Maneet Chauhan and Elizabeth Falkner Preview the 2016 Roots Conference
Hosted by Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef's Garden — a Huron, Ohio, vegetable farm run by Farmer Lee and his family — the annual Roots conference brings together chefs, food writers and culinary industry professionals for two days of conversation and critical thinking about the state of the food we grow, buy, cook and eat. This year's conference, the fourth consecutive one since Roots launched in 2013, will take place Monday, Sept. 19 and Tuesday, Sept. 20 at The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio. The events will focus on the theme of empowerment, both in the kitchen and out.
Food Network's own Maneet Chauhan, a longtime Chopped judge, and Elizabeth Falkner, a two-time competitor on The Next Iron Chef, are on the roster of esteemed chefs projected to attend the conference. Maneet is set to join a panel in a discussion on Cooking Authentically as it relates to evolving cuisines, while Elizabeth plans to address attendees as a keynote speaker.
We caught up with both chefs to learn about their involvement with Roots and what they're excited about this year, plus their own takes on feeling empowered in the kitchen. Read on below to hear what they had to say.
How did your work with the Roots conference and The Chef's Garden begin? What inspired you to get involved?
Maneet Chauhan: My dear friend Jody Eddy wrote an award-winning book called Come In, We’re Closed. She did a book-signing dinner at The Chef’s Garden for the book release and asked me if I would like to cook there. With an 18-month-old baby in tow, I reached Ohio and cooked for the event. It was one of the most-amazing experiences in my life, to meet Farmer Lee Jones [and to] hear his passionate talk about the farms and see how things are grown gave me a deeper appreciation and admiration about what food is about and from where it comes. When I was invited to participate in Roots 2016, I jumped at the opportunity because I have been closely following Roots over the last three years and have been deeply impressed with the collection of chefs and food professionals. It’s amazing to be a part of what becomes industry discussions and steps for real change — to be a part of the voice that makes the change.
Elizabeth Falkner: I have known Farmer Lee Jones for a while. And I spoke at a chef symposium and read from some of my forthcoming memoir in Santa Fe, N.M., this last spring, and he asked me to speak at Roots this year.
What panels or topics are you especially looking forward to at this year's conference?
MC: There are so many amazing topics and discussions. I love the perspective that the amazing collection of chefs and professionals are bringing to the table. The topics that I am most looking forward are:
1. Networked: New Ways That Chefs Are Connecting to Empower Themselves and Improve Their Community — I think this is key. Chefs have now attained the status of being rock stars in their own rights. ... It’s a responsibility for us chefs to utilize this status in one’s community to make this a much more responsible world, and that starts with one community at a time.
2. Cooking Authentically: How Do You Translate a Cuisine Once It's Removed from Its Origin? — This is a panel that I am a part of and something that I am very passionate about. Being from India and hearing the words “authentic cuisine” all my life, I am very interested in having discussions on what is authentic.
EF: All of the panels sound great this year, and I am especially interested in Healthy Living; Waste Not, Want Not; Chef As Advocate; and Going Big.
What does it mean to you to be part of a community of chefs and food professionals?
MC: I think it’s empowering to be a part of a fraternity of people who are as crazy as you, as passionate as you and understand what it means to be a part of change. To use a beloved tool like food and to bring change in people’s lives ... to me it means the world to be a part of this crazy, beloved community.
EF: I have been part of this community for 26 years as a professional chef, and it is a great community to be part of. And, most importantly, we are talented and extraordinary hardworking people who get things done and affect what and how our larger communities grow, purchase, cook [and] eat — and the impact it has on us and the world.
Empowerment is a central theme of this year's conference. When was the first time you remember feeling empowered in the kitchen?
MC: The first time I really felt empowered was when I opened my own restaurant, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, in Nashville. I decided at that time that to me, being a part of a supportive community is paramount. I started making connections with the local farmers, local producers and community leaders. With these efforts I was able to set the direction of a restaurant, which means to be a coconscious and responsible part of a thriving community.
