Sunday, April 20, 2008

Writing and Reading Menus

I think just about every major food writer(especially critics) has weighed in on how they feel about chefs and restaurants(mostly chefs, but more on that later) getting very specific with regards to the source of their ingredients on their menus. I mention that this is mostly directed toward chefs because it is predominantly at 'chef-driven' restaurants where you will find these descriptive menus. Before I go any further, I need to provide a disclaimer that I'm one of those guys who wants everyone to know as much about what they are eating as humanly possible. Once you get to the end of this post, you won't need that disclaimer to know my position. Here is an example of a run of the mill menu item: roast chicken with potatoes and warmed greens and the alternative: Beau Ramsburg's Milk-Fed Chicken with german butterball potatoes and warmed arugula. Obviously, I think the second is more descriptive, but I guess it's depends what you want out of the experience of dining out. If you're going to TGIMcFunsters, throwing down cheeseburgers and drinking beer, I don't know if you care where your ground beef came from. However, if you are going to a restaurant for a dining experience then I believe it is very important that you can make a connection with where the food came from. It's not good enough to just be a potato anymore. It has to be a german butterball potato. Turnips aren't just turnips anymore they need to be tokyo. It's not just salad greens anymore, it's specific blends of specific lettuces. This is our evolution. I think this idea is something that American chefs can be credited with. When I was in culinary school I had a great chef who pondered what America's contribution would be to the world in terms of cuisine. I think this idea is a great candidate. Most folks are familiar with the old french adage ' two ounces of sauce covers a multitude of sins'. Within the 'grande cuisine' codified by Escoffier, blanquette de veau was the same everywhere. There were set guidelines for how certain dishes were meant to be cooked and that was that. The farmer or cheesemaker or fisherman was in the background working hard to supply the restaurant with great products, but never garnering much acclaim other than from the chef. Often, chefs guarded the information regarding their purveyors with a great deal of secrecy. I think we are moving toward a great new era for diners, chefs and food buyers. With our 'open source' way of writing menus, we are thrusting our farmers into the spotlight and allowing them to take credit for their hard work, in addition to spreading the names of their small farms thus creating a greater sustainable local food economy. This does, however, present a new set of challenges for the farmer. Because their name is being thrust on to menus(something I always ask permission for) they need to be very trusting of the chefs who are in no small way acting as salespeople for the products these folks have worked so hard to produce. One thing I like to do is to go visit the farm and the farmer. After I can see where the products are bring produced and the care with which they are being produced, I invite the purveyor to the restaurant to have dinner so that they can see the care we take with our products and also so they can see the care we take with everything we do, from the grounds to the Inn decor. It's very important to me that the people who supply us know that we are working very hard to do the best with their products once they leave their farm. So, for all of you food writers who would like to go to a restaurant and see menu items like roast chicken with potatoes and greens; you are entitled to your opinion, even if it's wrong. I'm going to keep promoting our 'rock star farmers' on the menus and through our waiters stories, thus helping to build a local sustainable food economy whether you like it or not.


trent hendricks said...

Well said.

basteine said...

I have been reading your blog for a couple of months. I have found it very interesting. I was a line cook for ten plus years at a variety of restaurants. I love cooking but grew to dislike the restaurant biz probably because I worked at several TGI Mcfunsters. I read some of the archived posts including the one about food network. While I would agree with most of what you said in the post, both that post and this latest one raise an age old question for me. It is one I would like to pose to you. Do you ever turn the chef part of your personality off? Let me clarify that with a couple of questions. By that I mean do you ever eat anything that you don't worry about origination or composition? Do you have any guilty pleasures food wise, things you know are tasty but are either manufactured or of questionable origin? And finally can you eat someone else's cooking without critiquing it?

Chef Andrew Little said...

Patrick O'Connell said once, 'you don't choose the restaurant business as a profession, it chooses you.' The great Hank Williams, Jr. wrote 'That's my life and I love it that's my life; There ain't nothin' else in the world above it; I see people all alone pickin' their guitars and singin' their songs; But I tell 'em forget it cause you can't fake it; If you're gonna make it, you've gotta live it' Can you turn off 'the chef part of your personality'? Only when I go to sleep. I'm an obsessive, driven, Type-A personality(not my own description, that of others) is that a chef personality? I don't know....but it's mine all mine :-) I turn it off? No. Being a former line cook, you know that the hours and grind of the job don't really lend themselves 'normal' adult behavior(i.e. dinner at 6pm every night) Is my fridge loaded with foie gras and truffles? No. Favorite late night snack: oreos and milk(Stonyfield organic or Apple Valley Creamery) When Karen and I do eat in we do worry about origin and composition. Better raw materials make better cooked materials. Do we travel all the way to Wegmans in Hunt Valley, Md because they have great fish? yes. Do we make special trips on days off just to get food for dinner? yes. Guilty pleasures....Fat Boy sandwiches, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Famous Hot Weiner. We all have guilty pleasures. Hey, I'm just like everyone else.... if everyone else could name 40 brown sauce derivatives and their respective recipes off the top of their heads or break down a whole pig. I hope this post answers your questions. Thanks for reading the blog...come back often. Oh, by the way, sometimes people play this game where they dream they could change one thing in their life.(i.e. If I could change one thing in my life, I'd have one million dollars. Or something like that)....... I wouldn't change a thing. I love it.