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Cracking Nuts and Cloned Meat: Food + Tech at the Roger Smith Conference

Meryle Evans - April 17th, 2014

Eons ago, flint knives were the cutting edge of technology; same for baking powder in the 19th century; and, onward, margarine to molecular gastronomy. “Food + Tech: An Exploration of Our Ambiguous Love, Hate, and Fear of Food Technologies,” the provocative theme of this April’s Roger Smith Conference on Food, provided a broad perspective on myriad aspects of the interactions of technology, culture, and what we eat.

Organized by author/culinary historian Andrew F. Smith and a coterie of eminent colleagues, the conference drew 250 scholars, chefs, food writers, and gastronomic aficionados to Manhattan’s Roger Smith Hotel for three days of workshops, demonstrations, and panel discussions, punctuated by frequent breaks for convivial food-and-drink fueled conversations. With “Food Technologies” broadly defined as any imaginable means of using and manipulating foods, subjects ranged from agriculture to apps, artisanal production to factory-scale manufacturing, traditional cookbooks to free recipes on the Web, fermentation to synthetic substitute foods.

Presenters from as afar afield as Australia and Turkey pondered the influences of time-keeping devices on the way we cook; the evolving technologies of traditional dishes at the crossroads of the East and West, and how flour milling, refined sugar, and chemical leavening created American cakes. On a panel exploring foods that have been created to “substitute for the real thing for reasons of health, religious scruple, or shortage,” chef/writer/restaurant consultant Kian Lam Kho observed that tofu, and tempeh, important components in a Buddhist vegetarian diet, are “engineered” in complex ways, turning soybeans into a totally new substance and texture—not completely unlike what Ferran Adrià has done.

At another session, the metamorphosis of an ancient central Asian dough from humble nomadic flatbread to the shatteringly delicate pastry, baklava, featured a hands-on demonstration by celebrated pastry chef Nick Malgieri, who deftly rolled out the paper-thin dough, a technique he had mastered during a visit to Turkey. There were debates, pro and con, on GMOs; a discussion on the challenges of integrating kosher food production with modern technology; and reports on the success of urban farms, including an experiment with growing rice on New York City’s Randall Island.

Chef Wylie Dufresne, of Manhattan’s WD~50 and Alder, and a leader of the generation of chefs using sophisticated science to enhance culinary technique, discussed modernist cuisine, observing that his restaurant is a place where chefs and diners continue their culinary education. “There are endless things we can learn about why we cook things the way we do, and how to alter that in creative ways,” he explained. “We’re chipping away at our ignorance, but there will always be more to learn about what’s happening when we cook our food.”

That message was a constant refrain throughout the conference. Many of the sessions were recorded and are available online at TheFoodConference.com.