City's chefs preparing for professional palate

Convention: A gathering of 1,400 gourmets challenges Baltimore's best culinary talents.

April 20, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Even for the seasoned chef accustomed to pressure, the bare facts might be daunting: an international crowd of 1,400 converging on the Baltimore Convention Center, many knowing a cremini from a chanterelle, others who have seen their share of gaufrettes. In sum: The foodies are coming, the foodies are coming.

Starting with a few culinary tours today and continuing through Saturday night, the International Association of Culinary Professionals holds its annual conference here, meaning an army of gourmets will sip and chomp its way through Baltimore's best offerings.

With a guest list including such luminaries as chefs Jacques Pepin, Anthony Bourdain and Bobby Flay, a playoff atmosphere prevails among Baltimore's toque blanche set.

"These are food people; they know exactly what they want," says Majid Ftouh, executive chef at the Baltimore Convention Center. He'll be in charge of not only lunches, breakfasts and a few food breaks in between workshops, seminars and speeches, but also a three-course dinner Saturday night for the entire assembly.

Sure, he has done a sit-down dinner for 5,000 people, but that was the Rite Aid convention. With all due respect to the retail pharmacy industry, the IACP conference is something else. These are the sort of folks who might argue the merits of Chianti vs. Lambrusco as the right wine for braising beef cheeks.

Ftouh commands a staff of 30 in a kitchen about the size of a couple of tennis courts. For the big Saturday night meal, they'll be preparing a menu compiled by a team of Maryland chefs, somehow combining gourmet delicacy with assembly line efficiency in turning out mass quantities of grilled bacon-wrapped duck breast with sweet potato gaufrette.

A gaufrette, incidentally, is a potato concoction served thin as a wafer, shaped in a lattice.

Ftouh says the eight chefs started working on the menu about a month ago, a negotiation that at times might have seemed to involve a few too many cooks and more than enough egos.

"We tried to please everybody by including their ideas," says Ftouh. He says the plan was to present typically Maryland ingredients in atypical ways. The Maryland wild mushrooms, for instance, will be made into black and orange ravioli and served with a jade sauce made with cilantro, scallion, spinach and other seasonings.

A number of restaurants that will entertain conference tour groups this week have created new menus featuring several small plates, the better to show off as many dishes as possible.

Among those are Kali's Court and Mezze, adjoining restaurants in Fells Point. The executive chef for both, Chris Paternotte, says this week "reminds me of being in school where you wanted everything to be perfect for the chefs. ... I don't want to say I'm nervous or anything like that, but there is a sense of urgency to make everything absolutely perfect."

Paternotte's offerings for a Thursday group include a cumin shrimp with yogurt pesto, a salad of duck confit and seared lamb chop with artichoke puree.

"There's a great deal of pressure to perform," says Diane Neas, a Baltimore restaurant consultant. "This is one shot, you can't miss."

On the other hand, says Barry Rumsey, chef and co-owner of Bicycle, a restaurant in South Baltimore, "it's always fun to feed foodies. They're your toughest audience. They're your most appreciative audience."

Rumsey will have an audience of 50 for lunch today as part of a daylong tour stopping at the former Domino Sugar factory and McCormick & Co. spice plant.

Working with McCormick on the seasonings array, Rumsey was planning a menu of small plates including fried oyster salad with chipotle vinaigrette, tuna and avocado tartare, beggars purses stuffed with sea scallops marinated in citrus and habanero peppers.

The organization is considered a big deal in the industry, claiming nearly 4,000 members in 35 countries and some of the most significant names in the business. There are chefs, of course, but the nonprofit association also counts among its members people in advertising, marketing and public relations, book and magazine publishing and cooking instruction.

This is the group's 26th annual conference and its first in Baltimore. As a port city, Baltimore seemed "particularly apt" as host city, says IACP president Martha Johnston, given the conference theme of "Culinary Trade Winds."

Along with sessions on obesity, humor in food writing, new Scandinavian cooking and Italian peasant food, the conference will give particular emphasis to how the global economy is affecting food. If seasonings and cooking techniques have been crossing oceans for centuries, the pace and extent of these exchanges has surely stepped up in the past decade, meaning more choices and adventurous flavor combinations.

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