Monday, August 05, 2013

The UN of Chefs visit the Amish

Great piece (and wonderful video) on my friend Sam's Club de Chefs de Chefs project, and the global top chefs visit to Lancaster, PA to break bread the with the Amish.  This is what gastrodiplomacy is all about:

Top chefs from around the world dine in Amish barn in Lancaster County

Yes, they partake of cocktails and a gala dinner at the tony Union Club on Park Avenue in New York, and lunch at the United Nations and the White House during their visit.

But on a recent fresh summer day, the chefs of the heads of state from all over the globe gather for chicken croquettes, succotash, whoopie pies and other local dishes at an Amish barn in East Lampeter Township.

It is a day for a celebration of simple food and simple moments, a sort of sweet corn diplomacy offered from Lancaster County to the outside world. 

Shovels and rakes hang from the walls as the chefs slide onto benches at tables decorated with Mason jars of black-eyed Susans in the clean-swept post-and-beam barn.

Little Amish girls in plain dresses giggle and peek from behind the pillars at the chefs in their crisp white coats, the collars decorated with flags from a panoply of nations: Sri Lanka, China, Poland, Germany, Denmark, France.

The group is The Club des Chefs des Chefs, known as the world's most exclusive gastronomic society. 

The queen of England's chef is in this barn, as is the chef to His Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco. President Obama's chef, her collar bearing the stars and stripes, sits across from two chefs wearing the tricolor green, white and red flag of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

An Indian woman in a shimmery sari also sits on a plain wooden bench, along with rail-thin European women exuding elegant nonchalance, part of the extended group accompanying the chefs.

Their host, Amish farmer Leroy Miller, begins the lunch the way his people do, with a blessing, and the group falls silent, under the spell of this moment and this day — a breeze ruffling the simple white tablecloths and wafting a homey smell of pot roast and gravy.

What follows is a meal of simple food, grown and produced organically by a local Amish cooperative, and served family-style by folks who include a gray-bearded man balancing a pig-tailed toddler on one hip.

Drinks are served by barefoot children, and the mashed potatoes are whipped by a power drill with a mixer attachment.

The international chefs are, quite simply, undone.

"Just amazement," is the reaction of Magnus Rehback, the chef to King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. "It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Norbert Kostner, an ebullient Italian, takes photos of each course before digging in. He is the chef to King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

"This is real food," Kostner says. "A lot of respect goes into this food. A carrot tastes like a carrot. We are not used to these things anymore."

And, oh, the food. Familiar to anyone who has sat down to a Pennsylvania Dutch meal, it is a dizzying array of fresh cantaloupe and berries, a sampling of cheeses, a salad with tomatoes and a single red-beet egg, the pot roast and carrots, the chicken croquettes, the succotash, green beans with bacon, the mashed potatoes swimming in brown butter, homemade breads, the whoopie pies, peach pie and homemade ice cream, all washed down with meadow tea.

Unlike the crowds at local smorgasbords, the chefs do not load their plates, instead eating sparingly from small samples, chewing carefully, considering, and chewing some more, savoring every bite.

A woman with a French accent rolls her eyes in ecstasy while trying the succotash.

The meal is a back-to-the-basics offering from Oasis at Bird-in-Hand, a local Amish cooperative that sells "horsepower food." The fruits and vegetables are organic. The meats and dairy products are from grass-fed, free-range animals.

Miller, the host and dairy manager at Oasis, says he sees a shift back to a society where food is a foundation, locally produced and consumed.

"The culture in this community is switching back to our roots," he says.

It's happening around the world as well.

The chefs are interested in this meal because organic and farm-to-table foods are a global trend, as familiar at the palace at Monaco as at a farm in Intercourse.

The chefs club, which has previously visited Lancaster County, was eager to return this year during its eight-day meeting. The group's annual gatherings rotate among members' host countries, and have been held in Rome, Moscow, Stockholm and other cities in the past.

"This is a great opportunity to see how people grow and produce products in absolutely the most natural of ways," says Mark Flanagan, the chef to Queen Elizabeth II of England and the royal family. "There is a growing concern about the effects of modern tools on the production of foods."

And even international chefs and royal families don't want to eat pheasant or caviar every night. We all crave home-cooked meals from time to time, it turns out.

"We think the best cuisine of the world is your mother's cuisine," says Gilles Bragard, a Frenchman who helped found the chefs organization in 1977. "The Amish have kept up this tradition."

It is the cluster of raspberries on a fruit plate that captures the tongue of Ferrier Richardson, the chef to President Ali Bongo Ondimba in Gabon, in western Africa.

"The texture and flavor reminds me of when I was a child," says Richardson, who is from Scotland. 

The royal family of Monaco has a garden at their palace and often asks Chef Christian Garcia to prepare vegetables from it, along with other simple items that do not require fancy sauces or fussy embellishments.

"When you have good food, there is no use to mask it," Garcia says.

This day is not just about the food, however.

Ulrich Kerz, the chef to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, jumps up from his bench to approach a young group of Amish boys, eager to see if they understand each other as the boys speak in Pennsylvania Dutch and he speaks in German.

An animated host, Miller explains Amish culture as the meal unfolds, telling the group of about 60 guests that the tables, benches and dinnerware they are using come from a "bench wagon," a horse-drawn cart that is hauled to Amish church services, weddings and funerals.

He also gives a brief description of Amish barn-raising, sharing his memories of a cold January day that dawned with an empty lot and ended with a farmer loading his hay into his new barn.

The chefs are keenly interested in the entire experience, asking about everything from the horseradish sauce on the table to the type of schooling Amish children receive.

Diplomacy takes place in the aisles and during plate passing, as one Amish man explains to a gaggle of chefs leaning in to listen that his family came from an area in and around Switzerland, and has been in the United States for seven generations.

Cristeta Comerford, the White House chef, says the Lancaster County visit provides a great contrast to the group's more upscale gatherings in Washington, Maryland and New York, where the group has traveled from in a coach bus.

"They have seen a nice juxtaposition of two different worlds," she says, as Miller and his Amish helpers scoop ice cream for dessert. "In a couple of hours, we are in a beautiful countryside.

"We are eating in a barn, but we are eating beautiful food."

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