Ruminations TM_RU_LEWIS_CHEFCON_FI_002

A Seat at the (Conference) Table

When you send a film scholar to the Philadelphia Chef Conference, what do you learn?

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As a younger academic, my relationship with conferences is complicated. On the one hand, conferences are necessary for professional development. They allow us to share our work with others and receive feedback outside of our own departments or friendship circles. Conferences are also a means to discover new subjects, theories, and methods. The goal is to expand as scholars and become “better.” By attending and participating, we gain insight into what is current and what can be done to further expand our fields. I just outlined the most ideal scenario. For many, however, conferences are the worst. They are expensive and the work presented can be a crapshoot. Some conference participants are dynamic speakers doing innovative or just plain fun projects. Others just slapped something together because they either A) forgot because they were too busy with other responsibilities B) don’t care C) both A and B.

Traveling from the Midwest, I had to be strategic. My department would only provide $250 to $350. That amount covered the registration and (maybe) a single night in a hotel room blocks away from the conference venue. As a graduate student, adjunct, and then instructor, supplementing the cost with my own income became a strategic game. I have driven more hours than stayed at some conferences, had more platonic sleepovers than I thought I would as an adult, and spent a lot of time arguing with imaginary people over whether the concept of a conference is an antiquated institution.

The third annual Philly Chef Conference provided a different opportunity. Being held at Table Matters’ headquarters, Drexel University, there were already no anxieties or strategies regarding travels and cost. Bonus. The conference is also not in my wheelhouse. There was no expectation of presenting or participating. In fact, I was a stranger. Despite working for Table Matters, I am relatively new to the world of food. I am a media studies scholar and taught film. Two people I admire greatly, Cynthia Baron and Mark Bernard co-wrote Appetites and Anxieties, with Diane Carson, about representation of food in film. I, however, sat in their audience fascinated by their attention to detail. I now see food and drink everywhere in film. I am only beginning to understand the significance of food as a text in and of itself and its relationship to local, regional, and national contexts. To attend a conference where everybody was already deeply involved in these ideas incited some trepidation, mostly the fear of translation. I am already disinterested in jargon when I know (approximately) what it means. What would I do with two days of not knowing techniques, history, language of food? Would I be able to “smile and nod” my way through the entire conference?

I was nervous about writing something about this event, but I also knew there was food…so who was I to tell the editor no? Before we get further with the meaning of this conference and its significance to better understanding the food world we live in – let’s just understand that there was an ice cream break BUILT INTO THE SCHEDULE. This was no doubt (and unsurprisingly) the best-catered conference I have been to with places like Federal Donuts, Little Baby’s Ice Cream, and South Philly Barbacoa all contributing their time and fare. It was exciting to be able to indulge, but better yet, for the most part these products were local to the city of Philadelphia. The vendors represented the plurality of what Philadelphia offers as a “food city.” My plate was stacked high not just with food, but with cuisine representative of the city I’m now proud to call home. At least, that’s what I said to myself as I wiggled a burger from Kensington Quarters onto my already full plate.

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Winning chicken and biscuit sandwiches featuring Baldor’s SPARCS spice made of appropriated food scraps, a move toward becoming waste free in 2015. Photo courtesy of Studio 6.

There was more to this conference than just good eats. There were demos about pastry, cheese, and cocktails. There were also theoretical issues to be discussed. Part of my concern about attending entailed being exposed as a fraud, a food conference crasher who takes food and runs. I wanted to learn and eat, but I wasn’t necessarily versed in the world of food. My concerns over “language” barriers subsided almost immediately. What I realized was that we (attendees, scholars, chefs, guest speakers) are very much concerned with the texts and their contexts. I wasn’t an outsider; I was surrounded by people with similar frameworks applied to totally different subjects. When I teach film, I teach it as a craft and cultural product. “Ingredients” and “recipes” (if you don’t mind) are used to make films. Chefs are akin to auteur directors, both using historical precedence to pay homage to those who came before them or break/bend what were thought to be hard and fast rules to carve out their niche, define their path. Though there is typically one person who gets the credit, both film and food are highly collaborative.

There are no doubt differences. The economic models that govern each industry is one drastic distinction. Some fast-food restaurants parallel Hollywood, both are fast-paced, wide reaching, and can contain questionable content. Fast food restaurants, however, do not easily fit under umbrella terms as films do like “HOLLYWOOD.” Contemporary film studios have been shaped by a shared history of censorship, the vertical integration of the studio system, and Thomas Edison’s battle over patents. In an age of conglomeration, there are fast food restaurants with parent companies, but the identification to particular history is different. Likewise, film never has had the status food does of being something we want to consume and need to survive. America especially has become a culture of eaters and connoisseurs. As much as the advertising for blockbusters like Star Wars or Batman v. Superman may try to suggest that there is need to see their films, the likelihood of dire consequences in opting out of consuming cinematic goods is nonexistent.

