RESTAURANTS : A Trip to Camp Foodie, Just for the Fun of It

It was a beautiful fish. Just about the most beautiful I've ever seen, lying so shiny on its bed of ice that you couldn't help wanting to reach out and touch it. "An admirable salmon," said Jon Rowley, taking chef Gilbert LeCoze, owner of what is probably America's most famous fish restaurant, New York's Le Bernardin, off to inspect it. LeCoze lovingly ran his hands along the surface. "Yes," he said.

The next I heard about the fish was at breakfast the next morning. Alice Waters was discussing it with Madeleine Kamman. "I looked at the fish," said Waters. "I was thinking about buying it for the restaurant. I want it, but we don't really need it."

"If it's a white salmon," said Kamman, a woman of decided opinions, "you must buy it."

Imagine spending four days with a group of people who do nothing but talk about food. Constantly. Passionately. Knowledgeably. They sip coffee in the morning and discuss its fine points. They peel a shrimp at lunch, frown and say "cooked last night." They take a sip of wine, swirl it in their mouths and mutter "good wine, but wrong for the dish." They can happily spend 20 minutes debating the question of the greens on their plates: Are they baby garlic shoots or merely infant scallions? Food is the subtext of everything they do--they are a group obsessed.

You have just imagined the conference on gastronomy held last weekend in the Napa Valley. The fate of the fish was just one of the many weighty issues that hung in the balance as the American Institute of Wine and Food gathered for its fifth national conference. It was a sort of summer camp for foodies, and for almost four days close to 100 speakers considered the state of food in America. Between seminars with titles like "The Hispanic Influence on the American Market Basket" and "A Case Study in Regional Producers--Midwest," the 525 participants ate. And ate well--some 45 star chefs came from all around the country to tickle their palates.

The opening night was a tasting of the best foods of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Producers of local foie gras , specialty produce, Napa Valley cheeses, olive oil and breads, wild game and the like teamed up with such chefs as Cynthia Pawlcyn (Mustard's and Fog City), Judy Rodgers (Zuni Cafe), Barbara Tropp (China Moon Cafe), Patricia Untermann (Hayes Street Grill) and Annie Sommerville (Greens) to show off the bounty of the area. Thirty-six wineries poured their wines. It was, by all accounts, a smashing success. One reporter--me--showed up just in time to watch them folding their tents. (How can it possibly take seven hours to fly from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley?) "No problem," said one sympathetic chef, hearing my hungry cries. "I'll be back in my restaurant in half-an-hour. I'll cook something for you."

Despite the fact that the participants had been eating for three hours, ears all around pricked up. A group quickly gathered and trooped off to the beautiful new Tra Vigne in St. Helena, where chef Michael Chiarello regaled us with wonderful little goat-cheese pizzas and fat grilled shrimps and artichokes stuffed with pine nuts. There was pasta of all sorts. Dish after dish came out of the kitchen--it was a perfect way to begin an eating marathon.

The next day there was a fight--a good one--at the seminar on fresh fruits and vegetables. Warren Weber of Star Route Farms (and president of the California Certified Organic Farmers) was extolling the merits of air freight. "We can get anything anywhere in the country the next day," he enthused.

"That's just the problem," countered Rob Johnson, owner of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine. "People no longer eat with the seasons. Everything's the same everywhere you go. It's a shame." Johnson had earlier passed some produce around to the astounded audience. His cabbage was gorgeous, its leaves almost translucent. But that was not what amazed the group. When you picked the vegetable up, you almost fell over. "It's the densest cabbage ever grown," said one man, struggling with a normal-size cabbage that must have weighed close to 20 pounds.

New York produce broker Gary Feldman was not impressed with the argument. "It's fine to talk about seasonal food," he said, "but if you run a fancy restaurant in New York City, it's hard to charge $65 for a prix-fixe meal and offer your guests nothing but cabbage and potatoes in the winter."

In the ensuing argument, someone from the audience leaped up. "I'm a commercial grower," he said, "and we could grow better vegetables than we do. But the fast-food chains take part of the responsibility for what we are producing. They specify that tomatoes be firm and red but they never mention flavor."

In the hallway between seminars, someone is congratulating Evan Goldstein, sommelier at Square One in San Francisco, on recently becoming the youngest American ever to pass England's master sommelier examination.

"It was," he said, "the hardest thing I've ever done. There were written tests, and they gave us six glasses of wine and asked us to identify them by variety, region, vintage and producer. They even wanted us to name the shipper if we could. The test lasted XX hours. Later I found out that I was not only the youngest American (there have been eight) but also the youngest person ever to pass the test."

How did Goldstein do on the blind tests. He shrugged. "I got five out of the six," he said.

When the tickets for the evening's dinners were passed out, there was general pandemonium. Participants had been divided up to be sent off to nine different wineries, each with a different chef in charge. There was general grumbling--nobody was happy with the lot he'd drawn. Grown people were seen to pout about dinner.

