In Defense of Pedigreed Food

In a post on Grub Street last week—"Gastronomics: How Chefs Learned to Monetize Veggie Pedigrees"—Felix Salmon noticed that a lot of high-end restaurants name-check the sources for ingredients on their menus (never mind that it’s something chefs have been doing for, oh, 30 years now) and decided we’re all being ripped off.

Salmon's premise: “What began as callouts to Lynnhaven goat cheese or Allan Benton bacon,” he writes, “have turned into ever-more-meaningless stamps like ‘market’ and ‘local.’ But even as the qualifying terms have become more vague, their ability to increase a restaurant’s bottom line has gone up.’”

“What on earth is it supposed to mean,” Salmon sputters, “when Andrew Carmellini puts ‘local blueberries’ on the menu at The Dutch?”

Apparently Salmon thinks it's OK when chefs buff up expensive proteins with farm source names, but calls bullshit that the produce those chefs are sourcing from indie farmers is qualitatively better than the commodity crops in the bins at Safeway? That’s when Salmon starts to feel like a chump.

While there’s plenty to agree with in Salmon’s critique of vague descriptives like “farm” or “natural,” nevertheless: The rest of his argument is full of crap.

As a Bay Area native who had a brief and inglorious cooking career at Chez Panisse, I’m biased. I admit it.

According to Vanity Fair’s David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, it was Alice Waters who launched the practice of name-checking at the dawn of the 1980s, after the Chez Panisse menu started calling out Sonoma chèvre maker Laura Chenel.

“It was a signal moment in that phenomenon,” Kamp tells me. “I think at the time it wasn’t even a sourcing designation, it was just to name Laura Chenel herself—part of the neighborly community spirit of Chez Panisse.”

In general, cheese proved potent fodder for early menu naming, starting in the '80s with Maytag Blue. “When Cowgirl Creamery appeared,” Kamp recalls, “it suddenly felt like Mt. Tam was everywhere.”

Still, provenance callouts took a few years to catch on. It was some 20 years after Chez Panisse started tracing baby garlic back to favorite farmers like Bob Cannard that we began to see what Kamp calls “the twee or precious sensibility that borders on the comic” of menu-writing circa late '90s and early '00s.

Meanwhile on the East Coast, it was less about dropping names than about sourcing by adjective. “Thanks to chefs like David Bouley, we got things like ‘day boat’ or ‘line-caught,’" Kamp says.

Which brings us back to Salmon and his disdain for having to endure, as he puts it, “a $10 bowl of lima beans in a restaurant.”

Sorry, Felix. As ridiculous or precious as menu callouts can be, it's still important to support the people who produce this food, both at restaurants and at farmers' markets, which you consider to be somehow swindling the nation.

Salmon writes: "The genius of farmers' markets is that they turn thrift into a guilt trip: Anybody looking to pay less money for a pound of carrots must also want to cut the income of hardworking farmers!" (Salmon's emphasis.)

Dude: You should totally feel guilty for wanting to pay less for carrots grown by some small-scale grower farming leased land near an urban center, living in uncertain conditions without the kind of government subsidies that profit Big Ag.

As for Salmon’s aha moment, that the meaty and vegetable tasting menus at The French Laundry cost essentially the same (proof that restaurants are reaming diners by marking up a few measly baby leeks, Tokyo turnips, and lemon verbena sprigs), is evidence he doesn’t understand the economics of restaurants. Vegetable dishes are among the most labor-intensive things a kitchen in a high-end restaurant plates up—especially if the high-end restaurant in question supports its own mini farm.

Anyway, if it's cheap food you're after, I hear there's a fascinating sandwich out there that looks like a rack of pork ribs, only without the bones, priced so you can eat one whenever you get the urge. Call it an exercise in monetizing crap.

Image source: The French Laundry's gardens by Flickr member niallkennedy under Creative Commons