I never thought much about canned tomatoes. I love ‘putting up’ tomatoes from my garden but I don’t ponder too deeply about the commercial kind. That is, until I was invited last September to the Mutti factory outside of Parma. As many of you might recall, I spent seven months living in Italy last year serving as President of the U.S. Pavilion at EXPO Milano 2015. While the EXPO itself was thrilling and educational, I was most deeply impressed by the Italians that I met and had the privilege to work with.  Many Italian food companies and wineries are family owned and operated.  Their pride is not only in the product but in protecting the family name and their  devotion to the legacy of being the generational custodians of their land and quality of their product.

As any aficionado of Italian food can tell you,  the brilliance of the cuisine has as much to do with the beauty of the product as it does with the skill of the chef. In Italy the cuisine is highly seasonal. They eat raw tomatoes in the summer and fall and the balance of the year they rely  on canned tomatoes. Thus, as you can imagine,  Italians take their canned tomatoes seriously.  The number one selling brand of canned tomato in Italy and France today  is Mutti.  After visiting the factory, I now know why. I was invited by Juan Pablo Carnevale, Mutti’s export manager to visit the factory during harvest and boy, I will never take a canned tomato for granted again.

We  first had lunch at  a marvelous restaurant  Mulino di Casa Sforza in Basilicanova (outside of Parma). We shared a heavenly pasta and drank a local and most delicious Lambrusco.   It was over this lunch that Juan Pablo set the historical background for my tour. Did I realize that Napoleon’s wife brought the tomato to northern Italy? No. When Napoleon was captured in 1814 and exiled to Elba, he negotiated for his wife Marie Louise, the Hapsburg daughter of  Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire,  to exile to the  Duchy of Parma.  She was a benevolent and a much loved Duchess.  Her French court  brought sophistication to Parma.  The summer palace patterned itself  after Versailles.  The theater  in Parma rivaled any in the world )the ground floor was capable of being sealed off and filling with water for staging maritime battles!). From a culinary point of view, Marie Louise did a reverse of Caterina de Medici and introduced the Italians to a much loved French ornamental  fruit,  the tomato.  The environs of Parma proved fertile  soil to produce luscious tomatoes.  In the latter part of the 19th century the Italian universities and their superior scientific programs invented revolutionary preserving technologies which were applied to the popular  products of Parma (ham, cheese, tomatoes). With the full support of the banking and commercial community the canned tomato industry was born.

Mutti was one of the first companies to can tomatoes.  The reason for their success today is that each generation constantly  upgraded quality controls and best practices in preserving. Today I saw the latest technologies applied.  Their assembly lines rigorously test each incoming truck for disease and proper acidity levels.  The production line culls green and unripe tomatoes lest bitterness enter the flavor profile.  The harvest must be done quickly and efficiently to capture the freshness and ripeness of the fruit.  A high tech scanner measures  each processed batch for acidity and sweetness levels to maintain consistent  flavor profiles.  The blind tastes test bore out the superiority of the product.  A sweet ending to a fascinating tour.


On leaving the production ground one is struck by a 15-foot standing toothpaste tube in the garden.  Actually it is a blown up Mutti tomato paste tube. The Mutti heir after WW II innovated that packaging.  He marveled at toothpaste tubes and realized they did not allow oxygen into the product.  One could open the tube and use over a longer period of time without oxidizing and ruining the paste.  What a great innovation!  But he also realized that Italian women were slow to change their habits, especially with such an essential ingredient in  making tomato  sauce.  So, he cleverly  observed  that in post war Europe  most families were too poor to buy ready made clothing.  Most women sewed. The cap of the tube was very ‘thimble’ like.  And so, he engineered the cap to have two functions.  When the paste was finished, the cap served as a thimble!  At least the women would buy one tube just  for that and give his product a try.   One try and today it is the number one selling product.

Quality, innovation and passion, all in canned tomatoes.  I wish we had Mutti here.

