Food & Wine 09 -- Trailblazing on the Foodie Frontier
Less is more, say celebrity chefs at Asilomar.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Several dining trends have lingered on my palate; some have (quickly) come and gone. I’ve tried small plates, molecular gastronomy, multiple-course tasting menus. But none have had more of an impact on my taste buds than sustainable cuisine.
At the recent Eco-Farm conference at Asilomar, it’s comforting to see how many champions of such cuisine there are. High-profile chefs are injecting a vibrant sensibility into their food by serving meals starring local, seasonal ingredients that promote sustainable farming. They’re educating their audience while feeding them, and taking advantage of their celebrity status to spread the word.
So what do these foodie frontrunners have to say about what’s up and coming in the sustainable food world?
Jesse Ziff Cool, chef and founder of several notable organic eateries, including Flea Street Café and jZcool Eatery and Wine Bar in Menlo Park, summed up a return to the root of sustainable cuisine: “The art of good food really starts with what we are given by the farmer.”
Given a flavorful in-season ingredient, a simple cooking method is all that’s required to bring out its best.
“The art of good food comes from letting [an ingredient] speak for itself and in its simplicity on the plate,” Cool continues, citing her popular purple mashed potatoes. Everyone loves it and asks her, “What do you put in it?” Her answer: “A little organic butter and salt.”
“THE ART OF GOOD FOOD COMES FROM LETTING (AN INGREDIENT) SPEAK FOR ITSELF.’’
Likewise, single-ingredient menu items excite Annie Somerville, executive chef at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. “The simpler the dish and the more recognizable the ingredients, the better,” she says. One such no-fuss dish is four different types of carrots sliced thinly and then roasted with olive oil, thyme and salt. “To me, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of two Blue Hill restaurants, one in Manhattan and another within the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., has always found creative ways to highlight seasonal ingredients.
Last fall, Barber began an experiment: meal service without a menu. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a list of two dozen or so ingredients takes the place of a conventional menu because he wanted his guests to experience “a part of the agriculture of the farm” which was very difficult in a traditional à la carte setting.
It’s very freeing, Barber says. “Nothing is written, so we are doing what we want in a given moment. Literally, the menu changes constantly during service.” There are constraints as well. “Because we’re staying true to a list of ingredients, that’s all we have to work with.”
Barber admits the system isn’t perfect. Customers have been put off. “If you really don’t like beets or root vegetables in general [in winter], the restaurant is a tough place.”
In the end, “these are the realities reflective of the agriculture,” he says.
If you think about it, this dining concept is perfect for those who choose to eat sustainably. Eating whatever’s in season and seeking a direct connection to the people who grow their food. More and more people are demanding to know where their food comes from. “Once that box is open and the interest is there, it’s not going to ease up and chefs can make the restaurant a place of connection,” Barber predicts.
Chefs and restaurateurs have been doing just this in innovative ways. Alice Waters (of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse) was the first to start listing farmers on her menu; many others have since followed suit.
A growing number of restaurants also host farmers’ dinners. When Jim Denevan was chef at Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz in the ’90s, the farmer behind the ingredients would be invited to share his or her experiences of growing the food. These dinners became really popular, and Denevan thought, “Why not bring the table right on the farm?”
Hence, Outstanding in the Field was born. In this series of plein air dinners, Denevan and his crew travel cross-country, stopping and cooking for guests on farm fields, vineyards and orchards.
“It’s a great way to establish a connection with the origin of your food,” explained Denevan, “and it’s a stage for the farmer to share their work.”
Denevan’s outdoor dining movement has caught on. In 1999, his first dinner at Mariquita Farm in Corralitos hosted 60 people, only half of them paying guests. In 2008, Denevan organized 37 such dinners across the United States, each serving 130 to 150 people. Sixty dinners are scheduled this year, and he’s planning to expand to Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
People will continue to access farms and focus on the produce and the farmer, Denevan predicts. “Throwing [the consumer, chef and farmer] all together at the source of food results in connections that continue.”
Somerville knows all about connections and relationships. For as long as she has been at Greens (almost 28 years), the restaurant has had a relationship with Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in the Marin Headlands, which provides much of their produce. In addition, Somerville starts and ends her week by going to the farmers’ market to source new ingredients, and talk to farmers as well as customers.
“It’s a great thing to be part of this web that supports each other,” Somerville says. “People expect we’re getting a lot of our produce direct from the farmers when they come to Greens. I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Then there’s Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The restaurant sits on 80 acres just outside of New York City adjacent to a diverse organic farm producing myriad vegetables and fruits along with heritage-breed pigs and chickens.
He insists a restaurant doesn’t need to run its own farm to do what Blue HIll is doing. “It’s about being closely connected to farms that are providing good food and knowing the farmer,” he says.
“At the root of every sustainable restaurant is delicious fresh food grown by people we know,” agrees Somerville. “By investing in farmers, we all benefit. It’s the multiplier effect.”
Cool has seen evidence of this. In the 33 years she’s been dedicated to sustainable cuisine, her restaurant business has fluctuated tremendously. But last year, her business was up 20 percent right in the middle of an economic slowdown.
Though she was surprised, she realized that sustainable eating is headed for the mainstream, and people’s eating habits are changing. “They realize the definition of gourmet food is using local ingredients and cooking to bring out the flavors of ingredients,” she says. “Customers now get it.”
Somerville reckoned that palates are getting more adventurous. “It used to be that it was hard to put rutabaga on the menu and hard to flaunt kale,” she said. But more of her customers are realizing that these vegetables are really delicious and are open to trying new and different things. “There’s recognition that foods and vegetables that taste good are beautiful and really good for you.”
Despite the progress made in the sustainable movement, we can do better, Barber insists. “Even though it’s growing and there’s more consciousness of what it is than 10 years ago, it’s still on the fringe,” he says. “There’s still a lot of work to do to get this issue into the mainstream consciousness.”