Overlooking a spectacularly snowy Central Park and over the duration of a three-course lunch at chef Thomas Keller's Per Se, The Balvenie announced the winner of the inaugural American Craft Council Rare Craft Fellowship Award. Five finalists were on hand to be recognized in the field of traditional crafts and honored for their contributions to the revival of rare crafts in America in a presentation partnered with The Balvenie Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
Hundreds of craftsman were considered but the four finalists included luthier Scott Baxendale of Athens, Ga.; bicycle builder Stephen Bilenky of Philadelphia, Pa; silversmith Ubaldo Vitali who works in Maplewood, N.J.; and shoemakers Luisa Fernanda Garcia-Gomez and Crystal Quinn of Ina Grau of Minneapolis, Minn.; each of whom were awarded $5,000. The 2014 award went to 34-year veteran Vermont boat-builder Douglas Brooks who has traveled to Japan to study the traditional boat-building techniques he is dedicated to preserving. Brooks was awarded $10,000 and a two-week fellowship at the Balvenie distillery in Scotland's Speyside region where he’ll learn whisky making with malt master David Stewart, who was part of the jury that adjudicated the awards.
After the event, Brooks shared his feelings about what the award meant, the apprenticeship he’ll be choosing, and what he thinks he might be able to learn from the apprenticeship that might apply to his own craft. (You can follow Brooks' adventures on his blog Traditional Boats — East and West — At Douglas Brooks Boat-Building.)
What does this award mean to you?
The honor and the opportunity are just tremendous. I was completely surprised by the whole experience, but perhaps the deepest meaning for me is simply the recognition of my work. Most craftspeople labor alone and in relative obscurity, and there have been times over the last 20 years when I thought my work was so obscure I must be the only person in the world interested. This award validates my research in Japan and that means a great deal to me.
What are you most interested about learning from the apprenticeship?
I'm drawn to the coopering (barrel-making), mainly because the first type of boat I studied in Japan is essentially a barrel, and the techniques come straight from Japanese coopering. In fact, as a result of publishing a book on this particular boat I've been introduced to Japan's last sake barrel makers. I think it will be great fun to share what I know about Japanese coopering with the coopers at The Balvenie."Most craftspeople labor alone and in relative obscurity, and there have been times over the last 20 years when I thought my work was so obscure I must be the only person in the world interested. This award validates my research in Japan and that means a great deal to me."
Who will you be choosing to apprentice under and what do you hope to learn from the apprenticeship?
Again, I am very drawn to the cooperage, but frankly I have no doubt that any of the various craftspeople involved in their operations would fascinate me. I believe that craftspeople share common values and I'm very drawn to stories of how people discovered and learned their craft.
What if anything do you think you might be able to learn from the apprenticeship that might apply to your own craft?
Some of my most productive and fruitful exchanges have been with people who work in different crafts. My own skills have been enhanced working alongside cabinetmakers, furniture makers and timber framers. Obviously the woodworkers in the Balvenie cooperage will have a lot to potentially teach me, but I am also interested in meeting the coppersmiths who maintain the stills (copper plating is used extensively in some types of Japanese boats), as well as the other craftspeople.
One of the most thought-provoking elements of my work in Japan has been the apprentice system I learned under, and the radical differences between that system of learning and the way crafts are taught in the US. I could write for hours on these differences, but for anyone reading a food blog, the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi should be high on everyone's film list. For me, the genius of that film were the words the master chef used to describe his education and evolution as a craftsperson. They mirror the sensibilities of my teachers in Japan. I am looking forward to meeting the various craftspeople at The Balvenie and finding out from them how they learned their craft. As I teach, more and more I find myself very drawn to the various ways of learning.
Per Se Menu
Anson Mills' Polenta "Agnolotti"
Toasted Piedmont hazelnuts, "Fourme d'Ambert," crispy sage, and "beurre noisette"
Herb-Roasted Rib-Eye of Snake River Farms' Beef
Caramelized torpedo shallot, Yukon Gold potato "bouchons," broccoli florettes, and bone marrow vinaigrette
Reduced milk ice cream, Balvenie Whisky foam, and brown butter hazelnuts