took just minutes.

He combined a coagulant (calcium sulfate) with water and then carefully poured hot soymilk over the mix. Tsai likened the process to pouring tea – you need to pour the milk from the proper height so the force of the milk hitting the water will properly disperse the coagulant.


The mixture is stirred for a while until it begins to clump up.


The mixture is poured into a box lined with cheesecloth and covered. Then Minh pressed down on top to push out the excess water and get the tofu to consolidate. Here's the excess water coming out of the box.


In a few more minutes, a b lock of still-warm, very fresh tofu is unwrapped from the cheesecloth. Minh cut it up and we all got to have a piece – an experience very similar to eating freshly made mozzarella. I had never seen tofu made before so this was a really fascinating demonstration.


Back in the dining room, Michael enlisted the help of pastry chef William Werner to make his next dish, a take on crepes Suzette with sheets of yuba standing in for the crepes. Yuba, or tofu skin, is a soft, pliable skin that forms on top of steaming soymilk – I know it may sound strange to the Western palate but it's a delicacy – soft and richly creamy. It can be eaten fresh, as is, or cooked – often it's used as a meat substitute just like regular tofu. 


Here is the yuba "crepe" wrapped around late summer peaches with a scoop of soy milk ice cream – yum! MIchael admitted this was one of his favorite dishes of the day.


I guess this tasting truly had a "Dessert First" philosophy since the savory course was served last! I really loved it though – a slice of fresh Purple Cherokee tomato topped with some silken tofu and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with cacao nibs. Very fresh and summery.

We were also sent home with some of Michael Recchiuti's burnt caramel hazelnuts and Hodo Soy's tofu as treats; so generous!

It was a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable afternoon. I just really loved being able to hear two food enthusiasts talk about the passions that move them  – the depth of their dedication and mastery of their craft was evident in every bite we took of their creations. My next post will be about my visit to the Hodo Soy Beanery, so I want to mention how amazing I think Michael Recchiuti is for creating these Taste Projects; they are truly wonderful experiences. If you get a chance to attend one, I highly recommend it – Michael is a great guy with so much knowledge to share. Another reason to go is that all of these dishes are one-offs for the tasting and you can't get them at his retail store – although I'm hoping for a reappearance of those wasabi-and-matcha soybeans in the future!

If you're looking to try some of Michael's Recchiuti's chocolates, I highly recommend anything with burnt caramel – one of his signature flavors, or one his takes on classic favorites, like his whoopie pies or peanut butter pucks. San Francisco is a great place for the chocolate lover!

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{SF} Sweet Things from the San Francisco Street Food Fest

August 23rd, 2010 · No Comments · Events, San Francisco, Sweet Spots, Sweet Spots


Peach Basil Madeleines from Knead Bakery

Knead Bakery at Local Mission Eatery

3111 24th St
San Francisco, CA 94110


Gobs (Whoopie Pies) from Gobba Gobba Hey


Lemon Cookie Ice Cream and Roasted Peach Ice Cream from Three Twins

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Food and Light: Best Workshop Ever

July 2nd, 2010 · 21 Comments · Events, Photography, Travel


I've been playing hooky from work and blogging the last few days to enjoy bucketfuls of sunshine, outrageously good food, and the company of some of the most talented bloggers around.

The Food and Light Photography Workshop, organized by Jen of use real butter in collaboration with Helen of Tartelette and Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple, was hands down the best photography workshop I went to. It really didn't feel like class…more like summer vacation with some great friends.

Although food bloggers are a wonderfully friendly and giving lot, Jen, Helen, Todd, and Diane stand head and shoulders above the rest. I have never met more generous people, so ready to share their knowledge and experience with others. And they are also FUN…see the dinner Jen threw for several of us out-of-town bloggers the night before the workshop (Yes, the workshop also sort of felt like a overachievers' convention).

When I talked to Jen about the workshop, she told me that her goal was to create a class that offered more than the average photography class: a class that gave real, practical advice to photographers on how to take photos, and would give them the tools to let them continue improving their skills on their own after the class.

I think she and the other instructors succeeded fabulously; from the moment the workshop started we could tell how much preparation had gone into organizing everything, and how passionate the instructors were about photography and food. We had lectures that covered the gamut of concerns that many a food blogger has: photography basics, equipment, lighting, and styling.

The lectures were broken up by hands on sessions where we could practice shooting different food items, implementing things we had just learned, and getting instant feedback from the instructors. I really thought this was what set this workshop apart and made it so useful and rewarding. There's no substitute for learning by doing, and having an experienced professional to give you a personal critique was pretty much worth the value of the workshop. I know all the participants appreciated that all four of the instructors were willing to open themselves up and answer endless barrages of questions!

Below, a few shots I took during class. The rest of the class shots are at this flickr group  – you can see how quickly people starting picking tips and tricks from class!





