This is a story of sustainability. Not the word “sustainability” which has been neutered into meaningless marketing jargon— rather, it is sustainability as an aesthetic. The sustainability of an experience and a movement — and how that relates to things, both greater and smaller.
Food is fundamental to life — how and what we eat determines how well we live. It is also identity, perspective and politics. If we are lucky, we are surrounded by a wide variety of foods. We can pick and choose and we can eat for sustenance and for pleasure. At the same time, as a culture, we don’t really have a good idea where our food comes from. How it is grown and processed. We assume it will be there when we want it. What we don’t see, because it doesn’t capture the imagination the way other news stories do, is that we are always close to a food shortage. Googling “wheat shortage” will show a series of peaks and valleys for the availability of this primary foodstuff over the last 5 years. The Independent wrote and article in 2015 positing that we have reached “peak food”.
The effort to grow enough food to feed the world’s population has been to this point, largely the effort of industrial farming. Homogenous seed sources. Farming techniques that maximize growth while limiting nutrients. Underneath what we eat is a constant current of struggle for how and what food gets to the table. These are big ideas and big concerns, certainly, but I only want to focus on a small piece of it. After all, it is by focusing on each small piece that we can move to greater change.
I just spent 5 days in Paris, and I was largely there to eat. I went to Paris with a thesis, that the restaurants I was eating at would be something of a different culinary experience from what I am familiar with. What I am familiar with is either big servings of monolithic foodstuffs. Hamburgers and fries, etc. And the small but exquisite courses served in a rarified atmosphere at restaurants like Alinea. It is a sense of high and low — to eat one way or another. What I was hoping to experience was another way — a different assumption of what food can mean and bring to a community. I want to use the word “gentle” — but it is not quite that.
Cellar Door Provisions, which I have written about previously, was one of the inspirations for my trip . A place that can spend two weeks celebrating the turnip is doing something interesting. The inspiration also comes in part from chefs like Daniel Barber, Magnus Nillson, Rene Redzipi and Alain Passard — all running high end restaurants, — all obsessed with what is seasonal and what is local. Inspiration also comes from a baker like Christophe Vasseur of Du Pain et Des Idees, who is championing traditional artisinal baking, but unmoored from the same beaurocratic tradition. and from farmers and vintners and brewers, all working to reclaim what healthy land can yield. The idea is this — local does not just mean it comes from a local purveyor- it means it comes from someone within a community. It means the person who is preparing the food has a relationship with that purveyor with a goal of passing on a flavor, a texture, a sensation that is special to their product. When someone like Cellar Door Provisions is celebrating a turnip for 2 weeks it is because those turnips are absolutely vital for that moment in time.
Let me back it up, to retrace some steps to get to my point.
We are living in a time when people are cooking less and less. New houses are built with kitchens more for entertaining than for preparing a meal.
At the same time, we watch endless cooking shows. Shows about chefs and about cooking. Food competitions, food travelogues. We avidly watch someone like Anthony Bourdain eat in places high and low all around the world — and we live vicariously. We live in a time of the Celebrity Chef — traveling to eat at restaurants, reading rating systems like Michelin.
What does it mean, to live in the age of the celebrity chef? It means a couple things as far as I can tell: that what a celebrity chef is offering is exceptional in some way. That their product and viewpoint is worth savoring and experiencing. It means that they are somehow an authority on what tastes good. That their viewpoint is somehow extra-valid.
It also means that, as a culture, we are exposed to a far greater degree of what food is. Whether it is street food or fine dining, someone is more likely to know what omokase dining is or what chanterelle mushrooms are. Such was not the case, even 10 years ago.
Because we are a voyeuristic food culture -we know what beautiful food looks like — but we don’t know what it tastes like. If we are not experienced with eating this way, we don’t know texture, we don’t know how a product can hold and enhance certain flavors — we don’t know what memories to associate with the meal.
A recent meal at Bar Boulud in New York yielded both beautiful plates and indifferent ingredients. People came and went from the restaurant, I can only assume enjoying their meals. But what I found was troubling. A piece of pork belly was tough and redolent of salt . There was little respect for the animal and for the relative luxury of the product. When treated well, pork belly can carry deep flavors. A few bites provide satiety. The blood pudding was flavorless — how can something that is full of the iron and salt of blood not have flavor?
