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The 2006 Gourmet Institute

Upfront disclaimer:  Most photos from this event will be marginal.  Lighting, the size of the classes and the ever-moving chefs made photos a real challenge!  I chose not to interfere with others’ enjoyment of sessions over getting a perfect shot. So photos are provided just so you get some sort of feel for the event.  
Well, it certainly took me some time to get this post (and what will be a series of posts) written up!  Last October M and I treated ourselves to a long weekend in New York for our (shared) birthday.  We’ve done that several times but this year was a little different.  We decided to attend Gourmet Institute, a full weekend of presentations, cooking demonstrations, panels and food events sponsored by Gourmet Magazine.  
It’s an expensive weekend but for your money you get two "dinners" at high-end New York restaurants (one dinner was actually a cocktail party/reception but with tons of hors d’oeuvre); your choice of eight seminars and presentations; breakfasts and lunches for two days at the event hotel; access to a very nice sponsor lounge with all kinds of samples presented all day long; a huge bag of sponsor give-aways when you checked in; and if you purchased cookbooks, the opportunity to have them signed by the celebrity chefs.  And, depending on your timing and choices you have access to some of the hottest chefs and much of the Gourmet staff, including Ruth Reichl, throughout the weekend. 
Looking back it’s a little hard for me to say if I thought the price was a good value for the weekend.  The problem I have is that the things (just like the girl with the pretty little curl…) that were good were very, very  good, but those that were bad were horrid. 
The bag of goodies was amazing!  M and I were staying in an apartment a 20-minute, or so subway ride away.  After registering and picking up our bag we had to haul that thing back to the apartment and it probably weighed 35 pounds or so and was large and bulky – I’m not complaining by any means – just saying it was an adventure getting it back to our place.  Some of the tools that were included in that bag have now become staples in my kitchen – sponsors take note!  I’ll probably tell you about some of those in the future. 
On the other hand the breakfast and lunch served at the hotel were, uhm, not good at all.  We tried one of each – left during the first lunch to go find something more suitable and didn’t even try the second day.  Very surprising since the hotel would know this was a foodie crowd!  And I would say I’ve had much better dining experiences at the free breakfasts places like Marriott Courtyard provide. 
Our first session was a cooking demonstration by Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto.  He was ill-prepared; didn’t know how to use an electric stove; had no understanding of what could be accomplished in an hour; was easily distracted – many times not finishing "point 2" when wanting to say "two things"; and served a marginal, undercooked sample of his work.  Based on this experience I wouldn’t waste my time in his restaurants. On the other hand, I fell in love with Scott Conant (both the man and his food!), someone I knew nothing about prior to this class.  He was highly entertaining, educational and organized.  I learned all about goat, loved the dish he prepared and have been thinking about making it myself sometime soon.  Based on this class I will definitely stop at either L’Imperio or Alto (maybe both!) the next time I’m in New York. 

Morimoto’s (restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, as well as one of Food Network’s Iron Chefs) class was also superb!  And what I really loved was seeing his true personality (he’s very funny) come out during the session.  He prepared a light soup to start off and then made the most amazing "party dish" of sashimi on rice.  I need to find my notes from the session to see if I know what it was really called.  But we watched him clean and cut about ten different kinds of fish, assemble and present it on a bed of special rice (mixed with a confetti of vegetables and herbs) in a huge traditional wooden serving bowl.  The bowl was nearly 3′ in diameter! 
I attended a couple of panel sessions and found those to be the biggest disappointments.  Somehow the description and what was presented were just a tad off.  The part I found frustrating was that these sessions were moderated by Gourmet staff.  They asked specific questions, which I’m sure was meant to keep the discussion moving, but what they asked wasn’t what I would have asked and I would have preferred that the presenters just talk.  So these were okay.  One panel I really enjoyed though was with Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin and Tony Bourdain, the bad-boy chef from Les Halles.  They bantered about a number of topics but it was apparent they respect each other and perhaps are even friends – or so it seemed.  I really enjoyed seeing this slightly different side of Tony, who is most often in the middle of some controversy or another it seems.   
I also attended to drinks focused classes.  The one on Champagne, Veuve Cliquot to be precise was really amazing and educational! Francois Chirumberro, the winemaker led us through a tasting of seven different Champagnes and increased my understanding and knowledge of the history and process immensely!  It was a wonderful session.  The one that followed, Celebrating the Holiday Season with Cocktails (Sponsored by Grey Goose Vodka) presented by Nick Mautone of (I think formerly) of Gramercy Tavern was a huge waste of time.  Although it kept me from buying his book.  I have a nagging feeling though that I would like the book, Raising the Bar: Better Drinks, Better Entertaining, but for some reason the drinks presented in this session were sub par.   
But then I attended one session which was almost worth the price on its own.  This was sort of a working session by Gourmet photographer, Romulo Yanes and Editor/Stylist, Paul Grimes.  They were so open with how their process worked, things they’ve learned over the years, showed us all kinds of tools and methods they use, plus did little photo shoot right on the spot.  I came away inspired to improve my photography – and in fact just bought a new camera partially due to this session. 
I also found the two dinners, the opening party at Bhuddakan and our Saturday night dinner at Craft, to be amazing. 
So with all these pros and cons, when I add it all up I’m not sure of the actual value.  Although I do think that now that I’ve had the experience I could do a better job at selecting sessions that were all on the valuable side.  We met many people who had attended the three previous events and swore they’d be back every year in the future.  I guess time will tell – when it comes time to register will I do it?  Not sure yet.  Maybe it will depend on who’s going to be there and the sessions they are presenting. 
Still, this was a very fun weekend.  In addition to the Gourmet Institute classes M and I managed to check out several new (and some old favorite) places in town.  Living on the Lower Eastside for a few days was an adventure.  The place we stayed in was small overall but had a really large living area – perfect for a cocktail party, if I’d only had a bunch of friends to invite over! 
More details on some of our adventures in upcoming posts!

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