Excerpt: In recent years, however, some forward-thinking chefs, who believe that personal expression and creativity are more important than slavish devotion to symbolic luxury goods, have abandoned this antiquated approach. These chefs are seeking out the highest-quality ingredients, usually from their area, without regard to their place in the traditional fine dining canon. Combined with a deeply held belief in the transformative power of the cooking process, they are setting an example that, if it catches on, could change what we grow and eat, both in restaurants and at home.
Carrots are the new caviar
By Daniel Patterson
Published: June 13 2009 01:47 | Last updated: June 13 2009 01:47
|Chef David Patterson|
What makes this statement groundbreaking is obvious to those who follow haute cuisine, a style of cooking traditionally based on a few select ingredients. Blame it on the pioneer of fine French restaurant cooking, Auguste Escoffier, or perhaps on our recently ended era of faux prosperity, but over the past several decades the menus of almost every expensive restaurant in the western world have become an endless parade of caviar, foie gras, truffles, lobster and filet mignon, often flown in from around the globe. These ingredients have become the Birkin bags of the culinary world, more important as cultural signifiers than as actual experiences.
In recent years, however, some forward-thinking chefs, who believe that personal expression and creativity are more important than slavish devotion to symbolic luxury goods, have abandoned this antiquated approach. These chefs are seeking out the highest-quality ingredients, usually from their area, without regard to their place in the traditional fine dining canon. Combined with a deeply held belief in the transformative power of the cooking process, they are setting an example that, if it catches on, could change what we grow and eat, both in restaurants and at home.
In 2001, with the mad cow scare sweeping across Europe, chef Alain Passard decided to remove meat from the menu at L’Arpège, his vaunted Parisian restaurant. Drawing on produce grown on his own farms, he jettisoned foie gras in favour of carrots. It was an unprecedented decision for a top restaurant. At the time it was widely regarded as professional suicide. Instead, L’Arpège has thrived.
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Passard, 52, has since retreated to a more conventional format (foie gras is back on his menu, along with caviar and turbot), but his move towards a vegetable-based cuisine had lasting effects. His influence can be seen in places as far-flung as Manresa in Los Gatos, California, where David Kinch’s inventive and delicious dishes are based mostly on vegetables grown on a farm connected to the restaurant. Jeremy Fox, who trained with Kinch, went on to become chef at Ubuntu in Napa Valley, a vegetarian restaurant attached to a garden that has become one of the most talked about eating establishments in the US.
“Plants grown from seeds adapted to their place, that’s the new caviar, the new luxury,” says Dan Barber, chef-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. Barber was recently named America’s best chef by the James Beard Foundation, which promotes the culinary arts. Barber grows much of his own produce and raises his own meat on a farm next to the restaurant. He also stresses the importance of good cooking, including some of the techniques invented at El Bulli, to transform those impeccable ingredients into a cuisine informed by both the land and his personal point of view.
This close connection between what Barber grows and how he cooks can be seen in a recent dish that featured Crispino lettuce, an old, non-hybridised relative of iceberg. It’s a bright green, flavourful lettuce that grows slowly, so that the leaves form a tight, dense head. The texture reminded Barber of meat so he roasted it and served it as he would a steak, centred on the plate and surrounded with pickled vegetables, herbs and a broth of lettuce greens. It was a brilliant sleight of hand that referenced the familiar while delivering something new. This combination of compelling ingredients, cooking skill and new ideas is what makes his $125 (£75) tasting menu, comprised mostly of vegetables, utterly captivating and well worth the price.
The eye-wateringly versatile onion
Consider the humble onion, the most versatile and important vegetable in the kitchen. They provide sweetness and a subtle savoury quality. Even when they remain in the background, they quietly improve almost every preparation. Here are a just a few ideas:
Sweated: Cook sliced onions with a little butter or olive oil and salt over low heat, covered, stirring occasionally, until very tender, and then ...
● Add seasoned and browned meat, some sort of herb, a little water and perhaps some wine, and cook covered in a low oven until the meat is tender.
