Despite the humble and simple descriptors often attached to food, it only takes a closer look to realize how complex and multifaceted a subject it can be. Why not start small? Say, a single ingredient?
Among the handful of special events surrounding this year’s YUL EAT festival, the Phi Centre’s new collaborative educational presentation Food Core is delving into the thought, action, science and craft that goes into cooking by concentrating on a single ingredient: Corn. Participants will be guided through the chemistry, cookery and curiosities of the foodstuff, starting tonight with two English-language presentations by the gastronomic scholar Maya Hey and chef Aaron Langille of Le Diplomate. Tomorrow night will feature food writer Ève Dumas and chef Simon Mathys of Manitoba repeating the program, but in French. The princely sum of $43.39 fetches an attendee admission plus tastes of what’s being shown off.
“The idea came from discussions with Maya Hey and Aaron Langille,” explains Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa, the creator of Phi’s event. “We were talking about hosting round table forums on food themes at Aaron’s restaurant Le Diplomate. We wanted to get a bunch of people in a room to share information, simple as that.” From there, it was simply a matter of developing the idea into action, and Food Core began.
Kinch-Pedrosa knows that the desire for education is there. A server herself for years, she noticed that customers could be nervous, even embarrassed, to reveal any ignorance about food. “I realized [then] that there’s an in-crowd in the food industry, and I think a lot of it has to do with who has the knowledge about food. Food Core became an effort to ease the nerves of curious minds, and to engage with them in a fun and open atmosphere.”
Food Core can be understood as a reactionary development in the realm of food events in Montreal, a break in the current mediascape of venerated chefs and only the occasional spotlight on producers of food in its base form. “I want the event to focus on the ingredient, to let the food shine,” Kinch-Pedrosa adds. “The chefs (Langille and Mathys) at Food Core become hosts, guides, [and] supporters as opposed to gatekeepers.”
So what does a democratized understanding of a food look like? That’s where researchers like Hey come in. A Vanier scholar and PhD candidate at Concordia, Hey holds a master’s degree in Food Culture and Communication and a BS in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Administration. She has spent over a decade facilitating discussions around contemporary food issues and her institutional experience, coupled with her work in culinary projects, means she’s well-positioned to give an informed perspective on something we otherwise boil, slather with butter and chow down on.
Why does she think the event’s important? Why is the act of learning so important? “More than ever, there’s a siloing of information that privileges experts,” Hey says. “To be sure, specialization is a good thing, but it also creates barriers that reinforce who has access to such knowledge,” she adds, not shying away from how the Academy is guilty of cloistering knowledge of what we consume and subsist upon. “Food affects us all, and food information should not be privileged and protected away from everyday eaters. Absolutely, there should be festivities and events that celebrate delicacies like truffles and wines. But there should also be moments to celebrate the basic foods we take for granted.”
Food Core, however, isn’t a heavily politicized event that expressly digs at institutions. It’s chiefly meant to be a fun and enlightening evening. “This event provides me with an opportunity to share knowledge, which is a personal mandate that I carry with me throughout my academic career,” Hey adds. “It also deconstructs some of the perceived barriers around chefs, university researchers, etc. We’re also conversationalists too, [people] who are deeply invested in food and taste.”
While the rabbit hole runs deep, it doesn’t change the fact that Food Core is meant to have a great deal of utility to it. “At Food Core, we’re hoping to provide some background, context and utility for the culinary staples that we all use,” Langille says. “Knowledge is power, right?”
As for this ambitious event’s starting point of corn, the speakers point out that such a deceivingly simple thing has amazingly deep roots. “We chose corn for this first event for both its ubiquity in our diet and that we had the opportunity to use a local culinary staple whilst it was in season,” Langille explains.
“Corn has cultural foundations and folklore that dates back centuries; corn has oppressive and insidious qualities in high fructose corn syrup and transgenic seed breeding; corn has culinary significance in kitchens worldwide from the humble use of cornstarch to the unique flavor of huitlacoche,” Hey elaborates. “Corn’s simplicity is actually the reason for its many other transformations. This event brings together the thinking, making and sharing of food and food knowledge.”
Most of all, while there’s so much to learn, there’s an indelibly practical element at the heart of Food Core. “I would hope that people can leave this event with more knowledge of the product(s) that they’re using,” says Langille, “so that their energies in the home kitchen can be put elsewhere.” ■
Food Core @ The Phi Centre (two events daily) :
Tuesday, September 11, 6PM and 7:30PM: Chef Aaron Langille and author Maya Hey.
Hosted primarily in English.
Wednesday, September 12, 6PM and 7:30PM: Chef Simon Mathys and journalist Ève Dumas.
Hosted primarily in French.
Espace Plateau (1st floor), Phi Centre (407 Saint-Pierre Street)