The fresh poblano peppers used at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor are grown by a local family, just like the peaches are — and the fish is local too. But these ingredients are often used in recipes conceived elsewhere.
Take the green poblanos, for example. They’re used in the popular Chicken Chili Rellenos dish that chef and owner Colin Ambrose had made on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon earlier this summer. At the time, he paired the dish with a Pinot Noir from the area, after meeting the local winemaker.
Now both the dish and the wine are served in his restaurant. This combination of global meets local cuisine is the theme of this year’s Food Lab Conference — which includes several panels, a cooking class and dinner — on September 14 and 15 at Stony Brook Southampton. Ambrose, one of the keynote speakers, will have a conversation with Biddle Duke, the founding editor of East magazine.
The conference, in its fourth year, has evolved into something “very socially relevant to all of our lives,” said Geoffrey Drummond, the executive director of the Food Lab at Stony Brook Southampton, a center for education, enterprise and media that encourages informed conversation about food. It will focus on how food knows no boundaries and the effect global politics have on local cuisine, as well as both health and nutrition, which are also top of mind.
“I’ll call it an open table: I wanted to do issues that spoke to globalism and at the same time focus on local because we have so many amazing people out here on the East End who are working in food and wine and brewing who are from all over the world,” Drummond said. “Let’s bring so many of these people together and let’s talk about these issues.”
Since Ambrose bought Estia’s Little Kitchen in the late 1990s — and even his first location in Amagansett, also called Estia’s, in the early ’90s — he has made it his business to learn from other chefs across the country, constantly bringing back new technique and flavors to his own menu. With a background in the publishing industry, including as the advertising director of Top Shelfmagazine, and a job at the now-defunct Hearst publicationConnoisseur, Ambrose had to learn the trade from scratch. And he made sure to do that from some of the best, among them: Chef Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, as well as Bobby Flay, the author of numerous cookbooks and a Food Network host.
Ambrose even worked the “line” at Union Square Café in 1999, a task he described as “quite possibly the toughest station in the restaurant world” at the time.
“I sure do have a lot of pride that I can tell people that I worked the line in Union Square,” Ambrose said. “I continued to see how when I went into an environment like that, I learned to come out of it and enhance my business as a restauranteur, as a chef and right down to the plate.”
“To a certain extent, that’s what Geoffrey is trying to curate in this year’s Food Lab: the stories of how people identify new opportunities from cuisines in other areas,” he added.
Pati Jinich will be another keynote speaker at this year’s conference. A Mexican immigrant who has lived in the United States for 20 years, she is the host of the Emmy and James Beard-nominated PBS Television Series “Pati’s Mexican Table.” It’s seventh season — which will premiere the weekend before the conference, and in some markets, the weekend of the conference — starts at a place top of mind for many: the border between Mexico and the U.S.
The conference is right up her alley, she said, excitedly, as she has spent her professional career trying to “open a window” into Mexican culture and gastronomy. And because of the influence of the many migrant communities in the United States, Mexican cuisine continues to evolve here, north of the border, too.
Twenty years ago, she said, few ingredients often used in Mexican cuisine were available. Now, it’s a different world. From Hoja Santa — a staple herb with a licorice-like taste, and which literally means “sacred leaf” in Spanish — to avocado leaves, both can now be found and are often used in dishes that, Jinich said, “you used to need an acquired taste for.”
“People, regardless of their political views, want taco nights,” she said, laughing, her voice rising. “It is the irony that yes we are living in these crazy political times, but people absolutely love Mexican food.”
“Kitchen and cooking and cuisine — it’s the noblest of spaces where you can help build more understanding and help build more bridges,” Jinich continued. “We all want to sit down to eat, we all want to have a good time, we all want to feed our families, we all want to have meaningful times in the kitchen, we all want to eat healthy, so it’s more about focusing on the things we share and the things that we can learn, about how we’re enriching each other.”
Dr. Frank Lipman, an integrative and functional medicine doctor in New York, author of five books on the topic and founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, will discuss the importance of nutrition and health at this year’s conference.
His philosophy, he said, is summed up well by Wendell Berry, an American novelist and farmer, who says, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”
Dr. Lipman said that doctors are trained in drugs and surgery — not nutrition, which can often be the underlying cause of health issues. In conventional western medicine, for example, drugs are usually prescribed to mask symptoms instead of looking into why a symptom arises in the first place. He equated this process to putting a band aid over the oil light in a car instead of taking it to the mechanic to see why the light went on.
“I think it’s important for people to be aware of their health and how much they need to take charge of their own health,” he said. “You can’t rely on getting healthy from doctors.”
Additional panels at the conference will include Florence Fabricant, a New York Timesculinary journalist and cookbook author, in conversation with Lisa Gross and Sonya Kharas, the founders of League of Kitchens, a program where immigrants teach cooking workshops in their homes. Seamus Mullen, a chef and cookbook author whose New York City restaurant, Tertulia, was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation award for Best New Restaurant, will also speak, among others.
Asked what he hopes people take away from the diverse set of panels and talks at this year’s Food Lab Conference, Drummond said, “The real joy and pleasure that comes from being at one long table with all different kinds of people who are sharing both your food and their food, in a real acknowledgement…we’re all people.”
The Food Lab Conference, “Eat Global…Cook Local,” at Stony Brook Southampton will be held on Friday, September 14 and Saturday, September 15. Tickets are $150 and $75 for students and farmers. Tickets to the cooking class on Friday with Chef Nicholas Poulmentis are $50.