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Peter Reinhart of The Baker’s Apprentice and other books on bread baking shares breads featuring Anson Mills’s heritage whole wheat. Photo courtesy of Studio 6.

While possessing different levels of sustenance in everyday life, food and film are hugely important across cultures. They are both products of specific cultural contexts that in turn shape culture. According to committee chair Michael Traud, the goal for the Philly Chef Conference was to blend the lines between academics, students, writers, and practitioners (chefs, bartenders, bakers, etc.) and to share knowledge across the lines. Knowledge from the field and knowledge in academia should not be segregated; it does a disservice to experts in both fields and limits how far we can draw connections across industry lines. It is one thing, for example, to talk about food insecurity and waste amongst fellow academics, but to talk with practitioners working in the industry provides a totally different perspective. When theorists and practitioners are talking together, there’s more potential to instigate change.

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Hai Street sushi burritos. Photo courtesy of Studio 6.

While there are lines often dividing scholars from practitioners that does not mean there are no instances of overlap. Twitter was abuzz during the presentations of scholars Solomon Katz and Mariana Chilton, who discussed food waste and food security, respectively. Both use their research to convey the severity of decisions made from individuals to the policies made at federal levels. These issues and concerns regarding the state and politics of food are not unfamiliar to those working in the industry. From foraging food to “ugly” fruits and vegetables, magazines like Bon Appetit and documentaries like Steak (R)evolution have detailed issues of ethics and sustainability. The Philly Chef Conference offered itself as a space to explore complicated issues from multiple perspectives.

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Cold noodle bowls from Honeygrow. Photo courtesy of Studio 6.

But despite the amount of work put into unpacking serious local, national, and global problems like sustainability, food security, and waste, the conference did not speak to issues of identity. Much like other industries, the Philly Chef Conference demonstrated the amount of work still necessary to diversify these conferences. Discussions of food ethics included all, but also in a way that does not necessarily acknowledge intersectionality and the particularly unique perspectives of those living various class, gendered, racial, disabled experiences. Despite attempts to incorporate women, presenters remained overwhelmingly white, male, and able-bodied. Panels focused on restaurant crises, menu development, and teamwork, dealt directly with issues of identity negotiation, but at least in the panels I attended, did not address issues of diversity behind the scenes and struggles or even just perspectives of those typically marginalized in the kitchen and front of house. How do we address issues regarding hospitality without considering the effects of privilege? Whether it is consumers coming from points of racial and class privilege negotiating with service workers or those operating outside privilege attempting to negotiate their way through intersections of power, these standpoints affect our interactions and experience.

As the conference continues to grow, I am sure more panels will develop and these issues of inclusion will be brought to the table. Because if not here, then where? While going over global issues is necessary and affects us all so do these everyday social interactions that affect our relationships as workers, scholars, and students. But perhaps this is my own attempt to translate the conference’s conversation into terms I better understand. There was no doubt a palpable positive energy, which is not (at least for me) the typical experience. I have felt it elsewhere, but not to this degree. Panel attendees were enthusiastic to participate; there was laughter and smiles, excited clapping. So the question remains, what is more important? Is it more significant to penetrate and challenge the audience better to consider their status as allies and partners or is it better to have people feel as if they had a positive learning experience? What does the middle ground look like?

I am inclined to think that regardless of profession, we’re always trying to find that in-betweenness where we feel provoked but not threatened. We want to grow but do so on our own terms. I think one of the reasons I have had negative experiences at conferences is that it rarely seems as if people are having fun. We go through the travel and payments and then seem to forget within the chaos of prepping PowerPoints and papers that we were supposed to also like what we do. At the Philly Chef Conference, everybody seemed to have more direction. Those presenting AND attending knew not why they were there, but why they wanted to be there. To be just briefly within that amount of positivity pushed me further into Philadelphia’s food community, one I wanted to be adopted by and claim as my own. There are still some issues with translation, but the conference has more time to grow, as do I. There is a need on my end to dive more into the material and learn the language – here’s hoping by next year, I can help find the middle ground. •

Melinda Lewis holds a PhD in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University. She watches too much TV and writes about popular culture. She is the managing editor of Table Matters.

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