The Center for Food and Hospitality Management hosted the 2018 Philly Chef Conference on March 11 and 12.
Each year at the conference, chefs, foodies and restaurateurs from all over the country gather to attend a series of lectures and demonstrations, as well as to make new connections. The focus is on Philadelphia, and lots of local vendors attend and provide food during day two of the conference. This year, breakfast was provided by La Colombe, Sip-N-Glo, Federal Donuts and others. Lunch was a huge showcase of tasty food, and featured South Philly Barbacoa, Baology, Honeygrow, Mike’s BBQ, Pizza Gutt and Kevin Spraga’s Hot Chicken Sliders from The Fat Ham. The afternoon break was made sweet by appearances from Weckerly’s, Capogiro and Zsa Zsa’s Ice Cream.
Even though the food could stand as the star of the show, that’s far from the truth — the wide variety of food and hospitality management lectures and demonstrations throughout the two day event is what draws such a crowd and so much attention to the Philly Chef Conference each year. This year, there were four lectures on day one, given by June Jo Lee, a food ethnographer; author Ali Bouzari, culinary scientist and co-founder of Pilot R&D and Render; Lara Gilmore, from Food for Soul; and keynote speakers Jen Agg, restaurateur and writer, and Brett Anderson of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
On day two of the conference, there were fourteen kitchen demonstrations, eight educational lectures and seven panel discussions hosted throughout the day. Among the conversations discussed were bread making and tasting, discussions about restaurant critique, panels on creating social change via food, and talks about women in the restaurant industry, including a discussion on battling sexual harassment within the industry.
Two butchering demonstrations were held, one with pork and one with fish, and lots of bread was made and eaten. Brad Kilgore of Alter restaurant wowed the crowd with his application of dessert and pastry techniques to savory dishes, and Helen Johannsen of Helen’s Wines gave a very detailed led tasting of Spanish wines grown with biodynamic viticulture techniques.
“I think it’s really important that people start looking at [wines from] Spain in a more serious way. Global warming is really changing a lot of what’s happening in France and it’s really sad. The productions are shrinking and the prices are going up, so it’s really up to the consumer to ask where else are there amazing wines?” Johannsen stated.
Four food critics (Joshua David Stein, Stephen Scatterfield, Priya Krishna and Helen Rosner) led an exciting and participatory panel discussion on the responsibilities of food critics and an interesting discussion was led by Dr. Robert Graham and Matt Jennings, chef, on keeping health and wellness in focus for industry professionals in both healthcare and hospitality.
The panel discussion titled “The Responsibilities of a Food Critic” was heavily attended and incited interactive conversation. Scatterfield was met with applause from the crowd after answering a question from the audience about abusing the power associated with being a food and restaurant critic reviewing restaurants that are recovering from bad press.
“The stakes [for food critics] are not the same as for other forms of journalism, I think we can all agree on that point. … [It’s] problematic to shine a light on people who have piles of smoke billowing around them,” Scatterfield said.
These are only a few highlights of the day — the conference broached these and many more topics over the two-day event. Many attendees come every year and always find that there are more new topics to learn about. Beth Dinice, corporate chef of Heathland Hospitality Group, commented that she has attended the conference every year since its inception, and that she originally found out about it from Mike Traud, the founder, who was previously her intern.
“I love it. I think it’s the best day of the year for Philly chefs,” she said. Her favorite parts of the conference are learning new things and seeing industry professionals she hasn’t seen for a while.
Each year some trends and themes seem to come across at the conference and this year was no different. The attitude towards cuisine from the variety of professionals communicated one overarching concept: food is not simply something we eat or put on a menu. It is something we interact with, which can inspire. The relationship between chef and diner becomes one that is communicated through the love and care put into the food that passes between them. Food can help create community, and should be used as a tool to foster such relationships.
This idea was especially apparent in the panel discussion on Menu Development. Alex Stupak of Empellon talked about his challenges in opening his first restaurant and how he applied what he learned to opening his second.
“You’re servicing a neighborhood. Really take a moment, eat at every restaurant around [your location] that’s been there for a decade or more, and really get into the DNA as to why,” Stupak explained.
He also talked about his process in writing his first cookbook, and the importance of each recipe within. He explained that the writing process started with a description of every recipe before the rest of the book was constructed, to make sure each component of the book had purpose.
“Why are we writing about this, why does this matter? That actually changed me a lot as a chef and a restaurant operator. … If it’s not good enough to be documented, why are you serving it?” he said.
Michael Solomonov of Zahav spoke about the culture of Israeli food, which he serves in his restaurant, and the importance of serving food as it was originally intended by the culture from which it came.
“As we started to get comfortable with what our role was with cooking Israeli cuisine, I realized ‘we can’t have [advanced technologies] here’ – I want charcoal, I want wood, I want a bunch of different spices that nobody can pronounce, I want to represent the hundred different cultures that make up modern-day Israel,” he explained.
Another conversation connecting food and community took place during the panel discussion “The Restaurant as a Catalyst to Social Change.” The panelists included Jen Hidinger of The Giving Kitchen, Lara Gilmore of Food for Soul, and Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti. All three panelists created non-profit kitchen-based missions and came to share their experiences. For example, Mehta runs Graffiti Earth in New York, and talked a bit about the mission behind it.
“It’s all about sustainability. We practice as much as possible empathy with food and culture. We try to source only blemished vegetables, or as we call them, ‘cosmetically challenged’ in New York, because it sounds better. … We try to see how much we can reduce waste,” he explained.
“It’s not just about food, but it’s how you eat, where you eat, what you eat, what plate you eat on – it makes a very big difference in life. How you take a moment, without electronics, to talk to and see someone in the eye, and eat, is very very important.”
In addition to providing educational experiences for all who attend the conference, the event also functions as a great tool for students in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management. Students enrolled in the Introduction to Events class taught by conference vice chair Paul O’Neill helped to prep for the event throughout the term. This hands-on work for such a large event is invaluable for the students involved. Students who attend the event and volunteer their time also get a chance to sit in on some of the talks, network with the industry professionals who present and learn how to manage large conference events. Students were managing several tasks throughout the day including getting food out on tables, keeping coffee pots full, helping with registration and directions, managing the different demonstration and lecture rooms and fielding questions from conference attendees.
Billy Kozero, a sophomore in the Hospitality Management program, was helping manage the “swag bag” table, providing friendly conversation and goodies to all the conference attendees. Kozero was volunteering at the conference and helping to manage the event.
“I love meeting all the different people. We have a lot of different speakers from all over, so it’s definitely an eclectic crowd. So it’s definitely a fun time here,” he stated.
Kozero is also a part of the class that helps to organize the event. “Paul oversees it and obviously does a lot more of the work than we are able to do but we get to see all the behind-the-scenes action.”