Let’s face it: We don’t live in the kind of country where our president shows up at an event to wax eloquently about the magic of craftsmen … who make pastry. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy does just that in Kings of Pastry, a revealing documentary look at Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, the three-day trial the best pastry chefs in the world endure to earn the ultimate accolade in their field. The film’s a peek into a real-life Top Chef: Just Desserts that’s not ginned up for television, and it helps us realize the huge differences between French and American food culture. Simply put, they’re just more serious about food, as long as we can agree that making a perilously breakable six-foot sugar sculpture is a symbol of gravity.
The question, then, becomes if the current food revolution in the United States will lead to permanent changes or merely become one more way to manipulate the marketplace (you’ve got to have that BMW in your garage and that Wolf in your kitchen, you know). UCSB’s Arts & Lectures (A&L) will help us explore the complexities of that question with Food for Thought!! (the exclamation points are theirs), a just-announced series of four events that go on sale today.
“Two years ago, we presented Anthony Bourdain, and he was such a big hit,” explains Roman Baratiak, A&L associate director, “and various supporters of our program are always excited about foodie-type events. Then we partner frequently with the Orfalea Foundations, and that was a big part of it, as they’re trying to get people to eat better, especially in the schools. So we wanted to bring back Bourdain and decided to build a series around him.”
It didn’t hurt that A&L already had an evening booked with Michael Pollan, a writer who single-handedly seems to be making America a healthier nation with his books, such as In Defense of Food. “We presented him years ago when he did Botany of Desire,” Baratiak recalled, “and it was in the Girvetz Theater for a hundred people. When we presented him two years ago, it was over-the-top successful in Campbell Hall. It’s amazing how people’s lives can change … and that’s what he’s trying to do, and obviously he’s had a really big impact on a lot of people”: so much so that Pollan was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2010.
A&L is offering some wrinkles for the repeat visits of Pollan and Bourdain, too. This time, Pollan will be interviewed by NPR’s Renée Montagne, who is excited about the opportunity. “I’ve interviewed Michael Pollan before,” she explained, “and he’s an easy interview, because he’s lively and articulate and, above all, passionate.” As for the No Reservations star, Bourdain, he will be paired with his pal Eric Ripert, the dashing French chef and sometime Top Chef judge whose way with seafood has made his Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin a perpetual favorite.
Adding Ruth Reichl (the final editor of the late, lamented Gourmet and a six-time James Beard Award winner) to the series was an easy call for A&L. Baratiak tried to get her to Santa Barbara on a book tour a few years back, but that didn’t schedule. This time, she’ll be giving a talk called A Spy in the House of Food that will not only deal with her days as a restaurant critic for both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times—which often meant she had to dine in outrageous disguises to protect her identity—but what she bills as “great tales of the table that remain untold, examining what food tells us about who we are as a society.”
That societal element will be a big part of the series for Arts & Lectures, as is usually true with its educational and outreach mission. “When these folks are here, we’re hoping to get them to local schools and gardens, hoping to put together a meal of locally grown food for them,” Baratiak asserted. “Then at the events there will be tables and booths for people to be able to get involved. Orfalea will put that together for us. For example, at Bourdain last time, I think they had the I.V. Food Co-Op, s’Cool Food, and some local farmers.”
But, of course, anything about food has to begin with making people happy, so that gets to the choice to add the D.A.(Don’t Look Back) Pennebaker- and Chris (The War Room) Hegedus-directed film Kings of Pastry (talk about your master craftsmen) to the series. “The film is just kind of a dessert,” Baratiak quipped, “to add something a little different to the table.”
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures’ Food for Thought series includes Michael Pollan in conversation with Renee Montagne (Thu., Feb. 10, 8pm) at the Granada; a screening of the film Kings of Pastry (Thu., Mar. 3, 7:30pm) at Campbell Hall; an afternoon with Ruth Reichl (Sun., Mar. 27, 3pm) at the Granada; and Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert in conversation (May 1), most likely at the Granada. Tickets are on sale now at the A&L Box Office; call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.