When the organizers behind Expo Milan's United States pavilion needed someone to program and curate the project, they turned to Toronto-raised Mitchell Davis, who is quite possibly the best-connected man in food. Davis, a food writer and scholar, is executive vice-president of the New York-based James Beard Foundation, but more recently he goes by chief creative officer, USA pavilion, 2015.
When I met up with him in Milan, Davis was helping to organize visits from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and first lady Michelle Obama, as well as fielding calls about a sticky border issue (36 kilograms of Florida shrimp were stuck in Italian customs). On top of it all he was finalizing the guest list for a pair of dinners at the James Beard American Restaurant, a six-month pop-up in a historic space in downtown Milan.
Daniel Humm, the chef at Eleven Madison Park, ranked fifth on the world's best restaurants list, was due to cook. His is just one of dozens of top American and Italian chefs booked for dinners there before Expo's October close.
In between calls, Davis talked about how he chose to represent America's diverse views on food and his favourite places to eat and shop in Milan.
How do you tell the story of American food within a single pavilion? It means so many different things to different people.
We're not presenting one answer or one point of view. We're trying to represent the diversity of opinions out there. We've included in our pavilion people who don't agree with each other, not just because we think that is representative of America, but because it's also one of the strengths that will help us solve how to try and feed ourselves in the future.
Look at the living wall outside the pavilion. There are 42 heirloom crops growing on that wall, which is, in some ways, a very sophisticated piece of technology. That dialogue between technology and nature, or the future and the past, is really at the core of the whole pavilion, and really underlies what the question of how we'll feed ourselves in the future is all about. You know, what technologies do we use? How do we apply them? Are they applied fairly? We're trying to show some of the tools at play and some of the ideas.
And the impromptu dance parties on the deck, upstairs. How did those come about?
They just started. Everybody was impressed by this big open roof terrace that we had and we needed to do something to make it come alive, and so we added music. Well as soon as you start playing music, people like to dance. It turned out that our student ambassadors, who are really the face of the pavilion, just started to get down to the music, and that became an attraction in itself. And now, pretty spontaneously, throughout the day, the roof becomes a dance party.
Where is the best place to eat in Milan?
La Latteria di San Marco. I love it because the food is incredibly simple but really well-prepared, beautifully seasoned, homey, and because of that, you can eat there again and again. It's like eating at home if your mother was a great chef. No, not a great chef. If your mother or your father was a great cook. Arturo is just a wonderful cook. The menu changes every day so you can go back and find all sorts of amazing discoveries. Via S. Marco, 24, 39 02 659 7653
And the best place to drink?
N'Ombra de Vin. I love the aperitivo phenomenon in Milan in general, the idea that you meet your friends in a place, you have a glass of wine, you hang out and chat and they bring you delicious food and you stand outside or sit and just hang out, for hours, over that one or two glasses of wine. N'Ombra de Vin has a great selection of wines and yummy snacks and every night it's just a busy, friendly, chatty, place. Via S. Marco, 2, nombradevin.it
Where do you shop in Milan?
10 Corso Como. It's just the coolest store in the world. There's nothing else to it. It's a menagerie, an emporium of just the coolest things: clothes, objects, I didn't know they had a bookstore on the first floor. It's just an incredible discovery zone for really cool fashion – and stuff. 10corsocomo.com
Milan is the global fashion capital. How are you supposed to dress?
It's hard to pretend you're Milanese, because they all seem to get memos from people about what is trendy right now and what every one is wearing, and they abide by them. People ask if you have to dress up for dinner and the reality is that you don't have to dress up for dinner but people dress up anyway. So you'd better put on a jacket and try your best. I don't know how you dress in Milan. You can't win.
This interview was edited and condensed.