Here is a real thing — the cult of the celebrity chef — chef’s once vital to the culinary landscape are now trading on that name rather than that reputation. Per Se, in New York, seen as one of the best restaurants in the world, was recently reviewed in the New York Times — a review that sprouted shadenfreude wings across the interwebs.
I have long thought this about restaurants like Per Se: They are very much like the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is 15 feet away from its audience and behind glass — it is almost impossible to actually study the painting — but the gallery where it is housed is packed. No one looks at the painting, but everyone takes a picture of themselves in front of it. Its the sensation of knowing something and associating with it because it is famous. People dine at a restaurant like Per Se for two reasons: Because the food is exceptional and because its The Place To Be. If you are a chef at this kind of restaurant, and you see plates of beautiful food coming back into the kitchen half-eaten or barely touched, or you are asked to remove the essential ingredients for the menu because of whatever diet fad, then you begin to make food that people enjoy looking at — but do not experience.
What do these complaints have to do with my thesis — that there is a convergence of events that is reshaping the culinary world — here, in a nutshell: The calcification of the current system: of hide-bound cooking technique, trading on reputation, and plentiful but indifferent ingredients, that more people than ever see and either want to experience or do experience. A voyeuristic food culture and kitchens devoid of pantries, what is a way forward other than churning out an industry built on style without substance?
There are people too who come out of these kitchens, with technical skills and a point of view. The professional kitchen was once the last refuge of the scoundrel. When the choice was between the military, jail or cooking. Because of exposure, the kitchen is also becoming the home of the intellectual. Cooks with a strong point of view.
In 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report that Industrialized farming was not going to be able to feed the world in coming years. Rather, the best chance at feeding the world was smaller, more local and sustainable farms. Farms were going to have to work with the land in order to increase yield and sustain the soil for future generations — to quote:
“The new agricultural paradigm, according to the FAO, should be “save and grow.” Farmers must preserve the natural resources at their disposal in order to increase their productivity. Reduced tillage to save soil, crop rotations to save nutrients, and improved seeds to save water. Note that for the last decade, “improved seeds” typically meant genetically modified seeds — but as a recent New York Times article on food production indicated, many of the newest, best seeds for our warming world have been developed using traditional breeding techniques.” — grist.org.
What is starting to happen is — some farmers are working with their land to produce not only better quality product, but product that is an expression of a locale. They are doing this to save their land, certainly, because it makes sense for the long term. There are chefs who are working with these ingredients, and responding to those expressions of locale. One phrase to describe this movement is Farm to Table — but to parse the event even finer, there is conversation happening — farmers are talking with chefs and responding with what they produce. Farmers are talking with other farmers and responding — sharing information, and sharing seeds, and sharing product. Like links in a chain, each link small and local, but linked to one another, something strong is being created.
Here, when Cellar Door Provisions is celebrating the Turnip — its a turnip from a certain farm that was delivered when the turnips were absolutely ready. A good winter crop. The chef is then finding as many ways to express those flavors as he or she possibly can. Not only is it creatively powerful, but the ingredients are vital — they are full of life.
When I went to Paris, I was able to eat at 3 restaurants: Septime, L’Alliance, and Panache.
Each restaurant did a single seating each night. Each restaurant had an a la carte menu, but also a tasting menu for 70 Euro.
Each restaurant was also working with specific farms and fishermen. The fish is all line-caught and fresh. The wine is bio-dynamically produced.
Each dish at these restaurants represents the freshest, most vital expression of each ingredient. The ingredients are showcased as best as possible — they are not taken and manipulated to a degree where they become something else. An artichoke heart on top of diced cuttle fish is exactly that. With just enough accompaniment to enhance and amplify the flavors. Each dish at each restaurant expressed the viewpoint not only of the chef — but of the farmers and fishermen. The chef constructing that viewpoint from their network of suppliers.
It’s powerful, eating this food. The body responds to it. “Pleasure” can be a loaded word — we are conditioned to think of pleasure in Dionysian terms — excess and luxury — but here the pleasure is simple. A bite of beautifully prepared food, as fresh as possible — as creative as possible.
Of the three restaurants, Septime is the best known. It was listed as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world by San Pellegrino in 2013. The chef, Bertrand Grébaut, has stated that Septime was begun as a response to the classic temples of gastronomy. Rather than have linen table clothes and multiple waiters serving a meal, he wanted to serve food at a high level in a bistro setting. Having cooked under Allain Passard at L’Arpege, Grébaut has a great appreciation for local ingredients and for vegetables, specifically. The influence of Passard, who has 3 of his own gardens that serve L’Arpege, is evident in Septime’s food.
