With two days of jam packed events for the public to enjoy, there isn’t a moment’s rest or a chance to go hungry. The event began with a bang Friday evening with a reception for honored chef Rick Bayless, followed by an extravagant food and wine gala. With thirty restaurants and thirty-five wineries in attendance to sample and pour their most decadent delicacies, it’s nearly impossible to make it to every restaurant and winery’s table.

Each chef provided their tasty interpretation of sustainable and organic foods. Local chef Dory Ford dished up a local favorite Pan Fried Abalone, which is a rare treat these days, which was absolutely scrumptious with the sweet corn sauté, tomato scallion beurre blanc, and chervil oil. Chef Michael Watchorn of the Hog Island Oyster Company served his Hogwash Oysters, a savory variation on the classic oyster mignonette sauce, that were deliciously crisp and freshing. Chef Erin Shaw’s Blackberry Duck Spears were rich in flavor with her blackberry cabernet chutney. Chef Louis Osteen’s Crawfish Cakes with Carmellized Vidalia Onions and Texas Pete Butter Sauce were a southern indulgence all on their own. Sadly, my stomach wasn’t big enough to taste every chef’s master delight. The solution, go back next year.

Saturday featured a Sustainable Seafood Information Fair at the aquarium, while others enjoyed local food and wine tours hosted by the event’s chefs and local eateries. Tours included The Marriage of Food and Wine hosted by the Lodge at Pebble Beach with John Ash (Sonoma County) and Jeff Jake (The Lodge at Pebble Beach), the Seafood Experience hosted by Estancia with Robert Clark (C Restaurant, Vancouver) and Wendiy Brodie (Art of Food/Carmel Highlands), and the Big Sur Experience hosted by Whole Foods Market with Jesse Ziff Cool (Flea Street Café/Menlo Park), amongst other tours.

A third day, a media only day, preceded Friday’s and Saturday’s events featuring a series of panel discussions with industry experts and leaders. Panelists included Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics, Charles Benbrook of The Organic Center, Myra Goodman of Earthbound Farms, honored chef Rick Bayless of Fronterra Grill/Topolobampo, Dan Benedetti, of Clover Stornetta Farms, Mel Coleman Jr., Coleman Natural Meats, and John Ash of Fetzer Vineyards to name a few. All discussed where the sustainable and organic food industry has come from and where we’re headed.

Colby and Megan Garrelts of Blustem Kansas City, Missouri compete in the Sustainable Seafood Challenge
Colby and Megan Garrelts of Blustem Kansas City, Missouri compete in the Sustainable Seafood Challenge

Many echoed one of my favorite truths about the quality of food one finds at grocery stores: poor quality products offering little in flavor and nutritional value. Rick Bayless drove home this point, when he stated, “If you shop on price at the market, you’re missing the whole point. When you buy organic and local, you become a partner in supporting the local farmer.” Regardless of the nutritional content of conventionally grown food, organic food just tastes better and is another reason to go seasonal and local like the Europeans have done for so many generations.

The panelists agreed that consumers demand great tasting products. What many consumers don’t understand is that organic food is synonymous with premium quality foods that are rich in flavor, nutritional content, while supporting sustainable farming. Nell Newman’s motto about Newman’s Organics is that they are “. . . great tasting products that happen to be organic.”

The experts also confirmed that the toughest nut to crack with the general public is education. Educating the consumer that the quality of your food and health is not about price is a tough road to hoe when organic alternatives may carry a small price bump.

In an interview with Rick Bayless, I asked him his thoughts about consumers who don’t buy organic because they feel it is expensive and not worth the price. He stated, “I say they’re short sighted. If a good portion of conventional produce is subsidized, if none of the price of conventional produce reflects the cost of environmental degradation (not to mention the potential human health costs of consuming food that contains pesticides and has less nutritional value), the ‘expensive’ argument doesn’t hold up very long. “Worth the price” compared to what?”