● Cook the onions over medium heat until any liquid is boiled off and purée in a blender with more butter or olive oil and a little vinegar. The softened fibres of the onions will break down into a silky smooth purée, making a sauce that goes with almost anything.
Grilled: Slice onions half an inch thick, season with olive oil, salt and pepper and cook until just tender, either in a pan or on a grill, and then ...
● Cook slowly and purée into an intensely flavourful sauce – sherry vinegar works well as a seasoning.
● Chop and mix with oil and vinegar to make a vinaigrette. Herbs, lemon, spices: almost anything works as a seasoning.
Pickled: heat one part vinegar to two parts water, season with salt and sugar to taste, bring to a boil and pour over thinly sliced onions. Let cool. This is great as an accompaniment to meats and fish or tossed in salads.
Restaurants such as L’Arpège and Blue Hill occupy the tiniest sector of food consumption but also the most visible. By creating associative value in certain ingredients, such as vegetables or unusual cuts of meat, the decisions they make can have a trickle-down effect on the market by stimulating demand. Monkfish and short ribs are examples of ingredients that were very inexpensive in the US until top chefs started putting them on their menus en masse. Pork belly, once thought of as peasant food, is now at home on the most elaborate tasting menus. The price of these products has increased dramatically and they are now commonly found in upscale retail markets as well.
If it seems a stretch to think that modern chefs, cooking for a few people in rarefied dining rooms, can have an effect on mainstream cooking, consider the story of René Redzepi. When his restaurant, Noma, opened in Copenhagen in 2003, the food in Denmark’s fine dining restaurants, like the products in its supermarkets, was based on expensive ingredients imported from other parts of Europe. The message to diners was that local ingredients weren’t as good. Redzepi, who trained at El Bulli and the French Laundry in California, rejected this thinking, fashioning native products such as musk ox, wood sorrel and wild juniper into an exhilarating, highly personal cuisine.
For those who suggest that it’s impossible to avoid using imported products in places such as New York or London, with their harsh, cold winters, Noma in northern Europe could serve as a counter argument. Redzepi and his team search the region for the best ingredients they can find, creating supply lines for many indigenous products that had never before been commercially available. Even during the darkest months they forage for wild herbs and mushrooms. They use local seafood, meat, dairy and root vegetables, and accompany the dishes with foods that they pickle, smoke and dry during the growing season. One dish, called “the potato field”, is comprised of small mead-glazed potatoes scattered across potato purée and dusted with malt “soil”, a triumph of imagination over a depleted winter larder.
Noma, which has two Michelin stars and was recently voted the number three restaurant in the world (after El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, in Berkshire) by Restaurant magazine, has influenced other chefs to reconsider their approach to cooking. Many Danish restaurants, some opened by chefs who trained at Noma, are now serving what has been dubbed the new Nordic cuisine, based on regional ingredients and characterised by lightness and pure flavours. The Danish government, inspired by Redzepi’s work, has created a project called New Nordic Food to help entrepreneurs develop local products such as birch beer, which can now be found in supermarkets there. From his tiny kitchen, Redzepi has helped to spark a resurgent native cuisine.
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Revaluing ingredients – starting with the assumption that a potato or a carrot can taste as exciting as foie gras – is difficult in a high end kitchen. It requires more labour, more imagination, and more carefully sourced ingredients – mediocre foie gras will always seem more “worth it” than a mediocre carrot. It’s riskier as well, going against diners’ deeply ingrained expectations. But as many modern restaurants, such as Noma, have shown, the rewards can be considerable, providing more vibrant, compelling food and a closer emotional connection with their customers.
For the home cook, revaluing ingredients can lead not only to better food but, equally important in these difficult economic times, to a less costly way of eating. A few weeks ago, inspired by a friend’s wrong-headed claim that good food is always expensive, I made two meals for my wife and I for $12, using only local and organic ingredients. I bought a modest amount of beef back ribs, the least expensive meat I could find, from my favourite rancher and cooked it in a crock pot with heirloom beans, onion, carrot and dried chillies. I added sautéed mustard greens at the end and served it over brown rice. The meals were not only inexpensive, they were delicious, and they proved that quality versus affordability is a false debate. The choice is really between meat- or vegetable-centric meals, between ribeye and ribs. Knowing how to cook means it is possible to eat both well and inexpensively.
