One wedding and a doctorate later, I am ready to get back on the blogging saddle – particularly after our experience at the Butcher Shop Tuesday night where Rick Gencarelli, the chef from Shelburne Farms in Vermont, was in the house to discuss his new book and cook up a delicious three course meal with wines paired by Cat Silirie and her troop from The No.9 Group.
I want to talk less about the meal, which was very good, and more about the impression it left me regarding the direction of the “taste of place” food trend that seems to be sweeping the nation. Words like local, organic, artisan, farm-fresh, etc. are thrown around fairly fast and proud these days, with restaurants vying to prove their ingredients come from the closest and most regionally authentic source. This trend has not only affected the quality of the ingredients (for the better, I think) but also the techniques applied to the food itself. Simplicity has become a virtue, allowing the taste of the ingredients to show through by using basic preparation methods. In short, the “taste of place” trend wants to bring back the pre-industrialized way of cooking and eating. You eat what you grow, you grow it “organically” (whatever the hell that means at this point), and you cook it simply. Peasant food has become chic – it’s now a reflection of the way meals ought to be, some form of culinary authenticity.
Shelburne Farms in Vermont exemplifies this style and mentality. They grow their own produce and raise their own animals, so the transition from birth/seed to product to plate is on display. A total transparency of process. And the food, at least from what I could tell last night, also reflects this mentality: garden fresh raw ingredients for a salad, simple grilled meat with roasted vegetables, fresh pasta with Vermont creme fraiche, garden peas, and Vermont morels.
There is something troublesome about this trend, though. As I looked around and saw a room full of wealthy and well-dressed thirty- and forty-somethings clinking glasses of expensive Bandol and musing on the authenticity of the culinary experience they were having, I had the same awkward and slightly disgusted sensation that I do when I see tourists in small Italian towns taking pictures of the townsfolk as if they were on display for them. We weren’t buying the food, we were buying the ability to be psychologically transported to a place from which our cosmopolitan life is very far removed – a place where we live in harmony with the environment and extravagance is demonized. But there we were paying $125 a head for the experience. Quite ironic. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were all being duped.
I surely haven’t seen a reduction in restaurant prices as the techniques become simpler and the menu options become more limited (because, come on, they only buy local). So where does the money go? I wonder if those most responsible for the taste of the food we are eating in this new era of local/artisan products (i.e the farmers) are directly benefiting – something tells me they are not.
It would be quite a trick indeed if restauranteurs are able to continue this food trend deifying a return to simplicity and regional authenticity of ingredients while reaping the benefits of saved time, energy and cost. I am not complaining, I like the dishes that are being produced, but I fear the day when a braised Boston pigeon plucked fresh from City Hall is served to me on a bed of organic Public Gardens grass for $40 and I actually believe that it is worth paying for.