CINCINNATI - The Cincinnati food scene is about to get a jolt to remember. When the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic kicks off in Washington Park on September 12, it promises to charge the local food culture with the kind of electricity that will light up the region for the nation to see.
For two days, an unprecedented gathering of local and national food and wine talent will push the cuisine of the Midwest to the forefront. The area's specialties--old and new--will take center stage through cooking demonstrations, tastings, competitions and seminars.
After the grand opening on September 12, select chefs will throw down their best pork-inspired dishes to try and win the Pork Chopped competition. Francis Lam, who judges cooking competitions on Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters, and the new spinoff, Top Chef Duels, will reprise his role in Cincinnati's Pork Chopped.
When he's not judging on television, Lam serves as editor-at-large for cooking and lifestyle publisher Clarkson Potter. His other works have graced national publications like Lucky Peach, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit. Lam's writing has earned him a James Beard nomination and an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award.
Recently, I caught up with him over the phone at his home in New York.
The food community often looks to Lam for perspective. His writing skillfully explores the many offshoots of mainstream cuisine, which made me wonder: What was his impression of Cincinnati food?
“You know, all the stereotypical things--you got chili, and it’s called the Queen City,” Lam said. Lam has not been to Cincinnati, which he says, is exactly why he’s excited about coming.
Lam, however, does have certain notions about the city. He thinks Cincinnati is geographically and culturally interesting.
“Cincinnati, being on the southern tip of Ohio, bordering Kentucky, has to be this confluence of traditions from the Midwest, the South, and even Appalachia.”
Lam thinks the rich agricultural land in the area adds yet another dimension to the region’s food.
As successful a food writer and commentator as Lam is, he did not always know he'd write about food for a living.
"Food was always important to me and my family. We were the kind of family that did not play games or do a lot of things together, but we always ate together," he said.
Lam has a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and thought he might move on to graduate school in a field like anthropology. But it felt too removed from his immediate love: food.
"When I was in college, I worked in restaurants and loved it," Lam recalled.
He savored everything that surrounds food: the craft, history, tradition, culture, and how people relate to it.
At 25, Lam signed up for culinary school at Culinary Institute of America. He thought he might one day open a restaurant.
“So how did you start writing about food?” I asked.
“Dumb luck,” came Lam's answer.
While at culinary school, he chronicled his daily life and routinely emailed his food stories to friends and family. It was the equivalent of blogging, before blogging became "a thing."
Halfway through the culinary program, Lam got a call that would change everything.
“I got a call from the editor at the Financial Times,” he recounted. “She said, ‘A friend of yours has been forwarding these emails to us. These are really fun. Would you like to write something for us?’”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The best thing about writing
Lam loves what he does and it shows in his writing.
“What is the best part about what you do?” I asked.
“As a writer and editor, my highest purpose is to help other people tell their stories," he said. "It could be the oyster farmer, or immigrant cook, or someone who has a lifetime devotion to a craft.”
If Lam can do two things when he tells a story, he wants to:
- Entertain the reader
- Show the reader the world is bigger than they imagined.
“It's so easy to get closed in on your circumstances," Lam said. "As a storyteller, you can introduce new points of view, and help someone realize there's so much more life to be lived out there."
Food craze, American style
Many would agree the nation is more fascinated with food now than in any other time in history. I asked Lam why that is.
He thinks much of it goes back to the nation's awakening to its own cuisine.
“For the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been such an explosion in American cuisine. People realize it's not just about European food, and we’re not just trying to ape the things people do,” he said.
Lam suggests that this realization has also coalesced the nation's regional cuisines. People are simply celebrating what makes their hometown food special.
"It’s also hard to ignore the explosion of food programming on television
in the last 20 years," he added.
Moreover, Lam thinks the digital life we live today may in fact be pushing us to find a relationship with food.
“We live such virtual lives,” he said. “All day long, you could be talking to a zillion people, but you’re still talking to your phone. We want to feel connected to what’s in front of us.”
Judging vs. eating
For Lam, taste does not trump everything.
“It can’t. If it does, then you’re only eating one way, and no one eats only one way,” he said.
He concedes it’s not easy to judge a competition. For one thing, the dishes that are presented to the judges are often so different.
“You have to look at each dish on its own terms. You have to figure out what the dish is trying to do, and then see how well it did.”
While Lam has the chops and vocabulary to slice up a contestant's work six different ways, that’s not how he eats when he's not judging.
“I don’t want to eat something and go, that sucks, I hate it. I prefer to look for something I like about it and appreciate it,” Lam said.
Contestants take note: if you plan to serve Lam pasta, be sure to generously salt the water. And never, never, never overcook the pasta.
Still not "a master chef"
Lam's fame has not gone to his head. In fact, his feet remain firmly planted on the ground. He once wrote about a venerable Japanese chef who "mastered rice.”
I asked Lam what he has mastered. “I don’t think I’ve mastered anything. No, absolutely not.”
More about the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic:
- Sept. 12-13
- Washington Park
- Get tickets: Two events are already sold out
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.