The Culinary Breeding Network (CBN) will host its fourth annual Variety Showcase on October 2, 2017, in Portland, Oregon. The event will draw chefs and plant breeders to The Nines Hotel to share, discover, and taste new and unreleased vegetable and grain varieties alongside farmers, produce buyers, and others in the food community. Together, the 500 attendees will work to identify cultivars and traits that make for culinary excellence.
The event space will host upwards of 30 unique showcase stations, each featuring the edible work of an individual partnership between a chef and a plant breeder. Each partnership will offer samples of a dish they design to highlight one novel vegetable or grain variety. Alongside, they will present for comparison a range of other varieties of the chosen crop.
During the last three annual Variety Showcases, participants have been able to sample more than 150 cultivars in total, with ancient heirloom varieties on the same plates as new, unreleased varieties still in stages of development.
CBN events “aim to break down the wall between eaters and breeders by offering unique opportunities to share opinions and be an active participant in the breeding process,” writes Lane Selman, the CBN’s Founder and Director.
Selman coordinated the first Showcase in 2014 after watching frustration mount on both sides of the breeder-chef relationship. In kitchens, chefs often couldn’t get produce that they liked working with and grew bored of conventional options. In the fields, farmers often felt disconnected from the distant kitchens their produce ended up in and only saw feedback in terms of buyer preference on balance sheets. Selman’s ultimate goal with the Variety Showcases is “to facilitate breeder-grower-buyer matchmaking,” and in so doing restore the centrality of personal relationships to healthy food systems.
In recent years, she explains, traditional crop breeding for industrial-scale agriculture has increasingly prioritized traits that increase plant durability and shelf life, disease resistance, and drought tolerance, as well as improve physical uniformity and outward attractiveness. These traits have often been pursued at the expense of flavor, to a degree that science is only beginning to understand on a chemical level. For this reason, Selman asks breeders to bring varieties to the showcase for evaluation that still have room to change course before being commercially released.
Selman notes that she doesn’t want the event seen as a one-way street in which only the breeders benefit. “When the end user, often a chef, gains a fuller understanding of the complexity and potential of plant breeding, they walk away with a renewed appreciation for the foods they buy, prepare and eat,” she says.
The 2017 Showcase will also feature changes to the physical venue “with the idea of increasing the depth of the experience for all participants,” says Selman. “I have added three experiential rooms focused on different themes that participants can explore by way of immersive, active learning exhibits. These include a ‘Plant Breeding Literacy’ room, a ‘What Affects Flavor?’ room, and a ‘Developing a Tomato Flavor Wheel’ room.”
The keynote speakers for the 2017 conference will be Rowen White and Owen Taylor. White is a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for seed sovereignty. She is the director and founder of Sierra Seeds in Nevada City, California, and a Project Coordinator and advisor for the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, a part of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. Taylor runs both the Philadelphia Seed Exchange and SeedKeeping, a food-sovereignty-based collaboration between rural and urban farmers. For the last four years, he managed the historic Roughwood Seed Collection in Devon, Pennsylvania.
Among the dozens of chefs scheduled to participate are Dennis Lee of San Francisco’s Namu Gaji; Dev Patel of Seattle’s Tom Douglas Restaurants; Dave Gunawan of Farmer’s Apprentice in Vancouver, B.C.; M. Karlos Baca of the national collaborative Taste of Native Cuisine; Johnny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective in Madison, Wisconsin; and a number of local Portland culinary stars including Sam Smith of Tusk, Gregory Gourdet of Departure, Timothy Wastell of Antica Terra, and Maya Lovelace of Mae.
The list of breeders draws from an even larger geographic area, including teams from both Oregon and Washington State Universities; from Pacific Northwest seed companies, including Wild Garden Seed, Uprising Seeds, Adaptive Seeds, and Siskiyou Seeds; from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service; from the nonprofit research and education institution Organic Seed Alliance; from the intellectual property-focused Open Source Seed Initiative; and from both national and international seed companies, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Pan American Seeds, and Vitalis Seeds.