When further asked what he thought the biggest value add of organic food is, “that it contributes positively toward the future by protecting the productivity of the soil for future generations. In the present, it offers food that’s clean from potentially harmful chemicals.”

The panelists also agreed that the public needs to understand how conventional foods are grown. Crops are sprayed with toxic chemicals according to a spray schedule and the soil is fumigated. Pests are now becoming resistant to the pesticide methylbromide because of its common use in conventional farming. Science is now proving that since America started using chemicals to grow crops, the nutritional content and value of America’s conventionally raised produce has been on a steady decline since 1950.

In a panel discussion on Food & Health, PhD, chief scientist Charles Benbrook for The Organic Center, Dr. Jane Hightower and Becky Goldburg, PhD, chief scientist of Environmental Defense discussed the health effects of conventional and sustainable foods. Humans are now paying the price of conventional farming. We are eating food that is contaminated with pesticide residues which in turn contaminates the earth and threatens the health of the field workers of conventional farms.

Charles Benbrook made several key points about the growing scientific body of evidence that continues to support that pesticides pose significant health problems. For instance, conventional pesticides pose a risk to pregnant women and have been linked to birth defects. He also discussed the declining nutritional value of conventionally grown food. As a result of this steady decline, Americans are now over fed and undernourished (which may be connected to America’s obesity problem). He went on to say that the concentration of minerals and antioxidants are up to three times higher in organic foods. Thus, by eating organic foods we can increase our intake of minerals and nutrients. Science is also proving that genetically modified foods are lower in nutritional value.

Dr. Jane Hightower, a diagnostician and internal medicine doctor, discussed the risks of mercury poisoning when we eat too much fish. One of the major symptoms of mercury poisoning is hair loss. Other symptoms include, fainting spells and stomach upset. She states that the best way to avoid mercury poisoning is not to eat too much fish or too much of the same fish and “rotate your poisons.” Children of women who eat fish while pregnant are at a higher risk of developing learning disorders. Other high risk groups include body builders and kosher eaters who eat a lot of canned tuna. She also stated that you don’t have to cut fish entirely out of your diet, but get a little education about what you are eating and carry a wallet card.

Mike Sutton, director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans, Monterey Bay Aquarium pointed out that the politics of conservation and a greener environment are controlled by large industry. Thus, if we want to see larger strides in change maybe we ought to be working from the top down instead of the bottom up. Many non-profit organizations and supporters of the environmental movement have traditionally worked from the bottom up in promoting and implementing change for a healthier environment and food. In the past the position amongst corporations and fisheries has been, “don’t get in bed with the green projects, now that’s changing because of Wal-Mart,” states Mike Sutton.

Earlier this year Wal-Mart made an impressive commitment to sustainable seafood when it announced plans to purchase all of its wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for the North American market from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – certified fisheries within the next three to five years. The Center for Conservation Innovation and the World Wildlife fund were in talks with Wal-Mart for one year urging them to commit to sustainable seafood.

To wrap up the day’s events, author Gary Nabhan and director of the Center for Sustainability, Northern Arizona University made several key points. He reiterated Chuck Benbrook’s point about our nation being over fed and undernourished and America’s obesity problem. He also stressed the importance of biodiversity in our foods. Biodiversity offers us nutritionally rich foods which gives us resilience and good health and strengthens the body’s immune system and ability to fight off terminal illness such as cancer. He went on to stress that we need to reconnect people with their food and land through story, emotion, memory, trust and romance. And that is exactly where the chef’s key connection comes in. They help create that story, that romance that evokes the all important emotional response.

Cooking for Solutions 2006 did just that for me. With so many scrumptious treats and elegant wines featured throughout the three day event, my memory of luscious tasting organic and sustainable foods prepared by some of the world’s best chefs will linger for years. It is that memory along with the gorgeous rolling hills of Carmel Valley and the quaint town of Monterey Bay with its bustling sea life and stunning aquarium is what will bring me back year after year to this annual event as a romantic getaway for this organic foodie.