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A gathering of Charlotte's tastemakers

Chefs and farmers come together to 'connect the food chain'

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We all know Charlotte's food scene is exploding. Spurred by a clingy "steak and potatoes" reputation, our city's restaurants, breweries and farms have in the past decade produced an astonishing harvest of innovative tastes. Area chefs are finally shrugging off the shadow cast by Charleston's low-country cuisine and Atlanta's New South glitz, and are working to establish a culinary identity unique to this city.

Two years ago, a small group of chefs and farmers gathered in the dining room of Passion8 restaurant to give some structure and voice to this identity. The Piedmont Culinary Guild arose from that meeting with the goal of "connecting the food chain" among food producers and artisans at all levels. Next week, on the strength of nearly two hundred members (including this writer) and some well-attended events and benefits, the PCG is throwing its own Food and Beverage Symposium.

While ostensibly geared toward food-industry professionals, there is plenty to like about this event for the food-loving public. Bearing the theme "Back to the Basics," it comprises 25 of the region's leading food professionals leading 19 sessions, from animal butchery to vegan cooking, with several small-business topics and a couple of round-tables thrown in for good measure.

Classes on yogurt making or creating syrups and infusions should appeal to amateur culinarians yearning to delve deeper into home production. For the dining public, it's also an opportunity to rub elbows with industry stars who will be guiding the Queen City's food creativity over the next few years--think Punch Room, Heirloom and Heritage, just to name a few.

According to PCG Executive Director Kris Reid, this Symposium differs from other regional food conferences in offering a space for both farmers and chefs to come together, with the goal of strengthening the entire local food system. "They both have to be there," she says. "It's something that we need to be doing together."

In inviting the general public, Reid also hopes to raise awareness of the challenges of bringing sustainable food to our plates. "People go to a restaurant and see the pretty food, and they go to the farmers market and they see the pretty display of vegetables," she says. "But this is an opportunity to get inside the back door." She cites regulations on resurging preservation techniques like canning and fermentation, which hamper restaurants and artisans from selling traditional products like pickled vegetables and "legitimate sauerkraut."

"We don't do a lot of these things because of the regulation," she says, but "nothing's stopping you from doing that in your [home] kitchen. We have all the products available locally that you can do that."

The Symposium also brings to Charlotte two regional specialists pursuing sustainability from different parts of the food chain. From Asheville comes Meredith Leigh, whose resume includes farmer, teacher, writer, teacher, co-op owner and butcher. This broad experience culminated last year in her book The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore.

Her session by the same name promises insight for anyone from farmer to consumer to support "a sound and sustainable local meat supply."

From the opposite direction, both literally and figuratively, arrives Distinguished Professor David Shields of the University of South Carolina. He was instrumental in saving and revitalizing several of the state's heritage grain crops, mostly notably Carolina Gold Rice grown today by Anson Mills. His keynote address will cover the Ark of Taste, a catalog of heirloom varieties targeted by preservation by Slow Food USA.

If this is all too much to take in, just check out the event website at piedmontculinaryguild.com. It's not often that we get to witness a revolution, but the one happening in Charlotte right now is too delicious to pass up. As Reid says, "Every bite counts. This is where it starts."

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