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It was my  fifth trip to Korea (to participate in Seoul Gourmet 2016) and I figured it was time to get up to the DMZ.  The DMZ is the demilitarized zone created in 1953 between North and South Korea. On a hot and sunny Sunday I signed up for a bus tour as  the zone is only an hour north of the capital. As I found out, it’s not a carefree bus tour, you needed to bring a passport and be checked by military personnel on entering the zone. My expectation was to see soldiers on both sides of the line, stare at the buildings and landscape across the border, take pictures with the military guards and put another notch in my tourist belt. What better way to get over jet lag than witness a piece of living history?

It was not until I was on the bus that I realized I did not sign up for the tour to the military sight but to the other places in the DMZ. Wait- there are other places in the DMZ? The DMZ is actually 250 km wide and 4 km deep. It is fascinating, surreal and very gastronomic! For example, in the DMZ you find the relatively modern Gyeongui Railway station that hosts no active trains, and no train customers but has spacious facilities and futile signs for trains to Pyeongyang.

You also discover that historically the DMZ lies in a treasured agricultural valley which in ancient times produced rice and soy beans for Korean royalty. When first declared a no man’s land, farmers were driven from this fertile region. After waiting decades for an end to the conflict (technically the Korean war is not over, there is just a cease fire in place), the South Korean government decided it was not going to let this delicious region go rice-less.  The only village in the DMZ, Unification Village was built specifically for working farmers and soldier families.  It is the only civilian lodging in the zone.  As our guide waxed poetic about this rice, I was hoping the souvenir store would actually sell it. It did, but in 10 and 20 kilo sacks, not exactly souvenir size.  My fellow Korean tourists were buying it by the sackful. In the shop shelves there were other delicacies such as DMZ honey and DMZ chocolate soy beans. Tourist attractions dotted the zone. For example there was  Peace Park with the main attraction of wind. It’s high, grassy knolls lent themselves  for flying kites. Families picnicked by bomb shelters as the kites bobbed and weaved among the barbed wire fences. Jarringly attached to Peace Park was a full blown kiddie amusement park, Imjingak.


Along with the expected DMZ attractions, such as models of fighter jets and a steam locomotive riddled with a thousand bullet holes, there were bumper cars and merry go rounds. At the perimeter colorful ribbons honoring the dead fluttered below the rolls of barbed wired fencing. These vivid colors and the happy park goers were disorienting against a sober backdrop of barbed wire and manned guard houses along the river.

Further on there was  a soybean museum with the story of tofu and three amazing towers of ginseng! I have been to a lot of food museums in my life, but I scratched my head on wondering if people would come to this dangerous part of the world just to understand the soybean.  I realized then how seriously the Koreans take their food and though the DMZ is  known for the present conflict between the north and the south…Korean  food heritage was not about to cede its ground to recent history.


As for the amusement park food itself, it was as unappetizing as Coney Island fare. Different for sure, but equally unappetizing. Some delicacies such as squid and small crustaceans were purely Korean but the faux western fare of  ‘old hot dogs’ and ice cream sticks made me run back to the ginseng towers! If the North Koreans ever come over the line, they are in for a shock!

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You cannot live on the Upper West Side and not indulge in a Gray’s Papaya hot dog. I realized that I had not eaten a Gray’s since the mid seventies. I needed to check out if this corner icon was still worthy of the hype. For years I walked by the corner of 72nd and Broadway and was more impressed with the aesthetic of the witty puns, the diversity of the crowd and the ‘orange’ motif that brightened up a dreary winter landscape than lured to eat a signature frank.

But there I went and got the hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut. Now, I must tell you I am an expert on hot dogs. I once blind tasted and judged 13 different hot dogs with Mickey Mantle (certainly one of the highlights of my life) for the New York Times. Not only did I pick the winner but knew what it was-a Hebrew National all-beef frankfurter. That day we didn’t have a Gray’s in the running. If we had, it would have won.