Finally, all the workshop participants were asked to submit their favorite images taken during class to be judged by their fellow classmates and the instructors. We were asked to vote for images in categories such as Best Overall, Most Improved, and Most Original. I'm so thrilled that the class chose this image I shot below as Best Styling :


I call it Little Red Corvette. Thanks again to Jen et al. for awarding prizes and swag bags to the participants – I have never been to a workshop where you got so much free stuff!

Thanks again to Jen, Helen, Diane, and Todd for such a great experience. And another thank you to Lisa, who kindly let me stay with her at her family friend's home and was a blast as a traveling companion. Couldn't think of a better way to start off the summer!

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{SF} Taste of the Nation – The Best from SF's Chefs

May 13th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Events, San Francisco


Organizing the the San Francisco Food Bloggers' Bake Sale was not only hugely fun, but also made me (and all the other participants) feel good about helping out Share our Strength. I was further impressed by the breadth of Share Our Strength's fundraising efforts when I learned they also organize a series of culinary benefits around the country called Taste of the Nation.

In about 40 cities around the US and Canada, Taste of the Nation pulls together chefs, wine professionals, and other sponsors to put on a night of mouthwatering food, creative cocktails, music, and fun. All the proceeds from ticket sales go to Share Our Strength, just as with the bake sale.


I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to attend Taste of the Nation San Francisco a couple weeks ago courtesy of Foodbuzz, and I was able to give away an extra ticket to one lucky reader, Allison, who seemed to be enjoying the party as much as I was when I saw her! Taste of the Nation San Francisco took place in AT&T Park, our city's beautiful modern baseball stadium. The club level of the stadium had been transformed into a hall of delights, with chefs from San Francisco's restaurants offering up scrumptious little tidbits and mixologists pouring out some crazy libations! It was like a big, all-you-can-eat buffet dressed up as a an elegant cocktail party – with a thumpin, funk-and-disco tinged soundtrack to book (the fiance wanted me to make sure I gave props to the excellent DJ).


Calabrian salame crostino by barbacco.

I've been on a bit of a food-event bender lately, as I'm sure some of you have noticed, and in my stuffed-full-belly's opinion, Taste of the Nation was a real winner. I may be a little biased since SF is my hometown, but I thought the creativity and artistry displayed by so many local chefs just as, if not even better, than what I saw at bigger events like Pebble Beach, which showcased celebrity chefs from around the country. San Franciscans are fiercely proud of their food culture, and justifiably so after what I tasted that night.

The best part of the having local chefs as well is that if you love their food, their restaurant is right in town so there's no excuse not to have more of it! The fiance and I were able to get little tastes of some of our favorite restaurants we've been to and ones we've been meaning to go to. All the chefs were also very friendly and enthusiastic – definitely prepared for a food-savvy audience and eager to bring new customers to their places.


Smuggler's Cove, a bar in SF which resembles a cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and a mai tai lounge, was serving up some of their signature rum-based drinks.

Some of the most memorable dishes for me included: Paragon Restaurant's smoked cod and corn chowder (the portions at this event were quite generous; I could have filled up on this gloriously thick chowder alone!); Slow Club's duck rillettes with red onion and kumquat marmalades (now on the top of my list of restaurants to go to);  Aziza's chicken liver mousse topped with strawberries and balsamic (decadence perfectly executed); and Piperade's egg salad with marinated sardines (so fresh and flavorful).


Duck rillettes from Slow Club.

This shot of marinated sardines on chopped egg salad is a little out of focus because I was drooling too much to keep a steady hand on the camera.

Of course I also had to check out the sweet offerings, which didn't disappoint: a shot of Valrhona chocolate pot de creme bliss, topped with a pistachio macaron, from Mayfield Bakery; cute little mini cones of pomegranate martini sorbet and creamsicle martini ice cream from Silver Moon (they were auctioning off a chance to create your own custom ice cream flavor at the event!); and Elizabeth Faulkner's rainbow of macarons, in raspberry, dulce du leche, and blood orange.


Chocolate pots de creme with pistachio macarons from Mayfield Bakery.

The Taste of the Nation event was three hours long – seems like plenty of time to pace oneself but due to all the food being so tasty and the portion size so generous I felt like I would burst! Fortunately we were able to slip outside, relax for a bit, and sip a beer underneath the stars, enjoying the cool San Francisco air and the slightly clandestine thrill of being in a mostly-empty ballpark.

Elizabeth Faulkner's crayon-bright macarons.

If it wouldn't have been the most gauche thing ever I would have totally brought some takeout containers and taken away some of the leftovers for later! However the event appeared to be a rousing success as several chefs ran out of food and shut down their stations before official closing time! I thought this was one of the best-run events I 9;d been to in a while – plenty of happy, well-dressed people but not overcrowded; beautifully crafted food and the chance to learn more about many of the stars of the SF dining scene, and the knowledge that everyone there was contributing to the same cause. I had a great time if Taste of the Nation comes around to your part of town, I think you'd have a fab time as well! See Taste of the Nation page for more information, and note you can also sign up to volunteer at the events!

Disclosure: I was given two tickets from Foodbuzz to attend Taste of the Nation San Francisco.

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