"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 6, 2014

Locavore, Shmocavore–Enough Already! Do We Really Care?

I had a very good meal the other day at an organic farm/restaurant not far from Leesburg, Virginia.  The restaurant sat on a promontory in the foothills of the Shenandoahs, and from the terrace the view was across the bridge over the Potomac to Maryland and beyond. The menu was unusual and varied – the kind for which one who spends a lot of time in the kitchen is looking for.  I opted for the Beet Congee, coddled egg, bacon, buttermilk curd, and fava shoots to start; and the Miso Braised Pork Belly, sweet potato pancakes, tamari caramel, and fried peanuts for the entrée.

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So far, so good, except for the foodie add-ons. I have become used to Bruce, Calumet, or Diane explaining the menu – the odd bits and pieces of foraged ingredients and how the Jamie decided on the orchestration. “Jamie likes to prepare his dishes with a light touch – all organic, of course, with a touch of the foraged and unusual – and the braised baby goat, stewed in Turkish figs and a Mediterranean infusion of rosemary, his specialty, is a good example”.

This patter is laid on even more buttery when the restaurant has its own farm; and the concept of locavore is taken ad extremis.  Not only are diners told about how each dish is prepared, but where on the property the ingredients are harvested. “Terroir is important”, said Marshall, our server, “and Jamie lets our free-range goats graze only on the Northeast slopes of the property.  He can sow sorrel and jimson there in the Spring, and the meat takes on a fragrant, autumnal flavor in October.”

The lettuce was from the kitchen gardens behind the main house – “built in 1880 by the Tylers, one of the few Virginia families who never owned slaves”.  The vinegar had been distilled and confected from the Norton grape, Virginia’s own native varietal. The eggs and chicken livers were from the free range chickens on the southern slopes of the farm.  “Our chickens have over 10 acres to roam”, said Marshall, “more land than any other poultry farm in the area.  We have carefully balanced the need for wide ranging with muscle consistency. In an area any larger than ten acres, the chickens become stressed, the meat less tender, and the organ meat grainy and somewhat acidic.”

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If the restaurant could not source the ingredients for its cuisine from its own farm property, it maintained a strict locational discipline. “The owner of the farm specifically selected this area of the low Shenandoahs so that he could be in close proximity with other, like-minded producers.  Our paw-paw custard – which I hope you will try for dessert – is made from fruit on the adjacent property”, noted Marshall.  “Mother Nature simply didn’t favor us in that department.”

There was nothing we ate or drank that came without an explanation.  Even the water was sourced from artesian wells ‘not far from here’.  The parsnips, watermelon, potatoes, and pork belly were local, although not from the farm.  Even the salt got a rundown. “We use Sel gris de Guerlande”, said Marshall, “harvested by hand by French artisans in the traditional way.  Note the slightly grey color of the salt because of the very particular method of harvesting. The bottom of the salt pan – the oeillet - may be composed of clay, basalt, sand, concrete, or even tile.

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“Our pepper….” At this point I had had quite enough introduction, and more than enough information about my meal.  As far as I am concerned, if it tastes good, that’s all that counts.  The proof is in the pudding, so to speak; and I doubted whether anyone could tell if the arugula had been grown organically on the slopes of Western Virginia or had been mass produced in the Sacramento Valley.  I don’t care what chickens peck, how much range they have to roam in, or whether or not they have been slaughtered humanely, as long as the skins are nice and crispy, the flesh moist and succulent, and there is plenty of dark meat.  Provenance is way overrated.

Just when I thought Marshall was going to shut up and take our orders, he says, “Our menus average out at 787 grams – just enough for you to be satisfied and not more than you need.”  I had never in my life paid attention to how much the food on my plate weighed, let alone have the calculation done in metric, or being shamed about overeating.  What did 787 grams mean, anyway?  Eight hundred grams of fatty rib eye or egg yolks in a crème caramel would put my caloric intake over the top.  Eight hundred grams of radishes and celery would leave me hungry and looking for an old Twinkie in the glove compartment on the trip home.

Whenever I am in a restaurant like this, I think back to my years eating at the best brasseries in Paris.  The waiters at Le Petit Lutece or Le Train Bleu brought out the dish of fruits de mer – oysters, clams, mussels, periwinkles, and crab – without a word about provenance or husbandry.  The choucroute Alsatienne – German-style wurst, bacon, and ham atop a vinegary portion of marinated cabbage and accompanied by steamed potatoes and spicy Maille mustard – needed no explanation.  The lightly sautéed filet of Dover sole, the liver sautéed in porto, or a dozen fines de claire required no introduction, no soliloquy, no detailed explanation.  You didn’t ask because you didn’t have to ask. French brasserie cuisine was standard and uniformly good.

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At the best Michelin-starred restaurants, knowledgeable waiters appreciated a knowledgeable question about the often complex preparation involved in French cuisine.  Sauces were prepared, reduced, enhanced, reduce again, highlighted, simmered, and then only served with meat, fish, or fowl. “Does the chef use sage or sorrel in his rabbit reduction?” would be an appropriate inquiry.  “What’s in it?” would not.

Soon enough the foodie fad will end – no more elaborate architecture, foraged, and locally-sourced exotic ingredients (the Danish chef Rene Redzepi is renowned for his seaside foraging and dishes at his restaurant in Copenhagen will often include seaweed, wild marsh grass, sea insects, and crane larvae).

There are restaurants in San Francisco, the epicenter of foodie culture thanks to Alice Waters, which have simplified their meals in protest against this elitist, rarified approach to cooking.  Yet, the Bay Area being what it is, these retro-restaurants cannot simply offer Mac ‘n’ Cheese.  It has to be local, artisan cheese and pasta made from Humboldt County durum wheat.  You can still get straight Mac ‘n’ Cheese but only in Bumtown, the area just east of the Tenderloin District.

California foodie cuisine is a transitional phenomenon, that’s all.  The greatest French brasseries and five-star restaurants do not go into provenance because everyone who eats there already knows that the ingredients have been chosen from among the freshest and are always of the highest quality.  Asking the waiter at Taillevent if the fish is fresh is like asking if St. Francis of Assisi liked birds. Fresh ingredients, chosen and prepared with care, and presented with élan and panache are what French cuisine is all about.  We are still in the exploratory and slightly defensive mode.  The owner of my Shenandoah restaurant and his server, Marshall, still feel they have to intimidate, show off, and do a peacock strut for the audience.  Eventually we all will understand good food and what goes into it, and won’t need all the fol-de-rol we get today.

This is not to say that I prefer Steak ‘n’ Eggs, the greasy spoon up the street on Wisconsin Avenue which has been slinging hash for decades.  No, I will put up with the foodie provenance nonsense because the young maestros in the Shenandoahs or on the Rappahannock really do know what they’re doing.  I am a good cook, but they are chefs.  They think of putting things together I never would.  It’s all about combinations – fruit and meat, sweet and salt, pork and fish, swamp reeds and sea urchin – that are far beyond my limited repertoire.  I have over 100 recipes up on my blog, all of which are tasty, unusual, and high flavor; but none of them can match the creativity of the really great chefs of today; and we can thank the San Francisco foodies for giving them a leg up.

So I will eat the Farm Fresh Omelet, olives, Shenandoah sunrise, garlic polenta, arugula, cacciatore vinaigrette because it is unusual and really good; and I will put up with Marshall’s prerecorded spiel as an assumed cost.  Until the quality of the food drops, then I will have no patience at all for him.

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