I recently had the pleasure of visiting the picturesque Napa Valley for the CIA’s 15th Annual World’s of Flavor Conference. No, I’m not a spy, and I’m not talking about that CIA, but rather The Culinary Institute of America, one of the country’s most well regarded cooking schools. Each year they assemble top chefs and culinary professionals from around the world at their beautiful campus in St. Helena, CA for a summit on food without parallel. This year’s theme was “Arc of Flavor: Re-imagining culinary exchange from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia.”
It was no small honor to attend the conference, and to represent Sri Lankan food for the very first time here, joined by my esteemed colleague, Chef Koluu, who traveled all the way from Colombo for the event. Koluu was extremely helpful when I went to Sri Lanka to research my cookbook, and I made sure he was featured when I returned to shoot No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. As one of Sri Lanka’s most well-known and respected chefs, his attendance at the conference was a must.
Having just barely escaped the east coast and the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, I arrived in the Bay Area at night, so it was not until morning that I got a good look at the CIA itself. Occupying the former hilltop mansion of The Christian Brothers’ winery and overlooking acres of quaint vineyards, the school’s substantial facilities cut quite an impressive sight. The third floor teaching kitchens alone occupy a space about half the size of a football field, filled with every modern convenience you can imagine. What a joy it must be going to school in such an environment, much less cooking there for three days. This massive kitchen is where all the action was happening as chefs from across the arc of flavor prepared countless dishes for the various seminars, demo sessions, lunch, and, of course, the formidable World Marketplace, probably the best food court going on planet earth.
It was encouraging and inspiring to see so many foreign chefs interacting with CIA staff and students, and introducing so many new ingredients and techniques. Koluu made his famous pork kalupol or “black” pork curry, fish ambul thiyal, and crab curry, along with other Sri Lankan specialties like hoppers, sambol, and coconut roti. Like the other chefs, we had a whole crew of students working with us–none of whom had ever even tried Sri Lankan food before. But they picked things up very quickly as they took care of most of the prep. For everyone involved, however, the opening day proved to be an exchange of cultures, ingredients, ideas, and good vibes.