Buried deep in the website of El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s legendary restaurant, is a revolutionary declaration: “All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.”
What makes this statement so 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 last 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’Arpege, 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, but instead L’Arpege has thrived.
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 has 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 the chef at Ubuntu in Napa, a completely vegetarian restaurant attached to a garden, and one of the most talked about new restaurants 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, who was recently named “Best Chef in America” by the James Beard Foundation, grows much of his own produce and raises his own meat on a farm adjacent to the restaurant, but also uses 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-hybridized 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, centered 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 tasting menu, comprised mostly of vegetables, utterly captivating – and well worth the price.
Restaurants like L’Arpege 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 trickledown effect on the market by stimulating demand. Monkfish and short ribs are examples of ingredients that were very inexpensive in the United States 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 rarified dining rooms, can have an effect on mainstream cooking, consider the story of Rene Redzepi. When his restaurant, Noma, opened in Copenhagen in 2003, the food in Danish fine dining restaurants, like the products found in their supermarkets, was based on expensive ingredients imported from 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 like musk ox, wood sorrel and wild juniper into an exhilarating, highly personal cuisine.
For those who suggest that in places like New York or London, with harsh, cold winters, it’s impossible to avoid using imported products, Noma 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 accent 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 puree 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 3 restaurant in the world (after El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, in Bray) by Restaurant magazine, has influenced other Danish 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 characterized by lightness and pure flavors. The Danish government, inspired by Redzepi’s work, has created a project called New Nordic Food to help entrepreneurs develop local products like birch beer, which can now be found in supermarkets there. They are supporting programs to teach children about regional food, and to promote meat, milk, and butter production from old strains of Nordic cows. From his tiny fine dining kitchen, Redzepi has helped to spark a resurgent native cuisine.
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 labor, 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 have shown, the rewards can be considerable – 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 the least expensive meat I could find from my favourite rancher – beef back ribs – and cooked it in a crock pot with heirloom beans, onion, carrot and dried chillis. 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. Lamb necks and pork knuckles from animals raised on pasture, well-grown vegetables, grains and beans, these can be magical ingredients, delivering far more thrilling flavour than that of tenderloin from a factory-farmed cow. But 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’ve heard from friends and colleagues that haute cuisine has no relevance to the real world, but 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.