Speaking at the Culinary Institute of America
In March I was invited to give a tofu talk at the Culinary Institute of America. Everything that could have gone wrong did. Fortunately, so did everything that could have gone right.
In March, I was invited to give a tofu talk at the Culinary Institute of America. Yesterday was the day. And EVERYTHING that could have gone wrong did.
Saturday afternoon, the Dean responsible for my visit admitted he had forgotten I was coming. No housing arrangements. No event marketing. No ingredients purchased. The Chinese tofus, which I had specially shipped over, were turned away by campus security, and I spent several stressful hours scouring unfamiliar markets for adequate replacements. Morning of, the prep volunteers no-showed. Some ingredients arrived 2.5 hours ahead of showtime. The rest never came. No fennel. No olive oil. No bay leaf. Not even black pepper. When I got onstage at 10:00 am, just a handful of students sat in attendance. The host looked embarrassed but resigned. “Everything has gone wrong…”
And yet, the minute we began, in spite of the chaos and the confusion, somehow, for some wild and unexplained reason, everything went right.
The attendees immediately understood this wasn’t ordinary tofu, and they encircled the demo table for an hour and a half, drilling me with questions and sharing their own qualms with western plant-based food. Our Shanghai tofu soup was met with an affection reserved for chicken noodle. The fried cannoli reminded one attendee of the startlingly delicious “bell” rolls she had tasted in Singapore hotpot. The fermented tofus were shocking. Especially the rose red and chili oil variants.
As we sampled the different flavors, it hit me… oh shit! I never added tofu any to our cherry tomato sauce!! I immediately folded some in, wincing as the others leaned in for a taste.
But when I looked up, my host’s face was in sublime disbelief. I will never forget her expression, seemingly questioning how… why… and what the hell!
When I tasted the dish, I joined her in disbelief. It was so damn good.
“You want to bring this stuff to Eleven Madison Park?” I joked, knowing she was externing at the 3 Michelin star eatery next term.
“Yes.” Still confused, she sounded solemn.
A student expressed interest in fermenting his own tofu. We troubleshooted his strategy. Another wanted to expand on the glass cannoli, my favorite food, to make it even better.
One attendee worked with the CIA’s flagship plant-forward culinary program, Menus of Change, a group that connects experts in nutrition, food policy, and culinary to design sustainable cafeteria menus. They also work with CIA’s school cafeteria, and she encouraged us to bring our leftovers to their chef.
“We’re so tired of produce! And extra-firm tofu!” Cynthia was adamant. “You’re opening my mind!”
The lid was coming off Pandora's tofu box. Chefs far more capable than myself were getting onboard. Not for my book or blog, but for their pursuit of creating amazing experiences with this overlooked category of ingredients. It felt like a weight was shifting off my shoulders into the current of fate.