Inspiration and Innovation: One Chef’s View

Tim Ryan, President of the Culinary Institute of America, starts his presentation by stating that 1946 is a seminal year in American history. He flashes several photos of events that occurred in 1946 across the screen to prove his point; the founding of McDonalds, the launch of Tide Detergent, the founding of the United Nations, the release of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart. He has selected 1946 as the inflection point in the development of modern dining and foodservice in the United States as part of his presentation today titled “Inspiration and Innovation.” Dr. Ryan, one of the brightest men in foodservice and the only master chef (ACF) on the planet with an earned doctoral degree (University of Pennsylvania), smiles subtly and also states that 1946 was the year that the CIA was founded on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. A wave of quiet laughter rolls through the room.

Dr. Ryan transitions in preparation for the topic of innovation, to a discussion about trends vs. fads. He asks the audience to describe the difference between a trend and a fad and one bright woman replies “a fad shoots up quickly in popularity only to drop just as quickly.” Dr. Ryan agrees and shows a slide with an animated trend line shooting up, then down rapidly over time (a fad) along with a trend line that rises and remains steady over the same period (a trend). Implied is the fact that trends are a product of innovation, remain intact, and produce change over time, and fads don’t. To make his point in the context of foodservice, he also compares the current black garlic fad to the sun dried Tomatoes fad of the 1980’s as an example (one that most of the forty-and-older crowd in the room can relate to) and people nod with agreement. Fermented black garlic isn’t going to change foodservice, perhaps the overriding Asian flavor trend in the country will.  

CIA Greystone

At this stage, Dr. Ryan shifts the audiences again by asking two questions: 1) where do you go to get great food, and 2) where do you get great ingredients.  This makes me (and the rest in the room) ponder the questions. My first though is that great food can be found at home, but that’s probably not the case for most people. Analyzing where great food has been served, according to public opinion, over the past 50 years is another way to answer this question and Dr. Ryan indulges us. After WWII in America, each decade had its own famous restaurant that defined fine dining (a place where great food could be found). He starts with what was arguably the most famous restaurant of the post war era, Le Pavilion in New York and famous chef Henri Soule. Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey and others worked there and the restaurant maintained “best in America” status from the mid 1940’s to the mid 1960’s. Four weeks ago when I spent three hours on a plane with Jacques Pepin, he mentioned what it was like to work for Soule and how, at the time, chefs were no where near as important as they are today. The celebrities of the day were the front of the house maitre d’s, and many had regional if not national reputations. Ryan’s belief that La Pavilion was the best restaurant of its era was validated by Pepin just weeks earlier during our discussion.

Le Pavilion was replaced as “best in America” by Lutece in New York in the mid 1960’s and chef Andre Soltner maintained that position from the mid 1960’s until the 1990’s when he closed the restaurant. Ryan gives other examples including Café Des Artists but then he shows the dining counter at Momofuku in New York. He follows with a picture of the Kogi food truck in LA and notes that in recent months the New York Times has gushed over David Chang’s restaurants and that Kogi has met with tremendous success and critical acclaim. He reveals a startling change in what and where America dines and where good food can be found. His juxtaposition of the photos of Le Pavilion and Kogi Food truck reveal a major shift.  Kogi food truck is a source of great food, has found financial success and critical acclaim as well, but looks nothing like the grandiose surrounds that composed Le Pavilion and Lutece. Point made: good food can be found anywhere and in some of the most surprising places.

CIA Kitchen

Where do you get great ingredients? Dr. Ryan’s discussion didn’t quite answer this question the way it was stated. Instead, he answered the question “what are great ingredients?” by comparing what he referred to as the “holy trinity” of ingredients consisting of foie gras, truffles, and caviar to modern ingredients like pork belly, which David Chang  is known for, and pork shoulder, a Kogi food truck staple. Today, great ingredients are commodities (pork belly) instead of rarities (caviar, truffles, foie gras). This implies that demand is driving our perception of great ingredients downscale putting greater pressure on preparation, flavor and integrity instead of rarity.

This isn’t to say that old-school fine dining is dead. Fine dining has a great future if not a short term struggle due to the economy. Ryan showed a photo of great chefs including Bolud, Keller, Trotter, Ripert, Coliccio, Mina, and Achatz to name a few. By showing these photos, he proved that the number of great American chefs has grown exponentially since the time of Soule and brought tremendous renown to fine dining in the US. One glaring observation is that Ryan didn’t show one photo of a female chef during his presentation, not even a female CIA graduate of high regard like Melissa Kelly of Primo restaurant in Maine. With so many great female chefs in the U.S., I am surprised. Much can be gleaned from what is not said but I predict that the future of fine dining in America will include an increasing number of female chefs.

As Dr. Ryan wraps up his presentation he offers to answer questions from the audience. One attendee asks what he thinks of molecular gastronomy and Dr. Ryan, after a thorough response suggests that the molecular gastronomy movement is a fad that will eventually expire in the coming years. On this point I smile with slight disagreement. Molecular gastronomy will fade away eventually but the cork is out of the bottle with chefs when it comes to food science. Food science, as a culinary content area in training, will expand out of necessity and chefs will continue to develop expertise in science (the why of cooking) in addition to technique (the how of cooking).  Molecular gastronomy will forever be credited with catalyzing this trend. Our profession will continue to professionalize and become more technical.

That foodservice is such a remarkable industry where a professional can go from dish room to boardroom in the course of a decade remains a fact.  The profession has evolved to such an extent over the past two decades that the public’s esteem for chefs and culinary professionals is at its highest point ever. Today, chefs are entrepreneurs, celebrities, thought leaders, agents of social change among other things.  Dr. Ryan is an example of this.

There are very few people in culinary education and the foodservice industry as a whole that are smarter or better informed than Tim Ryan when it comes to food and cooking. The industry is lucky to have a guy like Dr. Ryan leading the Culinary Institute of America which, in my mind, is a national treasure and key cultural change agent in America. I agree with much of what he said though not everything and he still has me thinking…that’s a good thing.

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