I drew the Joseph Phelps Winery, where Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli of Chez Panisse produced a splendid meal that began with white truffle toasts (on which I would happily have made an entire meal), continued with various terrines and salads, a fine autumn fish soup and then homey braised duck with tiny baked turnips and straw potatoes. There were new walnuts and baked cheese, and then warm brioche with warm applesauce. It was the most comforting meal of the conference, but still it was almost midnight when the dinner ended--and we were due at breakfast the next morning at 7:30.

"How was your dinner?" was the major question at the morning meal. Among the chefs cooking dinner the night before had been Madeleine Kamman at Beringer, Jeremiah Tower (Stars) at Meadowwood, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi (The Ballroom) at Sterling, John Ash at his own restaurant in Santa Rosa and John Makin at Far Niente. But the most talked-about meal of the morning was the one cooked by Michael Roberts of L.A.'s Trumps. "It was bold, daring and fabulous," said one food editor. "You'll never guess what he cooked for dessert!"

Roberts, it seems, had stuffed pears with blue cheese and served them in a creme anglaise. "It was the best thing I ever ate!" said the woman.

A group is gossiping on the porch. Like everybody else, they are whispering over two well-known chefs who were spotted in a passionate clinch under the oaks. Suddenly a woman bursts breathlessly in. "Have you heard the news?" she asks triumphantly. "I just called New York, and I had someone read me the New York Times." There is instant consternation. Has the stock market crashed again? Has Ginsburg withdrawn?

"No," she crowed, "but Bryan Miller's on a rampage. He demoted La Grenouille to one star!"

In the seminar on fish, we learned that per-capita consumption is up 40% since 1960--and is expected to double again in the next 30 years. But although we are eating more fish, it is not necessarily better fish. Gilbert LeCoze, asked how he picks fish when he goes to market, held up a long dark swimmer that was stiff as a board. "It must be rigid," he said, "still in rigor mortis."

"The most frequent question asked in a restaurant," added fish consultant Jon Rowley, "is 'Is it fresh?' That's not the right question." He then produced a depressing chart showing that a fresh fish has generally been dead anywhere from 6 to 21 days. "Freshness," he said, "is not the primary question. The important question is how it's been handled from the time it was caught."

The panel then went on to discuss something called "super chilling," a euphemism for what Rowley calls "freezing fish in the worst possible manner." The fish are kept at 15-28. "It's not called frozen," said Rowley. "It's still called fresh. But all the flavor drips out." He then dropped a small bombshell. The beautiful salmon everybody was talking about had been caught by Bruce Gore--and immediately frozen.

Lunch was another superchef affair. Jasper White from Boston cooked at Beaulieu, John Sedlar of St. Estephe at Mondavi, Lydia Shire at Cain Cellars, Stephan Pyles (Routh Street Cafe, Dallas) at Inglenook, Barbara Tropp (China Moon, San Francisco) at Schramsberg and Sam Duvall (owner of the Ritz Cafe and Sugar Shack) at Newton Winery. I drew Michel Richard, who was cooking at Cakebread.

It was a brilliant meal, filled with little food jokes. It began with tiny quail egg, brioche and caviar toasts, went on to a sort of seven-layer cake made of thin layers of smoked salmon and cream cheese, gorgeously laid out on the plate. Then there was "whitefish in a pot," an extraordinary dish combining white fish, rouget , crisp vegetables, intense stock and a single quenelle made of bread. "First lox and cream cheese, now gefilte fish," said one guest. Dessert was little frozen cassis souffles with a champagne sabayon (a sort of frozen kir royale ).

But we got back to the conference to discover that all the chefs had amazed and delighted their guests. Those who attended Lydia Shire's lunch were particularly bowled over by a meal that began with a mushroom pie in Moroccan pastry, went on to oysters in Thai green curry, rabbit with figs roasted with thyme and bacon, a savory cheese cake served with a rib of beef and finally apple cake with prune and Armagnac ice cream. "I've never eaten a meal like that," said one amazed diner. "It was all so delicious."

And then there were more seminars, and yet another huge meal, put together by a group of top chefs from the Midwest.

The final day began with--what else?--breakfast. And more seminars--this time on the retailing of high-quality food. The most memorable comment from the final session came from Paul Levy, food critic of the London Observer and author of the new, hilariously funny "Out to Lunch." "The big chains in England are scrambling wildly up-market," he said. "The supermarkets are leading a food revolution. They are forcing the consumers to eat mangoes."

The conference closed with a series of luncheon seminars on food and wine pairing. More big-name chefs cooked more big meals at more big wineries. Bradley Ogden (Campton Place) was cooking at Jordan, Jonathan Waxman (Jams) was at Chateau Souverain, Mark Miller (Coyote Cafe) was at Sonoma Mission Inn, Joyce Goldstein (Square One) at Matanzas Creek--to name just a few.

And what happened to the fish? The last I heard, the salmon was just hitting the grill. Proving that, in the final analysis, this was a group that did more than merely talk about food.

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