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

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Haute Cuisine Of Foraging–But What’s That In The Soup?

“Let’s do it”, said Bobby Fincher to his deuxième, as he looked at the assorted reeds, grasses, and wild mollusks he had arrayed on the butcher block table.  This was going to be a dinner to remember, he thought – his first serious foraged meal which would put him on the map, knight him as the destination restaurant in the Bay Area, and usher in an entirely new wave of American cuisine.  The New York Times and Wall Street Journal would be there, and unless they pulled a Waiting For Guffman no-show, he and his restaurant would be written up, read about, and visited by untold new clients.

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Bobby had been a traditional chef, starting off with classic French and Italian dishes based on his years in France and his grandmother’s kitchen.  There was nothing like a good poulet rôti baked with rosemary, garlic, Dijon mustard, and lemon.  So simple, and yet so elegant with its Mediterranean accent.  He had at first bought his chickens from a commercial farm, but then as the demand for free-range organic chicken grew, he moved to more particular breeders.  Hope Caldwell, for example, was a woman about his age who had also migrated to the West Coast years ago, and who paid particular attention to the care of her birds.  They were well-fed, sheltered, and given as much light, air, and space as she could afford.  There really was a difference despite the bad name Portlandia had given to the locavore movement.

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In one episode, patrons at a Portland restaurant are ‘introduced’ to the chicken they would be eating.  The waiter tells of Devon’s good life and how she thrived under the loving watch of her caretakers. Devon, like all chickens, was not ‘prepared’ too soon.  She was allowed to live as long and full a life as possible before becoming stringy and tough.  When Devon is brought out on a platter, the waiter sets it on the table with a secular prayer inspired by the Lakota ‘Chant of the Kill’, an invocation of the God of Plenty and a plaint of forgiveness for taking a life.

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No, Hope simply raised her chickens right, and the proof was in the eating.  They had flavor, succulence, and even character.  Bobby prepared his birds with respect – not with any faux Jain invocations or penance; but with a genuine appreciation of the gustatory pleasure the bird would provide.  He rubbed the mustard over all parts of the chicken, careful to add the spicy Maille ingredients under the wings, in the cavity, and on all sides. He crushed the dried rosemary in the palm of his hand and breathed in the spicy, fragrant, almost floral scent.  He sprinkled it evenly over the bird.  He chose only the best lemons from Santa Barbara and again breathed deeply of citrus and the Pacific when he had punctured one of the right size and shape for the cavity of the bird, he placed it carefully inside along with two evenly matched half-cloves of garlic. In a few minutes in a hot oven, the wonderful aromas of roasting chicken filled the kitchen, and he knew he had been perfect yet again.

His pasta recipes were classic but inventive.  He never tinkered with the old standards – spaghetti with anchovy sauce or Spaghettini al Olio, Aglio, e Peperoncini – but did unusual things with sausage, fish, and meat.  His Penne with Italian Sausage and Broccoli Rabe matched the sweetness of the sausage with the slightly bitter taste of the rabe, and when topped with Parmesan cheese and fresh pepper, the dish was unbeatable.

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As his reputation grew, he branched out to more exotic dishes; but all still within the classic mode.  His curried monkfish in a rich cream sauce was a favorite - 12 spices in all, the fish steamed in an excellent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and a hint of Amontillado sherry blended into the curried cream.  His tagines respected the Moroccan original, but expanded the concept.  He combined basic tagine with Cuban masitas de puerco – a rich dish flavored with fresh oranges.

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Now in his new restaurant and with the acclaim of the entire San Francisco area behind him, he had embarked on an entirely new journey.  He had been inspired by the famous Danish chef René Redzepi creations.  Redzepi foraged wild grains, plants, seaweed, and mollusks from tidal lands in Northern Denmark, and prepared unusual, often challenging dishes.  He was committed and courageous.  He knew that all but the most discerning patrons would poke at his unusual architecture and unidentifiable ingredients; but those that were adventurous and trusted him were in for an unforgettable meal.  The dish pictured below is one of Redzepi’s most well-known. 

