The International Association of Culinary Professionals‘ annual conference is the push into the spotlight that Louisville needs to make its mark as a rising food city, said Louisville chef Edward Lee.
“It’s probably the most important conference in the last decade,” Lee said. “Some of the most prominent food writers in the country are going to be in Louisville for that weekend. People like that don’t come to Louisville often.”
The conference, which will be held March 3-5, brings together hundreds of food and beverage writers from around the world to Louisville. Last year, the conference was held in Los Angeles, and next year, it will take place in New York City.
Lee will deliver the conference’s Saturday keynote speech — “Beyond Grits and Gumbo: The Culture of Place in Southern Cuisine, with an Eye on Tomorrow” — and will be hosting a pickling workshop Friday with Cured magazine editor Darra Goldstein.
Louisville has a “crossover of cultures” because of its location in the South and proximity to the Midwest and Appalachia, said Martha Holmberg, CEO of IACP. “Our members like to discover things. They want to be the first one to find out about something, or they want to expand their understanding of regional food.”
One of the main reasons IACP is hosting its event in Louisville is the fact that not that many people have had the chance to visit the city yet, she said, but IACP members have been hearing about Louisville’s growing food and beverage scene.
Prior to a site visit to Louisville a couple years ago, Holmberg had never been to the city. Since then, however, she’s been studying up, even switching from gin cocktails to bourbon to experience different versions of the Kentucky spirit.
“I have been drinking a lot of bourbon in the last year, and rye,” she said.
The explosion in bourbon’s popularity has made it to Portland, Ore., where Holmberg lives with her husband. Just the other night, she said, they went out to a “saloon” where the drink of the month was an old-fashioned. Five years ago, Holmberg said, bartenders wouldn’t have been nearly as excited to play around with bourbon cocktails.
While bourbon will play a lead role in the conference, Lee said Louisville’s strong history, traditions and connection to agriculture would differentiate it from other larger cities.
“There is a lot to be learned from small cities and what we do with our food and our agriculture and our thinking. I think people are sort of wanting to have a connection to an authentic experience, and that is what Louisville offers,” Lee said. “I think that is going to be very apparent when these food writers come here.”
Locals have long touted Louisville as a foodie town, but Louisville seems to miss lists like Zagat’s Hottest Food Cities, and the city’s chefs and restaurants have repeatedly been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Awards, but only one local has won in the past 26 years: Julian Van Winkle of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery was named “Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional” in 2011. (Chef Lee recently was nominated (once again) for Best Chef: Southeast for his restaurant 610 Magnolia.)
The IACP conference is a way for Louisville to get some recognition and continue to build momentum.
“I think the last piece of the puzzle is for the national media to recognize that as well, and conferences like this play a huge part in that,” Lee said. “This is our moment to shine.”
For her, Holmberg said, becoming a recognizable food city is more than having great eateries.
“It is not just the restaurants; it’s access to great ingredients. Are there people growing interesting fruits and vegetables and raising meat that can supply the restaurants? What is the willingness of the community to support these places?” Holmberg said.
Coffee is also a good indicator, she added.
“It is an indicator that people are taking care with the small things,” Holmberg said. “It’s a daily routine, but it can become a daily pleasure if you have a really good barista roasting your beans.”
Louisville’s culinary scene is night and day from what it was a decade ago, Lee said, and will continue to grow as the city offers more entertainment such as music festivals and food-related events that attract people to Louisville.
“In Louisville, we are a town that is on the cusp of something big,” he said. “I think we’re almost there. I think it’s a commitment from excellence and that comes from all sides, it comes from the restaurant and from the chef and from the farmers and food media. …Most importantly, it comes from the public. If we have chefs that take risks and do special things, they need customers to support them.”
Locals can take part in the IACP conference by attending the International Cookbook Awards at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 5 at The Louisville Palace. Carla Hall, of ABC’s show “The Chew,” will host. Tickets are $50.
The conference also is opening up a few of its Friday, March 3 workshops to non-IACP members. Options include a still-making tour at Vendome Copper & Brass Works and craft spirits tasting with Copper & Kings American Brandy Co.; a cooking class with chefs Cathy Whims and Annie Pettry; a barbecue tour of Kentucky; and an inside-look at open-hearth baking at GE’s FirstBuild.
Price range from $30 to $375, depending on the event. For info on tickets, times and other details, visit the IACP event page.