Seasonality and Common Sense

This was posted on  May 7 2013  on  Inside Scoop  at the San Francisco Chronicle  

Seasonality: Common Sense and Sensibility

When you are in Italy or Germany in the spring, all of the restaurants have white asparagus on the menu, you don’t think, oh those poor dumb chefs. No originality!  They all have white asparagus on the menu. How boring…..

Well, why shouldn’t they all have asparagus on the menu? They’ve been waiting all year for the asparagus to return to the market and their seasonal arrival is cause for celebration. The same is true for the first wild mushrooms, the first little peas, the first white peaches. These chefs have the same seasonal vegetables or fruits on the menu and but they don’t lie awake thinking they will be accused of being unoriginal. They think how can I cook these and make them shine? Let me use my skill to show them off at their best.   

Which brings me to chef Rick Bayless who put his feet on the ground in SFO and then inadvertently put them in his mouth. When interviewed off- the- cuff, after having eaten at Aziza, Slanted Door, Local’s  Corner,  Flour +Water, State  Bird  Provisions and My China , he said “ I have had great food on this trip but what’s interesting to me is that there is a real similarity from restaurant to restaurant. All the restaurants are doing the seasonal thing and getting the same ingredients from the same farms and what not…it’s all a little bit too alike.” (I was just in NY and everyone had ramps on the menu.)

Bayless added, “The food here is incredibly steeped in Italian food. Everyone has pizza and pasta on the menu.”  Really? At Aziza ? At State Bird?  At Slanted Door?  Are pizza and pasta on the menu at Nopalito? Benu? “Manresa?   Piperade ?  Nojo?  Namu? Commonwealth?  Their chefs all cook with seasonal ingredients and they do not cook them the same way. The chefs put their personal touch on the ingredients. And even if chefs are cooking the ingredients in traditional ways, is that so wrong, as long as the food tastes good?  This obsession with originality can go too far and create a lot of “interesting” but not necessarily delicious food.

Bayless’ off the cuff remark harkened back to Daniel Patterson’s 2005 article in the NYTimes Magazine called “To the Moon, Alice” where he said that the Bay area restaurant scene at that time was trapped in the Chez Panisse idiom and that chefs needed to break out and  use “local ingredients, precise execution  and a generous helping of imagination to create a modern, innovative and highly personal style of cooking.”  Eight years later, after seeing all of the new restaurants in the Bay area where chefs have gone off in multiple directions, he says the cooking in the Bay area has changed quite a lot and thinks that maybe even some have gone a bit too far in the other direction.

 In this era of instant and constant communication, with photos and reviews on food blogs and magazines reported daily, every chef can know what other chefs are cooking. Despite the quest for originality, all across the country, NY, Chicago, Boston, LA, the Bay area and even in Europe, many of the plates in the high end restaurants look stylistically the same!  

Years ago as part of their classical training, French chefs were  taught  to create a recipe, perfect it, and then cook it the same way all year long. So if you had a recipe with asparagus you had it on the menu 365 days a year. For a few months of the year the asparagus was fresh and local and the rest of the time it might be fresh and flown in from far away.  If you have ever cooked asparagus that you found at your market in September, flown in from a distance, you know for sure that it did not taste as sweet as those that were in season and local. Just like strawberries and tomatoes in January do not taste like strawberries in June and tomatoes in August.

There is a common sense aspect to seasonality.  The produce is at its flavor peak and that flavor does not fade in long distance transit. It is also cheapest and most abundant. Supporting local farms is crucial to the sustainability of the region. Cooking with local ingredients contributes to a regional cuisine. It is our terroir that makes us unique as opposed to other parts of the country.

So while many chefs may be cooking with the same seasonal ingredients from some of the same farmers, by supporting these farmers we now have better and more varied ingredients to cook with. It is up to the chefs to use their skills and take those ingredients and make them sing. They can choose to cook them traditionally as at Chez Panisse,  Cotogna , Nopa and Delfina or more elaborately or exotically as at Manresa or Aziza or Commonwealth . That is the chef’s personal choice. 

I know Rick Bayless and I cannot believe he believes what he said on the spur of the moment. I have been to his house where he has a huge garden. And I have been there when he personally harvested a hundred squash blossoms to bring to his restaurant. They were fresh, in season and local. He would not have it any other way.  And neither should we.


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