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One diner from Texas who had slipped through the tightly woven vetting sieve, was overheard by the headwaiter to have said, “That gunk on the bottom looks exactly like pink slime.  Disgusting.”

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The waiter quickly went into the kitchen to find Redzepi and told him what the Texan had said.  Redzepi, a cultured and well-educated European, but not without the arrogance that goes with the territory said, “Fuck ‘em”.

Bobby was reminded of the movie Big Night and the scene in which Secondo tells Chef Primo, his brother, that perhaps he might take the risotto off the menu.  The patrons, he tells him, either don’t order it or poke it around their plates like mashed potatoes or grits; and perhaps his brother might prepare something a bit more appropriate for American tastes. Yes, says Primo.  A good idea.  “I will prepare…How do you say in English? A hotta dog.”

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Primo and Redzepi were cut from the same cloth – proud artists who would never give an inch to ignorant patrons. There was a well-known sushi chef in New York City who never offered a menu, but prepared only what he felt like creating.  Of course his sushi was unsurpassed even in Japan.  What was remarkable was that he could be so innovative within the constraints of one of the world’s most traditional cuisines.  Most patrons were quite happy to eat what he prepared; but those who asked for a menu were berated, dressed down, and asked to leave.

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Bobby was far more tolerant than either Redzepi or the sushi master.  He understood American tastes; and while he wanted to push the envelope and challenge his most particular clients, he knew his limits.  Or so he thought. His experiment in foraging was not what he thought it would be.

The problem was that he started with The Full Monty when he should have introduced foraged ingredients gradually – a bit of wild sea oats as a garnish; salamander eggs as colorful counterpoints, but not the centerpiece of the dish; and he should have left the sparrow nest soup with Bay barnacles off the menu entirely.

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The Grand Opening had been attended by the best possible cross-section of San Francisco – Mission hipsters, devotees of Alice Waters and frequent patrons of The French Laundry. The meal had taken days to prepare, and Bobby had sent out a phalanx of naturalists and specialists in the flora and fauna of the coasts and wetlands who had been specially-trained in the art of culinary foraging. He had been careful to get refrigeration temperatures exactly right and  humidity and air circulation properly calibrated; and he had a rigorous dress rehearsal for his staff.

Bobby had overreached.  He knew it when he saw diners picking biscuit grass and swamp couch out of their teeth.  The Bay Arachnid and Seashore Papsalum fell flat. The Pureed Sea Sponge with Nettle Infusion ended up as plate waste. The only up side to the dinner was that twice as much wine was drunk as usual, and he did a land office business in desserts which he had fortunately kept to cream puffs and Vanilla Ice Cream with Ginger Snaps.

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There was no way for him to retrace his steps, to backtrack and backpedal to familiar ground.  Now that he had become infamous for forage, there was no way out.  The food critic of the San Jose Mercury had been unsparing. “Bobby Fincher’s Lichen Broth with Pinpoint Herbed Colimaçon was – how should I put it – disgusting”.

It took Bobby many years to get back some of his reputation and to pay off his debts. In the kitchen of his small restaurant in Healdsburg, while preparing his famous poulet roti with Normandy potatoes aux fines herbes he often wondered how he could have made such a miscalculation.  Hubris? Stupidity? Ignorance of the market?

The truth of the matter is that he hit the downslope of the foodie craze. Food in San Francisco was getting so Baroque, so Rococo, and so architecturally precarious that it was no surprise that they were returning to Mac ‘n’ Cheese.  Anything that can tip over is not worth eating.

Bobby eventually got his groove back and moved back into San Francisco, chastened, but even more able after five years perfecting traditional skills in the hinterland.  As things would have it, the city had been invaded by geeks who had been content to eat cafeteria food in Cupertino but now with millions to spend were eating out.  They brought their comfort food tastes with them however, so ironically Bobby was dumbing down his food five years after he had smarted it up.  “You cant always win”, he said to the sous chef who had been with him through all the foraging years; and they both wondered when the pendulum would swing back to the tidal basins of the Bay.

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