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Food+Tech Conference, Roger Smith Hotel Overview

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This is the final day of the 2014 Food Tech Conference.

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The “thinking person’s” conference – this annual food-focused confab leans more to the cerebral and entrepreneurial than the usual choreography of: keynote, talk. Talk, break, talk, talk – that punctuates the typical conference dance card.

Here the agenda is driven by the participants who submit papers that result in topics and speakers that offer a compelling, and most reliably, an eclectic smorgasbord of thought-provoking themes that one most likely never even thought about before.

The schedule’s workshops and panels are full of ideas.

So too the mash-ups that bring together unlikely partners that in the end are head-smacking genius.

Progress and Propaganda, The Many Conundrum of Raw and Pasteurized Milk, Industrial Farming GMOs and Genetics and other Tricks of the Trade offer the kind of insight, education and exploration that scholars and enthusiasts can only dream of.

The Food Tech Conference presents subjects and platforms that thought-leaders in the business will migrate to and be talking about in years to come…

Panels

This mornings headline panel, no doubt, is Modernist Cuisine, A Dialogue because James Beard award-winner and celebrity chef Wylie Dufresne is part of the panel.

However, make no mistake that fellow panelists are up to his measure. In fact, this Examiner ‘s tablemate at Thursday’s Workshop on Reading Cookbooks for Technology was Larissa Zhou.

In for the conference from Portland, Zhou is a research scientist with Modernist Cuisine. Yes, Nathan Myhrvold’s book publishing company and another James Beard award winner and principal author of Modernist Cuisine.

Zhou studied physics, and then combined that with her love of food to pursue a career in molecular gastronomy. She said that Modernist Cuisine set out to document this movement and to teach how to cook with new “gadgets” or tools along with the underlying science behind cooking.

“Think of the pressure cooker or braising and not just the oral tradition of food,” Zhou explained. “Science can enhance cooking,” she stated.

The Modernist Cuisine panel is billed as “a rare opportunity to hear from one of the foremost practitioners of Modernist Cuisine, as well as scholars who have thought deeply about the cultural interrelationships between cuisine, gastronomy, science, and innovation.”

The Workshops and Panels are offered concurrently. One can choose to attend a single presentation and discussion in its entirety or move from forum to forum to gain a broader integration, as this Examiner did in order to gain a wider perspective.

Attendees are culinary enthusiasts, professionals, corporate executives, scholars, media, university educators, authors and writers, entrepreneurs, farmers and horticulturists, and all are experts in their field, as are the presenters. Everyone is curious and eager to learn and to support the other doers and makers at the conference.

Yesterday’s standout panels included Tweaking Sensory Profiles chaired by The New School’s Fabio Parasecoli that provided a palette of flavor industry professionals including Flavor Chemists and Florists create. Did you know that most people can readily identify a created strawberry flavor more readily than a real strawberry? Or that our tastes have been “manipulated” or altered in such a way that the banana and vanilla flavors are preferable to the banana and vanilla bean itself. The widely popular “Fantasy Flavor,” strawberry-kiwi creation, was cited as a “flavor sensation.” While “Flavor Chemists” may not have achieved the same status as their fragrance or perfume counterparts, they consider themselves a kind of artist.

Flavor must always be considered in context with culture, color, aroma, taste, texture and intensity, according to the panelists. They argue there is no right or wrong food or flavor when it comes to food creation. Utilizing the science behind food, the lines get blurred when cultural distinctions are taken into account.

The tongue in cheek but very serious foray into making a high fructose DIY kit by a university student, Maya Weinstein, is her modest proposal to create “Citizen Food Science” -- a very ambitious goal where anyone can make and share corporate food products at home.

Her theory is that the mere act of making these recipes – her next DIY kits will take on Red Dye #40, MSG, bleached white flour – will be disruptive, create more transparency, and break down barriers present in the corporate food world.

High fructose corn syrup cannot be purchased off the shelf, yet it is in virtually millions of products.

The DIY high fructose corn syrup making kit was packaged in a school lunch box with the recipe, a USB drive with a video tutorial and the ingredients including glucose isomerose, Xylose, alpha amylose, and sulfuric acid, rubber gloves, cheese cloth, presented as a charming poke at corporate food and its inexplicable need for secrecy that only insures the population that they have something to hide. (http://diyhfcs.mayaweinstein.com)

While food adulteration and food safety may have driven much of the chemical recipes, one can’t dismiss corporate greed as an enduring rationale for lack of transparency or change…

The Urban Farms panel offered energetic, practical solutions for growing food in cities from a global and local point of view. Dickson Despommier, ecologist and emeritus professor of Environmental Health at Columbia University and Visionary author of The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, showed vertical edible gardens and rooftop farms in places as varied as Detroit, Scranton and Memphis. The common thread is the urban farms are created by and large in former industrial buildings and factories.

“Roof to table” chef John Mooney, Book, Bell & Candle (http://bbandcnyc.com) was ill (maybe too much stress opening his second restaurant, DC’s Bidwell – named for a an Army general who was a California farmer in the 1800’s) and unable to attend but his fellow panelists presented a snapshot of his work, including his 15 minutes from harvest to table using his rooftop farm. Mooney has been recognized for his pursuit of sustainability as much as his cuisine.

Marc Oshima, AeroFarms, patiently promoted his company’s holistic solution. Using recycled plastic as “soil” and LED lights AeroFarms (www.aerofarms.com) grows greens and herbs without sun or soil. Their urban farms are located on rooftops and in formerly blighted buildings in underserved areas, including a 70 thousand square foot facility in Newark, NJ, that boosts the local economy as much as area chef’s local food source. Oshima claims New York chefs from Batali to Daniel have sampled and approved of Aero’s greens. While the debate centered on taste, one is inclined to suggest the two panelists pivot and showcase the economic and inevitable value inherent in vertical hydroponic farming instead. Despommier admitted terroir is something else altogether…

The vertical hydroponic farms were downright quaint when compared to the Terra Farming in space as presented at the panel: The Future is Now: The Brave New Worlds of 3-D Printing Outer Space and Non-Thermal Technologies. The forecasts for farming is space took on a rather vertical or layered terraced slant too. But here the panelists talked about removing the “smelly and messy part of agriculture” and put them in space station “rings” or cylinders. These spherical-shaped environments would serve as colonies for earth, exporting back the food or minerals grown there.

While life on other planets might be underground due to solar flares or lack of oxygen, the Biosphere2 in Arizona served as an example of how humans might live in a climate changed Earth and beyond.

Some of the panels and the discussions were fun as much as they are enlightening.

The Technology of Cake and Cooking on Air: The Impact of Radio and TV Cooking Programs, 1920’s-1960s were case in point that had the audience laughing and gasping. One attendee was so excited she jumped up to share a malapropism from the Joy of Cooking: where author Marion Rombauer wrote that she offered her husband an “ultimatum!”

The Radio Homemakers of the Golden Age of Radio were the food bloggers of their day, it seems to this Examiner, dispensing cooking tips and ingredients advice. The “living trademark,” Betty Crocker dished on global topics -- problems in Cuban as it relates to sugar and chocolate in New Guinea issues -- to cooking suggestions for a busy homemaker with recipes designed to use the company’s products of course. Talk about social media metrics – Betty received 80 thousand letters a day at the peak of her radio popularity. That’s snail mail, not email!

Each and every panel offers a rich platform for learning, exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking. And the networking, narrow hallways and slow elevators lend themselves to lively discussion and networking.

More to follow.

www.thefoodconference.com

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