EF: I am empowered when I take ingredients and people and myself seriously and love what I have at hand.
The first night's dinner — Waste Not, Want Not — will focus on the too-common disposal of usable food products. How do you take steps to reduce food waste in your own kitchen? What can home cooks do to follow suit?
MC: [When I was] growing up in India, "wastage" was something that was not in our vocabulary. One of the best examples that I remember was my mom would boil milk, which the milk man would deliver (because it was not pasteurized). A layer of cream would set on top of the milk pan when it got cold; she would skim the cream and do that for three to four days, then she would make butter out of the cream. The whey left behind would be boiled, and when it curdled, she would strain it to make paneer. The water which was left behind was used to curdle milk to make paneer. The butter after three to four days would turn rancid; she would heat it to make ghee, or clarified butter. The milk solids left behind were used to make panjiri, an Indian dessert. This is what I grew up with, so wastage is something I am very passionate about. “Ugly” fruits and vegetables or slightly blemished fruits or vegetables are used in a variety of things in my kitchens. I make chutneys, soups, lassis, sauteed veggies, raitas, stuffing for paranthas ... you name it. It’s very important for home cooks to use their imaginations. Home cooks should, in their mind, decide that food waste should not be an option and go about their lives that way.
EF: I believe we are a most fortunate species because we can actually eat and play with so many ingredients and we are privileged this way. It is our responsibility to utilize everything and not waste all that we have and utilize [it] in [the] best ways possible. I don’t overbuy groceries. I plan what I am going to eat each week and I use my creativity to make interesting combinations all the time.
How would you describe the role social media now plays in the success of a restaurant or a chef?
MC: We chefs have been deemed as rock stars and people follow us, see what we do, so we are in the position to set examples, to spread messages, to educate, to share what we learn. I think social media gives people the glimpse of the behind the lives of restaurants and chefs.
EF: One has to be a good cook/chef, first of all. Social media is important these days in keeping a chef or restaurant in the public eye, and it helps keeping people engaged with what you are doing.
What do you consider to be a few of your authentic ingredients, those flavors you keep coming back to?
MC: The word “authentic” is one that always makes me question the meaning of authentic. What is authentic? I can speak in terms of Indian cooking, one that I grew up with, what my mom made was different from what my aunt made ... same dish. How can you call a dish authentic? To me the definition of authentic stems from you. What is authentic to you and your style? The ingredients that I think are authentic to me are (other than my big bling-y jewelry) my garam masala blend, amchur (dry mango powder) and cardamom powder.
EF: Cumin, fennel, Aleppo chile, herbs, fish sauce, nuts, serrano chile, Key limes, Meyer lemons, rose water, violet, absinthe, Calabrese chile, smoke
What ingredient or process do you foresee becoming trendy in the next year? What current food trend do you wish would disappear?
MC: I think meatless options will be a big trend next year. Not only to skip the meat but to come up with absolutely innovative “meat options,” which will be healthier and more environmentally stable. I think the bacon truck has run its course!
EF: Trending: vegetarian and vegan. Food trend to disappear: bacon in everything.
What's something you hope both first-time attendees and returning guests of the Roots conference will leave having learned or considered more thoughtfully?
MC: I hope that the attendees realize what a powerful think tank that has been brought together. I hope they realize how important it is to discuss issues and problems and to be aware of them. I hope they realize that we have a voice and we have the power to use that voice. I hope they realize that food is a medium that can bring world peace (OK, that was too much ... but in my over optimistic view ... one never knows).
EF: I hope that people will see how we need to be much better at coming up with ways to look at food sources and ingredients and how valuable these things are in the bigger picture. I hope we learn how to better manage supply and demand and costs and waste.
Want to get involved? You can register now to attend the Roots conference in person, or you can follow along on social media with #RootsEmpower2016.