Highlights from the 2018 Worlds of Flavor Conference
Our Q&A with the CIA’s Anne McBride recapping this year’s event, and a look ahead to 2019.
The 20th annual Worlds of Flavor (WOF) conference wrapped up recently at the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. The three-day event brought together approximately 600 attendees—chefs, sponsors, and culinary media—to exchange the latest ideas, cuisines, and trends in the industry through nearly 60 different seminars, hands-on workshops, and networking opportunities. We spoke with Anne McBride, Worlds of Flavor and Flavor Summit program director, about this year’s memorable moments, and a sneak peek at the next WOF, which is scheduled for November, 2019.
Hotel F&B: What were some of the standout ideas presented at this year’s WOF conference?
McBride: The theme of the 2018 WOF was “Legends of Flavor”, and in addition to a number of well-known chefs and culinary trendsetters sharing their areas of expertise with our attendees, we also focused on what it means to be true to your culinary heritage.
One session that really resonated was by Sean Sherman, who has a company in Minneapolis called The Sioux Chef. Sean is a Native American Lakota Sioux from South Dakota, and he gave a presentation on Native American foods and the decolonization of the Native American diet, and the importance of that as a means of reclaiming their identity. It was enormously factual and he got a standing ovation at the end.
There’s not many conferences in the industry where you have that kind of presentation—facing some uncomfortable truths about American food—while also learning and moving everyone’s thought process forward.
We also had a chef named Monique Fiso from New Zealand who specializes in Māori cooking, so she had a session together with Sean about live-fire pit cooking, because Native American cooking also has a lot of pit cooking, so they built a fire pit and cooked their food in hanging baskets.
We had a session on modern Mexican cooking with chefs who are all either Mexican immigrants or first-generation or second-generation Mexican-Americans, and that was an emotional and cerebral view into the cooking of their heritage, and it was very impactful for our attendees in terms of, how do you gain pride when you’re an immigrant and not necessarily treated very fairly? Through your food you can reclaim who you are and your identity, so that came across in a lot of sessions, and they were very powerful.
Hotel F&B: What were some global regions highlighted at this year’s WOF that maybe weren’t a focus previously?
McBride: For the first time our biggest region represented was Africa and many of its cuisines. Part of my thinking in creating the 2018 program was, where are the new frontiers today, and where are the cuisines people might not know about? Africa is on that list, so we had chefs from North and West Africa presenting their cuisines, and we also had an African-American chef to tie it back to the U.S. So that was a really impactful session, and the presenters learned a lot from one another as well.
Hotel F&B: What lesser-known ingredients or flavors were showcased during some of the presentations?
McBride: Flavor trends are always a tough question. I think it’s more in terms of personal expression for chefs and in terms of adopting the flavors of their ancestry, and not necessarily being afraid of mixing and matching a little bit. For example, we had Chef Shola Olunloyo presenting in an Africa session about making miso with African ingredients like locust beans, so he was showing a Japanese technique that can be applied to African ingredients.
In our modern Mexican session, we had Chef Val Cantu showing how he might use shiso leaves at his restaurant (Californios in San Francisco) so he’s not just limiting his pantry to Mexican ingredients. He has a deep respect for the traditional flavors of Mexico, but he also feels since there’s such liberty accorded to French cuisine, for example, where French chefs can use spices from anywhere in the world and the finished dish is still considered French, that kind of freedom should be afforded to Mexican cuisine as well.
Superfoods was also a topic at several different sessions, and one mentioned often was moringa, which is a leafy green plant traditionally used for herbal medicine. We also had an African session specifically about rice, and there was a lot of talk about fonio being the next big grain.
Hotel F&B: How does WOF differ from the Flavor Summit, which in recent years, have been held a few weeks apart at CIA Greystone?
McBride: Worlds of Flavor is larger in scale, with 600 or more attendees, 12 or 13 general sessions, and about 45 breakouts, so there’s a wide range of topics for people to explore. The Flavor Summit doesn’t have international presenters like WOF does, so WOF is very different in the scope, range of cuisines, and skills that people can learn about.
Flavor Summit is more focused on business skills sessions and the business-side of the industry, as well as mixology, design management, and culinary demos. It’s a much smaller group— about 125 people total—and everyone is together the whole time. There’s about 15 sessions during the conference but they’re all general sessions, while WOF has multiple breakout sessions where attendees can follow a specific topic. WOF is very much focused cooking techniques, ingredients, traditions, and innovation around food. In the span of three days you can learn about Tasmanian culinary traditions or Filipino traditions, for example.
In recent years with both conferences held so close to each other, it’s hard for our attendees to come to Napa Valley twice in that short of a span because their travel schedules are already very busy. We used to hold WOF in November until 2013, so we’re going back to that schedule and moving the next WOF to November, 2019, while Flavor Summit will still be held in March.
Hotel F&B: What can people expect at the 2019 WOF conference?
McBride: Our 21st WOF conference will be called Cultures of Deliciousness, and it focuses on flavors and traditions in motion from the Mediterranean and Middle East to South Asia.
We’ve always looked at the arc of flavors throughout the life of the WOF conference. The spice route that’s impacted cuisines from one place to another for centuries brings us back to highlighting the rich cultures along that vast region and how they’ve developed flavors through spices and techniques, and how that’s represented in today’s cooking. We’ll also bring chefs in from Georgia and Azerbaijan and that region, which is also part of that trail that goes from Europe to South Asia. So it’s almost like a reverse spice route in terms of the geography we’re covering, and those regions within which we haven’t touched on in detail previously at the conference.