Dateline Chicago. Andrea Nguyen stood before the vast, gilded ugliness of the Hilton’s taxi entrance, waiting for her ride. She was wearing big, round Jackie O sunglasses and a scarf that was the bright green of steamed bok choy — a vivid hit of California in the sleety gray of a freak Chicago spring storm. The Bay Area food writer, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, is one of the presenters here at the annual conference of IACP, the International Association of Culinary Professionals. It’s the biggest food organization on the planet, and the four-day event is its sprawling shmoozefest: food writers, magazine editors, chefs-turned-celebrities, cookbook photo stylists – the cabal of culinary machers who determine what we all read and look at in glossy culinary mags, Wednesday food sections, and the ever-expanding cookbook sections at mega-bookstores. With the pull of a cord, a suicide bomber could devastate the entire foodie establishment, offering a serious interruption to the nation’s flow of information about artisan bacons and pink Himalayan salt.
Like Andrea Nguyen, Berkeley chocolatier John Scharffenberger is one of the presenters on what seems like an endless roster of panels. So is Oakland food writer Dianne Jacob, as well as Ann Cooper, feisty hellion of the Berkeley Unified School District’s lunch program. To contrast to some of the presenters’ pristine credentials, the IACP conference is awash in shameless corporate sponsorship. The Kraft Foods ad in the program glows with photos from the Martha Stewart Living school of jewel-like focus, with backgrounds that recede into soft blurs of sea green. And between-seminar snacks come with plenty of hustle, with reps from the Irish Dairy Board, for instance, urging you to smear Kerrygold butter on a cracker.
As for Nguyen, she looked like she wanted to get away – at least temporarily. With James Oseland, editor of Saveur magazine, Nguyen is teaching a class about roots, rhizomes, and tubers in Asian cooking. “James is picking me up,” she said, standing out in front of the hotel. “I brought some stuff with me from California, but we’re going to go out looking for more.” With only vague directions, they planned to hit Argyle Street – a few short blocks of Southeast Asian markets and pho joints – in the city’s far north. In the scrum of lanyard-wearing, corporate-tote-bag-lugging conference attendees back inside the hotel, that sounded like a magical destination.