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Thoughts of Terroir: Buffalo chefs reflect on food conference

A (Bigger) Taste of Toronto

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

Last week I attended Terroir, Toronto’s seventh annual hospitality industry symposium. A full day of presentations and workshops on April 8 kicked off a week of hedonistic food and wine tours, cooking demos, book signings, late nights and shared kitchen experiences for some of the world’s top culinary professionals.

Those kind Canadians let me cross the border to hear chefs recall their childhood food memories and to nibble tasty, weird things like trout skin and maple syrup taffy. I was also lucky enough to hang with some of Buffalo’s most talented chefs over really strong cocktails.

Afterward, the local crew had much to say about Terroir 7 and what it means for the future of the profession. They chimed in about the best oysters in Toronto, why cooking meat matters, and how the “little private club” that is Western New York’s dining scene could someday grow into a world-class destination for foodies and farmers.

 A few of their longer responses are posted here for your reading pleasure. Cheers!

 Buffalo News: Why did you attend Terroir this year? 

 James D. Roberts, executive chef, Park Country Club of Buffalo: I always want to attend the event for the people and the networking (and they are great every time), but there is always one big hook that I end up leaving with. This year’s was the affirmation that our efforts here in Western New York are the same as the efforts on the global stage.

I also end up with some great new friends from it. This time I was traveling with Craig Deihl, a chef from a restaurant called Cypress in Charleston, South Carolina. He blew my mind with some of his charcuterie techniques and ideas, and we had a great time cooking with the other chefs at the symposium and out in Prince Edward County at a winery “mystery basket” dinner.

Quality charcuterie is something that is unique and in pretty low quantities here in WNY, despite having some of the highest quality local meats in the world, so it was great to have Craig with us sharing ideas that I can hopefully help facilitate in this area.

Michael Obarka, executive chef, Ristorante Lombardo : I attended the symposium because I thought it would be beneficial to me as a chef to get a look at things from a more international viewpoint. In a city the size we live in, we all know each other fairly well. So, I think it’s good to network outside of the "comfort zone," so to speak. 

Brad Rowell, sous chef, Park Country Club of Buffalo: There are very few places in the world where this many influential food people gather to share their diverse experiences. You never know what you’re going to learn; all you know is that you will learn a lot. Attending Terroir is also special because of the camaraderie it builds between people in the Buffalo food community. We all get to go on this adventure together and have so many memorable experiences.

BN: Describe a specific moment, presentation, person or dish that made an impression on you, at the symposium or out and about in Toronto.

JR: There were several moments that really stood out to me. René Redzepi’s speech really hit home, and not only because he is one of the greatest chefs in the world, but because he talked about his weakest moment of not being sure if he was doing the right thing and that everyone was telling him to change to be better or more like the rest of the great restaurants in history.

He basically said that he would only do what he thought was best and what made him feel good about doing … and that is what has made him great. And it was not in a "I am not listening to anyone" way, but in a "I have a dream of what I want" way.

Also, many of the moments in the kitchens with all the international chefs the last two days made me realize and affirmed that the philosophy I hold true—of caring for ingredients and caring for where they are sourced, making sure to respect them by preparing them properly and feeding them to guests in a wholesome way—is more than just an idea I had for a program here at PCC, but is recognized all over the world as a standard for excellence and effort. That was really refreshing to hear.

Ross Warhol, Executive Chef, Athenaeum Hotel: A couple of presentations really caught my attention—one being about gastronomy and the art of plating, and the other, of course, by René Redzepi. René presented something completely different than what everyone was expecting. I thought it was brilliant, and it has inspired me to go 10 times harder than I am now. He basically summed up what every chef in this industry has once or will feel about ‘burning out’ and transformed it into something so motivational for me.

Food-wise, I always make it a point to make it to Starfish when I am in Toronto to feast on amazing European varietal oysters that we cannot get here in the States.

MO: I was really impressed by the session with Magnus Nilsson. It was a very profound and thought-provoking look at the consumption of meat and what it takes for an animal to make it to our plates. It was a very responsible and pointed discussion. Having grown up hunting and fishing, I share Nilsson’s attitude. But I feel it is one thing I need to share with more people I come in contact with, especially my cooks and other restaurant folk.

BR: There were two dishes and restaurants that really inspired me in Toronto. The first was the pig ears with fried egg at Electric Mud; it was a wonderfully balanced dish both with flavor and texture. I also love Electric Mud’s relaxed atmosphere and genuine service, and that they played the entire ‘Beggars Banquet’ album by the Rolling Stones on vinyl. 

