In what is likely to be hailed as the culinary event of the summer, Around the World in 10,000 Bites did everything it promised it would. Consume 101 courses from 10 countries around the globe? Check. Fly in chefs from across the globe for the fete? Check. Give diners an experience of a lifetime? Check.
"I'd have customers come into my restaurant, and I'd ask them about great meals," said David Skinner, the chef behind acclaimed Kemah restaurant Eculent and the organizer of the event that occurred Saturday, August 17, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "Some of them were well-traveled, and they knew food, but they hadn't been to the Middle East or explored Asia. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to bring together flavors from all these places in one meal?"
A culinary tour
The never-before-attempted dinner was easily a culinary tour-de-force. Some 120 guests streamed into the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences' Morian Hall of Paleontology, where long dining tables set with glasses of wine and water atop a shimmering silver tablecloth fairly glowed under the golden lights of exhibits. Dressed in their cocktail best, attendees' animated conversations reverberated with similar excitement — they loved food, so how could they not be here?
Throughout the evening, they traded food stories and name dropped restaurants with each other, the way kids might trade baseball cards. "Have you been to MAD yet?" "Eculent will change your life. "We got to go to El Bulli before it closed." They swapped lists of restaurants to try.
Countries via courses
Each plate arrived at the table with small bites that totaled 10 courses. Each dish in the center of the plate would be the "core" offering of a country, a dish that represented the essence of a country's flavor and history. Eight other courses radiated around the center that showcased each chef's talents and desire to present bites that gave nods to regional dishes, immigrant influences, and thousands of years of culinary development.
Guests lavished over meals prepared by the likes of chef Manu Buffara whose restaurant Manu in Curitiba, Brazil, landed on the list of the World's 50 Best restaurant discoveries; or DJ Tangalin, the Filipino rock star chef that's taken the world by storm and who recently announced a solo venture in San Diego; or Japan's Medwin Pang of Hunger Pang in Brooklyn.
Multiple Houston chefs participated as well, presenting the flavors that mirrored their global heritage and their Houston home, among them Michael and David Cordua, Kaiser Lashkari of Himalaya, and Javier Becerra of BCN and MAD.
Skinner himself, along with a team that included Stacy Mullen, Nancy Manlove, and Tamara Stangler, kicked off the night with the food of the United States of America in all its melting pot glory. His Floating Fire offered a cotton-candy-like bite that exploded into a smoky, barbecue-laced morsel, and the Grandma's BLT delivered all the flavors of the comfort-food sandwich stuffed into a tiny tomato.
Mexico's plate featured a super spicy take on Mole Negro as well as a Pineapple Al Pastor that brought a pop of sweet, tropical fruit, and a smoky and savory Adobo Pork Belly. Xtabentún, an anise liqueur from Mexico's Yucatan, paired with the dishes.
David Duarte, former firefighter and head of Arizona's Finestre Modern Gastronomy, presented an Italian menu that reflected his love of molecular gastronomy, with a Minestrone soup presented as a dollop of foam from which leapt the tomato, garlic, and savory notes of that familiar dish; a delightful Arancini, loaded with rice and lightly fried; and a killer Caprese that flipped the familiar tomato-mozzarella-basil dish on its head, brilliantly presented as a layered emulsion of buffalo mozzarella and tomato with a tiny basil leaf on top.
Spain's menu included the MAD Explosive Olive that lived up to its name, a rush of juicy liquid that smacked of brine and garlic, and polbo á feira, a gorgeously poached octopus atop a chewy potato.
The grand finale
Country after country, the courses they came, bite after bite, until the grand finale. Dessert brought a chocolate globe, filled with desserts from each country. The hall echoed with pops from rubber mallets smacking the globe into bite size pieces, while diners poked about the shavings to pluck out mochi, macarons, and bites of mole cake.
By 11:15 pm, several diners remarked on the late hour, and the amount of food — nearly four pounds of it — throughout the evening. Even though the measurements for the dishes had been carefully calculated by the organizers to ensure what one person could comfortably eat across the six-hour extravaganza, more than one diner expressed fatigue and delight in equal measures.
Even with hiccups throughout the evening — from running about 20 minutes behind the set schedule to the occasional mismatch between the course listing in the multi-page menu and the actual plate in front of diners, as well as a sometimes uneven discussion of the wines offered for each country — the vibe as the guests dined among the dinosaurs was not only forgiving, but fawning.
The food event of the summer
Skinner wanted the massive meal to be both a culinary travel adventure as well as a not-so-subtle class in how people are more alike than different. He hoped diners would see what he called "bridges" between the flavors of the countries, and how different tastes and techniques might originate in one place, but meander across borders and oceans to others. Proceeds benefitted breast cancer research, in honor of acclaimed chef Dominique Crenn, as well as the James Beard Foundation.
"This guy is insane. That's what I thought when I first read about this," said Joel Bartsch, president and curator of gems and minerals at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, in his welcome remarks. "So, we knew we had to be part of it."
Others echoed that sentiment throughout the evening. David Cordua, of DMCordua Hospitality, who, along with his father, Michael, presented a dinner from Nicaragua, used the word "insane" in describing Skinner's concept. So did Duarte, whose menu represented Italy. The other word every chef used was "honored." Honored to be asked, honored to take part, honored to share his or her talents with a city with such a mad love for food.
A running commentary on every course from every country made for a night that felt part like the foodie version of ComicCon and part like pure celebration for both a love of food and those who make it. At the end, the crowd applauded the sheer ambition of the event.
When the dinner finally broke up after midnight, after diners took selfies with chefs and had them autograph their menu booklets, the prevailing opinion was exactly what Skinner promised from the very beginning: "a lot of food and a lot of fun."