What is different and remarkable is the atmosphere. Casual and joyous. Diners were taking their wine glasses outside to enjoy a smoke between courses.
All of the food is local and sustainably raised. The wines are only from bio-dynamic vineyards. The spirits too, come from small producers. I had a Dutch gin that was amazingly good.
L’Alliance was more staid than Septime — A beautiful small space, more reminiscent of other fine dining establishments. The room was more formal than Septime’s. Sean, the maitre de, is brilliant at quiet conversation with each guest, making everything feel relaxed while his service was incredibly precise regarding when dishes landed and wine was served. Takashi, the chef, was composing artful plates, very composed, but with that same desire towards freshness and flavor. Again, not a lot of manipulation of the ingredients, instead, a showcase for quality and care.
I was reminded that one can eat and smell and savor a dish — have it evoke memories and create new ones. Here, we are encouraged to feel alive in the best ways.
Panache is a new restaurant opening in the 9th. The menu when we went was not yet refined — the chefs were just cooking what they had. An assortment of fish dishes came out first. Baby clams with baby green onions, and a piece of sardine on top of an artichoke leaf. It was a bit all over the place, but that was to be expected given that they were still pulling everything together. The dessert, though, summed everything up.
A pear poached in hibiscus, accompanied by sunchoke chips, shaved and soaked in sugar water, then dried, all sitting on a bed of pureed cheese and sun choke. It was a little sweet and a little savory — almost another entree.
William Ransone, the consulting chef to Panache, feels that desserts are too violent an end to a meal — the diner goes from complex savory flavors to sugar and cream and chocolate — the assault on the palate is too abrupt. His desire is to make the dessert part of the narrative of the meal. Rather than going in an abrupt and new direction at the end of a meal, end the meal with flavors reminiscent of what came before.
It was something of a revelation to me — having bought for so long that a dessert HAD to be a novelty of sugary creamy decadence. That a meal HAD to end on those notes. Here was a bite that was a culmination of the meal that came before. As the amuse-bouche at the beginning of a meal signals the chefs intent, this dessert captured the meal and the restaurant and the experience.
After the meal, talking with William, he informed me that this movement is called “Jeune Cuisine” — in part because everyone who is practicing this type of thing is quite young — but also because it is a new thing. Taking inspiration from chefs like Alain Passard, it is seasonal preparation, pushing ingredients forward, and working with the farmers and wineries to get sustainable raised and produced and local ingredients.
It is showcasing a place and a time. A moment in which we live.
In Ayurdedic cooking, as well as Chinese medicine, what food is consumed is seen as a form of healing the body and spirit. By mixing spice and ingredient to create various palliatives, these systems strive to use food as a form of medicine. I said it prior, but it bears repeating, in the way these chefs are preparing this food, they are presenting something vital for consumption. This here, now, while not explicitly following the formulae of Ayurveda or Chinese medicine, is a system of making food that makes the consumer feel better. Just. Better.
While the community of people cooking this way is still relatively small — as each place matures and spins off chefs des cuisines into new restaurants, more and more of these places exist. More and more of this kind of thinking persists.
As a movement, Jeune Cuisine started in part as a reaction to an old system. It has become something more. Where creativity is frequently best expressed through limitation. Here, the limitation of the season and its ingredients, and the people who produce them. Here it is about highlighting those ingredients rather than obscuring them through technique and bigger flavors.
Philosophically, it is about awareness and its about care and its about doing something well not just because that is the way it was done in the past. If there is any one thing that keeps a craft vital, that keeps it from becoming an anachronism, is that — the doing of something well and not because that is the way it has always been done before. It is about communicating and creating a community as well as changing how food is gathered and presented.
In the US, in cities like Portland and Chicago and Seattle, Jeune Cuisine, if not by name, is serving as inspiration. Here is a way forward, and a way to think about food. Here is a way to celebrate the maker and the grower and the ingredient.
Here is a way, too, to think about how we gather and prepare our own meals. And to remember again what a kitchen is for.
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- The Big Book of Sustainable (What Does Sustainable Mean) - February 11, 2017
- Painting In The Wild With My Plein Air Portable Art Studio (30 Days In Italy) - August 30, 2016
- Towards a More Sustainable Company. - June 13, 2016
- The Economy of Craftsmanship. - April 29, 2016