Foodists could have done worse than to spend two sun-dappled days at USC last weekend for the L.A. Times Festival of Books. TV personalities and chefs including Michael Voltaggio and Chris Cosentino flaunted their skills at the Cooking Stage, Nancy Silverton dropped by for a chat, food journalists discussed their newest books and the smell of kettle corn wafted over it all.
Saturday, L.A.'s old guard met the new when Times deputy food editor Betty Hallock interviewed Silverton and Voltaggio. Our favorite discovery? That Voltaggio's new system for meeting fan-diners at Ink. is to rendezvous at the valet stand following their meal. Then he sprints back inside. Otherwise, it's hard to explain that he can't chat, even at the open kitchen; he has dinner to make.
Ink., as well as Silverton's Osteria Mozza, indicate that fine dining doesn't need china, white tablecloths or suited waiters, the chefs concurred. “It's the same passion, just a different package,” said Voltaggio.
The chefs also discussed cookbook writing. It's always “painful, awful … not a process I enjoy,” said Silverton. She's published eight, most recently The Mozza Cookbook. Voltaggio seem to agree, adding, “I hope I have the resume of Nancy one day, but the process is so challenging.” He and his brother Bryan wrote VOLT Ink. in just three months.
Chris Cosentino, chef at San Francisco's Incanto who recently opened Pigg at Umamicatessen downtown, took to the Cooking Stage on Sunday. Instead of demonstrating the kind of offal dish that has bolstered his reputation as “the gut guy,” he prepared vegetables. The recipe, from his new book Beginnings, was inspired by complaints that the organic produce at a local farmer's market was covered in earth. Cosentino responded, “Catch up with reality!” and created “Dirty Vegetables” — beets and carrots topped with grated black truffle, the “dirt.” Cosentino's son Easton helped out by peeling fava beans for a salad with strawberries.
Kathleen Flinn, author of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, would have appreciated that. At a panel titled “The Food Chain” moderated by Times food editor Russ Parsons, Flinn advocated for cooking classes in school. “Do kids need to learn about Elizabethan poetry in junior high?” she asked. “Why not … teach them to make eggs. Use a knife. Learn what an artichoke is.”
Tracie McMillan, who wrote The American Way of Eating, said if we care about our country's eating habits, we need to address low wages. “We haven't made it easy or affordable to eat well,” she said. “So … we don't.” Weighing In author Julie Guthman pointed out that organic produce is expensive by design: Farmers wanted to charge more, so they developed a certification system. Now, other foods are “horrifically unregulated,” she said.
Food writers at the “American Potluck” panel moderated by critic Jonathan Gold adopted a historical and cultural lens to consider how our country eats. OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano said he began writing Taco USA as an “authentiquista,” convinced that certain Mexican foods were authentic, others phony. He ended up concluding that even Denver's hamburger burritos are Mexican, as is Taco Bell.
Jennifer Lee also considered authenticity in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Chinese food hybrids have become popular around the world, she noted, with fried gelato in Italy, and a fried rice-French fry-curry combo in Ireland. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, author of White Bread, explained how our relationship with that food has evolved from fascination to distaste. Throughout the decades, bread has always represented “class, who we are, and what we think society should look like,” he said.