No Farm, No Foul

Originally published in the Urbanite

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On my plate, there sits a well-composed selection of leafy vegetables. The dish is attractive and colorful. The pedigree of each component is above reproach: local, sustainable, from a farm with a quaint name, picked that very morning by some happy, rosy-cheeked farm hand.  As the meal progresses a succession of dishes consisting of artisinal, house made, crafted, heirloom, and/or ethically sourced ingredients arrives at the table.

What could be wrong with such a well-intentioned menu?  Well, as it turns out, there is one big problem: The meal is incredibly boring. Bland, even.  Aside from the farm fresh angle, there is no discernible culinary point of view.

This is, alas, not the first ho-hum meal I have endured at a self-proclaimed “farm to table restaurant,” (I will not say where this occurred) and so I wonder: As more and more restaurants jump on the locavore bandwagon, just  what does the farm to table label really mean? Has it become just another trendy marketing ploy? For both chefs and diners, what is, or should be, more important: the message or the cuisine? And what happens if and when these two concepts work at cross purposes?

These musings, I thought, were innocent enough. But as I began to interrogate  the assumption that going local is always better – and by implication, the notion that using anything non-local must somehow be morally or ethically inferior – I encountered some intense emotions and strong opinions on both sides of the debate.

“Farm to table is saying right up front that it is  … ingredient-driven rather than chef-creativity-driven or technique-driven. It’s saying that the most important thing is where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it, and not what you do with it. It’s basically patting yourself on the back for being there.” –Anthony Bourdain to Wylie Dufresne,  from the food nerd quarterly Lucky Peach 1

Of course, “farm to table” doesn’t really describe a type of cuisine – it simply tells you where the food came from. But for many diners, the term comes with a host of expectations, many of which revolve around signifiers of rusticity, authenticity, purity, and simplicity. Some chefs, however, believe that meeting these expectations comes at the expense of technique and creativity.

Take “Chef X,” who runs the kitchen at a small, well-regarded local restaurant. Chef X, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “For me, cooking is a craft, and the guys I respect most, like [Wylie] Dufresne, [Thomas] Keller, and the French gods, all take these beautiful ingredients and twist and augment them into something more than just food. That’s what I want when I go out to an expensive restaurant. Innovative techniques with exotic ingredients. I didn’t become a chef because I love how a carrot tastes.”

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a simple, rustic style of cooking, but why, he maintains, would anyone want to pay big bucks for it? “American farm to table cooking is just country European cooking, which was done by mothers and servants, not trained chefs. Many talented European chefs had the luxury of growing up with this cooking, but had the sense to give something more to the dining public.”

Nonsense, says Baltimore’s reigning sustainability and local food iconoclast, Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike Gjerde. “‘Farm to table’ doesn’t refer to cooking,” he says. “Actually, farm to table doesn’t really refer to anything, if it ever did. The point is to care about the food you are cooking, not only how it tastes, and how much it costs, and can I get it tomorrow, but also how it was grown, and how that affected the land and water where it was grown, and how the farmer made out, and then do with it what you will: Cook it like grandma would, or like a chemist would, or manipulate it like good old [Thomas Keller].”

Chef X bristles at the notion that just because he’s willing to serve some relatively exotic ingredients means he doesn’t care about the food on the plate. “I care very much that it was raised properly, fed right, and respected on its way to my back door. But does it matter to me whether it came from 60 or 6000 miles away? Not particularly.”

Anyway, Gjerde says he’s tired of the whole chef-centered approach. He believes it takes more creativity to come up with  a dish based solely on what’s available locally than it does to create something around far-flung ingredients. “When you don’t have all the colors you want on the plate, you’ve got to dig a little deeper,” he says.

Jerry Pellegrino, chef and proprietor of the “seed to table” eatery Waterfront Kitchen, says that Chef X and Gjerde are both right. “They’re both saying correct things. Any chef understands the concept of garbage in, garbage out. Ingredient-driven really means just finding the best ingredients. It doesn’t matter what you do with it, it must start with quality.”