Gray’s hot dog was fabulous. The meat and casing were tender and did not feel like chomping into saran wrap. The seasoning was pitch perfect. Yummy. I never described a hot dog as yummy before. And I was blown away by the sauerkraut. It was finely chopped and had a hint of sweetness. Sometimes after eating a frank you feel a little bloated. Not with this honey. I felt totally sated. Light. And kept me full until dinner time. Can’t wait to go back.

There was one less than stellar moment. I had realized that I gobbled my hot dog before I could take a picture of it. I waited around until they made another for a customer. A double order with kraut was put on the counter to be rung up. As a polite New Yorker-perhaps too polite-I asked the person who ordered it if I could snap a picture of it before she scooped it up. She took a second, looked me in the eye (she was alone, in her 50s and casually dressed) and said bluntly, “no”.  I guess I looked startled and pulled my phone back. She then said, “In New Yawk, I’ve seen a lot of weird things.” I replied, “I am a born New Yorker and I’ve never seen a violating incident in snapping a picture of a hot dog!”  She got angrier and I realized she probably hadn’t purchased the button I just had at Gray’s. Although a self selecting group. I am proud to be a  ‘Polite New Yorker’ and I give that woman a Bronx cheer.

PS.  I went back! Couldn’t resist.

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ICC was proud to collaborate with NY Cakes and present a VIP cocktail party complete with flaming Dragon Cakes…and participate in the very first NYC Cake Show at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Check out the fun we had last weekend!

So many of these wonderful cakes held the spirit of New York City. And two very special cakes were a touching, special tribute.

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I saw the future in Newark, New Jersey. It was green. Really green. No GMOS, no pesticides and it was delicious. Aero Farms is a high-tech farm that has been working for a few years now. It not only is growing beyond it’s million pounds of greens, but is inspiring the community. In fact it has donated a small farm apparatus to the local charter school Phillips Academy. The academy has an amazing school kitchen program and a roof top garden. I was pleasantly surprised to meet one of ICC’s graduates there, Robert Wallauer, who is their chef and Food Service Director.  The program itself is run by Ecospaces Education, lead by the dynamic Program Director Frank Mentesana. It is no wonder that Michelle Obama chose the school last month to visit!

Robert Wallauer and Frank Mentesana

Now what really makes these greens exciting is that with lighting and patented growing medium technologies Aero Farm is making tenderer and exquisitely delicious greens. I for one, never hopped on the kale bandwagon but the baby kale I tasted in Newark was so tender, with a flavor that screamed out for a touch of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil that I instantly became a fan. The micro watercress as crunchy, refreshing and I popped like candy.

For us gardeners to hear that seeds germinate and grow in a matter of days, not weeks is nothing short of miraculous. Now, you might say you are committed to the earth and soil grown greens. As a lifelong gardener, I would have said that too until I think now of the plight of the world.

We have 8 million people living in NYC alone. We want them to eat fresh produce every day. In an ideal nutritious world that is 58 million servings a week. The land around NYC is developed and the few open spaces are too expensive for farming. If we are serious about fresh produce we need to look to the underdeveloped suburbs around our cities.
Aero Farms is leading the way. And I am fully on board that bandwagon!

A big shout out to Mark Oshima and the Aero Farm team for inviting me to Newark. They are changing the world.

Marc Oshima

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Dumpster Dive Salad

He’s done it again. Dan Barber never ceases to thrill, challenge and inspire me as a diner. This time he really topped himself. As you may know, Dan is one of the most responsibly sustainable chefs in the world. He is always questioning how we can be more responsible stewards of the earth. This new iteration has a simple formula: Make a meal out of scraps. And so he did.

Coppa

Broken Razor Clams and pig's ear vinaigrette

Now, some were his scraps, but most were purchased from the food vendors that Dan works with for his normal menus. He did not want free scraps but wanted to teach the vendors that scraps have value. He has pushed the needle so far again.

Veggie Pulp Burger, Spent Grains Bread

Skate Wings, Monkfsh Wings

Beef Tallow Candle

Leftover Brown Rice and Broccoli

Discarded Greens with Aged Beef Rib Broth

Cocoa Husk Sorbet, Chocolate with Almond Pulp

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