 

The second was the oysters at Starfish, which has become a tradition for Buffalonians attending Terrior. The attention to detail of the oyster-obsessed staff is always an experience. Flawless preparation and sourcing of North American and rare European oyster with a few pints of craft beer makes this place really special.

The speakers that inspired me were Gillian Flies and Brent Preston from The New Farm. The way they talked about organic farming with a focus on quality over quantity was very inspiring. They showed how appealing this model is to chefs and restaurants, and how this is profitable for them and beneficial to the entire community.

BN: James, why do you take so many of your staff to this event each year? What do you see happen to them over the course of the symposium?

JR: The experiences that my staff has at these events are much like mine—an influence from someone else of considerable proficiency. When I wanted to learn how to bake bread, I went and worked for four or five great bakers. Not because I needed to, but because I wanted to understand more about bread for myself, not just one mentor’s way. These events pack a ton of mentors in one area, in a set pattern of programming, so people can grasp the information and bring it back with them to their jobs and lives.

The more people I have experiencing the level of execution and ideas I want to put forth, the more they understand why I push myself, and them, so hard. I also want them to see that what we are doing in a little private club in Buffalo, is not unlike what great restaurants all over the world are doing, and then they get it. They come back proud of what we accomplish but yet begin to work harder to achieve the next level, to stay in front of the rest of the world, whatever that is…

And I don’t take them to these events. I tell them about them, invite them to come with me and share in my experiences, but they have to get themselves there. They have to put forth the effort to save, make sure their work is done and to really want it. This also makes them take it more seriously from an educational standpoint. That is the kind of effort I require of my staff.

BN: Why should the Buffalo food community care about what’s cooking in Toronto and around the world?

JR: I think we would be very silly to ignore the fact that we have a metropolitan, progressive city just two hours north of us. There are some really great things happening in Toronto, and the support of the community and government is tremendous for their culinary tourism and hospitality industry.

The scene, as good as it is now, is continually growing and getting stronger. Their sense of camaraderie and companionship is unlike anything I have ever seen in a major city. Everyone helps each other and is a collaborator with someone else. They look out for each another and believe that if they build up the whole, there will be more to go around for anyone, rather than just one person succeeding.

Not so very long ago, Toronto had a young struggling scene just like ours, so we have a good model of success that we can learn from and translate, hopefully, into our own city’s economic and social growth.

We have to broaden our horizons in order to attract people into our community. We have to seek out influences to create an attractive package for our customers and to enrich our lives. It would be foolish just to live in a Buffalo bubble.

MO: I think we should keep an ear to the ground when it comes to the Toronto food scene, mainly because of its proximity to us as an international city. [Terroir] had a debate about David Chang and Daniel Boulud coming to their city and the effect it is having on their food scene. I think we are building a good foundation in Buffalo. If two culinary titans such as these two had ideas of bringing spots to Buffalo, that would mean that we would have built up quite a reputation as a food city—something I think we could take a lot of pride in. 

RW: Buffalo should be aware of events like this because our city is well on its way to becoming a food destination for people around the world. A hard working, incredible and driven person who goes by the name of Christa [Glennie] Seychew has built the food scene here in Buffalo to what it is now in just a few short years. 

Without a doubt, I believe Buffalo has very talented, passionate and driven chefs who will put Buffalo on the map.

BR: Over the past five years, several chefs in Toronto who have worked at restaurants with million-dollar budgets have left to open smaller, more casual and less expensive spots that have kept the high level of food and service without as many frills. (This is happening all over the world). This should be very inspiring to young cooks in Buffalo. 

BN: Describe some new ideas or information you took back with you to your kitchen. Did the conference reinforce what you already knew?

RW: I was very inspired and am determined to push forth in this industry with all I’ve got. Most of all the presenters really reinforced what I already know and my philosophy and outlook on food. It was a great day for all of us there that share the same ideas and really great to talk with one another and network.

BN: Ross, does cooking in Chautauqua ever get isolating for you? How does an event like Terroir help you socially and professionally?

RW: Being down here in the ‘sticks,’ if you will, gets lonely in a way. Honestly, there is no other chef in the area who shares the same passion for food and philosophy that I do.  I would love to be more of a part of the continuously growing Buffalo chef family while learning from them as well.

On the other hand, I am very fortunate to have hundreds of farms to choose from whenever I source locally as well as having a generous plot of land where I grow vegetables for the hotel and its Farm to Table program. 

My love for food starts from the seed and soil, growing crops and tending them, driving down the road to my chicken, beef and pork farmers, and picking up freshly made local cheese curd and raw milk. This carries through to preparing such ingredients with a great deal of respect and serving this food to eager guests.

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Food and Drink
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