TORONTO – Rene Redzepi, the Danish chef-owner of the world’s top-ranked restaurant, stood onstage and looked out into the dark, where a packed room that included more than a dozen Buffalo cooks sat hushed and waiting. Then he asked a startling question.
“Have you ever burned out?”
Redzepi, 36, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma has topped world best-of lists for three years running, was addressing kitchen colleagues from around the globe Monday at the seventh annual Terroir symposium for the international food industry.
He shared his own breaking point, a time three years ago when he had grown weary of running Noma, then recently named the world’s No. 1 dining destination by San Pellegrino.
Smothered with awards, media attention and the pressure to grow his restaurant into an empire, Redzepi had lost the spark of innovation, not to mention the simple joy of creating food that makes people happy.
The solution, he said, came down to the memory of growing up on his family’s farm in Macedonia. Redzepi recalled watching relatives lovingly rub one of their freshly butchered chickens with olive oil and spices before roasting it over a chestnut wood fire.
As the aromas, tastes and textures came rushing back, so did Redzepi’s long-lost discovery during his days at culinary school of “what food means to me.”
Redzepi and other culinary heroes were in Toronto, taking time away from their hectic work schedules to question their own motivations in the kitchen and to inspire their culinary colleagues.
“The symposium helps me network with professionals and friends in the industry, while learning about what other chefs are doing and bouncing ideas off one another,” said Ross Warhol, executive chef at the Athenaeum Hotel on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution.
A full day and evening of gourmet feasting, workshops, cooking demonstrations and presentations, Terroir borrows its name from the French viticulture term for “sense of place,” or the unique environment – including the weather, local geography and soil – in which specific grape vines are grown.
The theme of this year’s event, “For the Love of Food: Stories, Memories and Culture,” brought together chefs, farmers, winemakers, restaurateurs, food critics and culinary tourism experts from as far away as Ireland, South Africa, London and Scandinavia to share their personal narratives.
Terroir is not about trading recipes or teaching the perfect braise.
“What they were there to do was to remind you how to do those things ethically and thoughtfully,” said Jennifer Boye, executive chef at the Mansion on Delaware and a first-time attendee.
“As a cook, a large part of your job is to create memories for people,” Boye added. “You try very hard to make those memories fond ones. What the Terroir symposium did for me is make me realize that we should be remembering as well.”
Chef Mike Obarka from Ristorante Lombardo was impressed by Swedish star chef Magnus Nilsson’s session, a “profound and thought-provoking look at the consumption of meat, and what it takes for that animal to make it to our plates.”
Having grown up hunting and fishing, Obarka said, “That is an attitude that I share, but I feel it is something I need to share with more people I come in contact with, especially my cooks and other restaurant folk.”
Two Ontario farmers described their journey from political activism to sustainable, small-scale farming, while Nick Saul, the CEO of Canada’s national network of Community Food Centres, spoke passionately about hunger and poverty. Other topics were lighter, from the remarkable properties of milk to the black and white pages of Fool, a striking new Swedish culinary magazine.
There was also a hearty lunch of chef-made sandwiches, including beef on weck with fresh horseradish and pickled cucumbers from James D. Roberts, executive chef at Park Country Club of Buffalo.
Roberts brought four cooks to Terroir: sous chefs Brad Rowell and Mark Tiedt, Will Petersen and Evan Thur, a recent graduate of Clarence High School.
A former Park Country Club cook, Joseph Fenush, was working for another country club in Tulsa, Okla. A Buffalo boy at heart, Fenush is about to start at Volt, a restaurant in Frederick, Md. He attended Terroir at Roberts’ urging and was happy to reunite with his old crew.
“It would be great to get good enough to win a Beard award someday and bring it back to Buffalo,” he said.
Roberts takes pride in mentoring his staff and said that Terroir is a prime opportunity for them to grow.
Part of Rowell’s enthusiasm for Terroir stemmed from “the camaraderie it builds between people in the Buffalo food community. We all get to go on this adventure together and have so many memorable experiences.”
It also afforded chefs a rare chance to relax as they ate and drank their way through Toronto’s ramen joints and dive bars – an education of another kind.
In fact, one tiny downtown raw bar called Starfish has become a rendezvous point for returning Western New York delegates. Before Terroir’s big after-party, the bar at Starfish was lined with Sabres fans slurping down rare Kumamoto oysters as they admired the owner’s custom shucking knives.
This was the second trip to Terroir for Warhol, chef at the Athenaeum Hotel. He had the chance to speak with Redzepi and Nilsson, and he has hopes to “stage,” or apprentice, at their restaurants someday.
Like Roberts and Rowell, he encourages local chefs to glance north and take note of the lessons Toronto is learning.
“Buffalo should be aware of events like this,” he said, “because our city is well on its way to becoming a food destination for people around the world.”