“[At farm to table restaurants] we are paying for an experience, for a performance of sorts. But then, that’s part of what ‘restauranting’ is.” — Psyche Williams-Forson, associate professor of American studies and co-director of graduate studies at the University of Maryland, College Park

The fact is, for a chef, sourcing local foods often costs more than the alternative, and that cost gets passed on to the consumer. Farm-to-table pioneer Jeff Smith, chef/owner of the Chameleon, has been doing his well-regarded version of Maryland cuisine for nearly a decade, and says, “People don’t realize that is very difficult to make most of your food local. You have to be creative, and you really have to be dedicated.” In an effort to make things a bit easier for locavore chefs, Smith is working on creating a food hub in the Hamilton/Lauraville neighborhood that will streamline the buying and selling process.

But, according to a local caterer, who also prefers to remain anonymous, it’s just not possible or practical for everyone to be 100% local. “Some restaurants can do it, but catering companies really can’t,” he says. “The menu would be limited … and it would be too expensive. … Woodberry, though,  has the clientele that will pay for it.”

But Gjerde maintains that chefs and diners can’t afford not to source locally and sustainably. “‘Organic and local product is too expensive,’ I get that all the time,” he says. “But on a practical level, our love of cheap salmon will cost us our last salmon. What’s the cost of that?”

Truth be told, the entrees at Woodberry Kitchen aren’t any more expensive than, say, those at the Prime Rib – and many at Chameleon are a good deal less. Of course, that still cuts out the vast majority of the dining public who cannot afford to eat out at any establishment in that price point.

“We eat at one of these establishments, and that allows us to feel as if we’ve done our good deed for the day,” says Williams-Forson. “But we end up paying a lot in order to feel good about ourselves.” If farm to table dining is perceived – correctly or not – as elitist, something that’s only for the wealthy, does it have a future outside of a relatively small (read: privileged) audience?

Smith certainly hopes so. “Over time, I have seen [farm to table] dining become more of a trend and less of a philosophy,” he says. “People are doing it because it’s the thing to do. But if you want the movement to go forward, you want everyone to be doing it!”

“Spike is sincere, but he’s extreme. Extremists are great for proving the point, but they’re not really realists.”  – Jerry Pellegrino, chef/co-owner Waterfront Kitchen

Ask Gjerde if there’s anything truly wrong with occasionally indulging in a sustainably raised Scottish grouse or wild boar that happens to be from far away and he’ll point you towards a local alternative – that may or may not be the same beast. It doesn’t really answer the question, but for him that’s beside the point.

“My whole point, and that of WK, is, consider the source,” he says. “… Clearly, the act of considering the source is facilitated by proximity to it. . . . which is, in my opinion, one of the principal reasons to buy local. Even in the Internet age, it is the only way to really know anything about your food.”

That’s all well and good, but even Gjerde admits that he stocks some decidedly un-local products like lemons, limes, and coffee, a messy fact that he claims “Drives him crazy” and points to one of the  inherent difficulties in being 100% local in a climate without a year round growing season. Yes, of course you can have a great meal at Woodberry Kitchen in the middle of the winter, as I recently did. But then, I’ve also had a just-as- great, though decidedly different meal, at Chef X’s restaurant in the winter. Some of the ingredients were local – some weren’t. Is it so wrong to appreciate that bit of variety?

And some cuisines, Forson-Williams points out, simply cannot be localized. “[A strictly local diet] assumes homogeneity,” she says. “For my West African husband, it would be impossible to only eat like that.”

Ultimately, Forson-Williams suggests, “You have to ask yourself what appeals to you about food. If you’re only eating for politics, you’ll probably be flip flopping the rest of your life.”

As for me, I don’t feel shame about indulging in the occasional  organic avocado, Meyer lemon, or bottle of French wine – and I certainly don’t want to live in a world where I can’t have a bit of Parmiggiano Reggiano on my spaghetti. At the same time, I would happily subsist on a diet of Maryland tomatoes, local basil, and the occasional piece of crispy bacon from Truck Patch Farms all summer long. And this may be the real lesson here.  No matter your politics, as Gjerde correctly points out, “If it doesn’t taste good, it’s irrelevant.”

 

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