Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Chef as Artist

   I got interested in Jamie Simpson, who became executive chef for the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, earlier this year, when he did a photo shoot at Taxel Image Group. My husband came home and told me he'd just met the most unusual and creative individual. So I called Simpson and our conversation confirmed that impression.

   "When I cook," says Simpson, "I want to create an experience, not just another meal. To explain what he means, he describes an imaginary walk through a field in autumn. "The grass is wet. I hear a pheasant in the cornstalks. Green walnuts are falling from the trees and wild fox grapes are raisining in the sun.  He'll use all this, literally and figuratively, to inspire and prepare a menu that captures the moment, a dinner that, he says, "is about a time, place, and feeling."

   His plates are visually stunning: delicate, detailed, and abstract. Assembled with painstaking precision, a painter's eye for color and form, and a storyteller's sensibility, they reveal a palpable sense of intensity and focus. Hardly what you'd expect from a guy who started out as a rock musician and now tends to nine beehives, a pair of Mangalista pigs and plots of heirloom French pumpkins, quinoa and Peruvian corn. Those endeavors are personal pursuits, his private farm-to-table explorations done when he's not busy cooking for and with visiting chefs and experimenting in the kitchen with product from Chef's Garden, the parent company that runs the Vegetable Institute and grower of specialty vegetables and herbs.

  Simpson's excited about being part of the second annual Roots Conference coming up in October at the Vegetable Institute. The keynote speaker will be acclaimed chef Jose Andres and topics to be covered in various sessions include indigenous cuisine, food taboos, food politics and policy, and the intersect of tradition and technology. Although the event is aimed primarily at industry professionals, food enthusiasts are also welcome. Presenters will come from around the country and the world, and many are big names in their fields. Simpson's in awe of the company he'll be keeping. "Myself and Max Bilet, co-author of Modernist Cuisine, will be headlining the conference," Simpson wrote in an email. "The gravity of presenting on a level like this is weighing pretty heavy right now. We will be speaking on art and food." That's a talk I'd like to hear. After my phone exchange with him and time spent looking at a photo collection of Simpson's dishes, I'm certain he'll bring great insight and a touch of poetry to the subject.

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