Cooking matters, because the worth of an ingredient is intimately tied to our ability to turn it into food. In the US and the UK, our collective inability to do little more than open a package or throw a steak on a grill skews our perception of the worth of an ingredient – ease of preparation determines value. This limits the kinds of ingredients we grow and cook with, making our food more wasteful, more expensive and less tasty.
Over and over I have heard from friends and colleagues that haute cuisine has no relevance to the real world. I disagree. At a time when environmental, health and economic concerns demand a widespread re-examination of how we feed ourselves, chefs should show by example that responsibility and pleasure are not at odds. The kind of cooking that happens in elite kitchens will never be practical at home, but modern chefs’ evolving attitude towards the value of ingredients and the importance of good cooking is. The same well-grown carrot that I turn into a complex interaction of temperatures and textures at my restaurant is just as delicious at home, where I cook it simply with a little water, salt and olive oil, something that any home cook can do well. All it takes is a few basic cooking techniques – and a willingness to reconsider what’s worth eating.
Daniel Patterson is the chef and owner of Coi restaurant in San Francisco
Rowley Leigh on revolutionary cuisine
This is not the first food revolution. Many of us remember the re-evaluation of ingredients in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when chefs in France, rooted in a classical cuisine built on the traditional luxury signifiers (foie gras and truffles, lobster and crayfish, beef fillet and sole, all in a tsunami of cream and heavily reduced stock), decided to change focus – stripping away the trappings of the old gastronomy and marrying the luxury signifiers with more humble ingredients. This came to be known as nouvelle cuisine. Lobster was matched with chickpeas, foie gras with turnips and truffles with leeks.
That revolution did not last long. Chefs became incapable of featuring any ingredient without matching it with at least two more disparate ingredients. As chefs became increasingly competitive in a market craving novelty, the old luxury goods were thrown into the mix with reckless abandon. And as the trend trickled downwards, nouvelle cuisine was caricatured by the incompetent into a byword for small portions of rather silly food on rather large plates.
Little had changed until recently but now the game is up. With a worldwide recession forcing prices down and the increasing unsustainability of many luxury foods, chefs are having to get smarter. With any luck, they might get more realistic and start to realise that more does not mean better and that to produce three or four different dishes on one plate is just as much a symptom of excess as stuffing everything that moves with foie gras and truffles. Sooner or later, chefs will have to respect the ingredients they have and make the most of them. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate the will to change. Chefs are increasingly sourcing their ingredients directly from producers and showing an increasing awareness of seasonality in their menus.
So Daniel Patterson’s mission comes at the right time and he makes strong points. Changing expectations of our cuisine – especially when we eat out in expensive restaurants – is a difficult path. The attempt to escape from a menu centred on meat and fish confounds diners and has most of the traditional pitfalls of old-fashioned vegetarianism. Alain Passard’s apostasy (having declared himself practically vegetarian, his current menu features lobster, foie gras, sweetbreads, lamb and chicken) is testament to the difficulty of the task and the reluctance of Parisian diners to fork out €300 on a menu that gives pride of place to carrots and beetroot.
Writing from London, I would suggest that the second part of the mission, to root a cuisine in its locality, is also problematic. Whereas it is eminently successful in California (as it should be in Cornwall, Provence or Sicily), I still wonder how those of us in the great metropolitan centres can produce a cuisine that does not gain strength from its access to international markets. Patterson gives us the heroic example of René Redzepi at Noma but one shudders at the thought of “the potato field” in the hands of lesser exponents.
I am tempted to follow George Orwell and suggest that all ingredients may be equal but, even in the current frugal climate, some may be more equal than others.
Rowley Leigh writes a weekly column on cookery
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009