Wednesday, February 2, 2011

So Surprised

(The background to this story is my wife watching Michael Pollan on Oprah's show about she and her staff going vegan for a week, the dependence on Whole Foods and the overall state of American palates today)

When I quit my full-time, Executive Sous Chef job in March, 2010, I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do. I knew that if being a chef meant gaining weight, being perpetually unhappy and never seeing your spouse, I wanted nothing to do with it. I also had it in mind that rather than simply ordering the local produce that was applicable to our menu on specific occasions, I wanted to work with those ingredients full time, on my own terms. So I printed up some business cards, told the small group of people that I knew that I was available for small, private events and got to looking at what was in season. In short, I had no idea what I was doing.

Before I ever cooked any food for money outside of a restaurant, I got a job at the farmer's market. Not just any job, though--no, I was working for what I still believe to be the most incredible organic vegetable and lettuce farmer working in Texas today. Arugula as delicate, crisp and bitter as I have ever tasted. Cherry tomatoes sweeter than pure honey. Mulberries at the peak of ripeness. I didn't just discover true flavor in its rawest form; I figured out, after several years of trying, what it is that I enjoy about cooking--the simplicty of pure ingredients.

Am I not a chef, though? Shouldn't I already have and employ a deep respect for each of the ingredients that I have in front of me? Shouldn't the sugar content in a ripe summer tomato come as no surprise to me? Of course. And, naturally, the flavor of each ingredient that I use in a dish is never lost on me. But there's nothing that says eating that same tomato, outside of a restaurant and with no other reason than to simply enjoy it, can't change my mind drastically as to how I will think about tomatoes from here on out. How I will make it my goal to show and convince people that shopping at the farmer's market doesn't just mean making a salad or grilling a steak. Or how every time I cook from that moment forth I will force myself to use every bit of flavor that each ingredient gives me before I ever lay hand to another. And thus my goal, like that of the Dan Barbers, the Alice Waters', the Michael Pollans and so many others of the world, was born. Or, rather, affirmed.

Since May, 2010, I have cooked for whomever would have me. I have sourced as much meat, produce and dairy from the local farmer's markets as possible and I have tried my hardest to never duplicate dishes from one event to another, thereby giving each diner a truly unique experience, always making the season's bounty (which hasn't always been so bountiful) the centerpiece of each menu. The food, I feel, in all honesty, has been overall delicious. There have naturally been highs and lows, but I have never put forth a dish that I didn't stand behind, whether or not it was absolutely perfect. And most satisfying has been that fact that every time I have served food, at least one person has walked away with a bit of food knowledge that they didn't have before. Free of charge.

While the last months have been rewarding, educational and reasonably lucrative, the reactions of many of those who have eaten my food have been uncomfortably surprising. At the end of a meal, guests will often come up to me and remark on how stunned they were by the food, how they've never encountered such flavors, such ingredients (no, really, I'm not gloating). Things like yellow watermelon, oranges and jicama, a bean puree made with five very simple ingredients seem to blow them away, always to my surprise, if not simply to my delight. My reaction is because they speak of the meal as though they've never been given such fresh things to eat. That past eating the best, sweetest tomato in their life, they've never stopped to enjoy a tomato, period. And so while, little by little, my efforts seem to be yielding positive results, I'm made strikingly aware of how much work lay ahead of not just me, but every chef, farmer, food writer and food advocate there is working in the business today.

However, there is an inherent problem with trying not simply to encourage people to eat fresh foods, but also to educate them on how to procure these items. Simply put, they don't always taste good. On a recent visit to a North Texas cattle ranch that raises and slaughters 100% grassfed beef for wholesale, we were given a few samples to take away and try. The ground beef that we ate in burger form, seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, was probably of the highest quality, richest flavor that I have ever eaten. The fat was so luscious and buttery, the meat nearly melted in my mouth. We agreed that we had found a goldmine. But moving on to the other cuts, things like ribeyes, porterhouses and T-bones that should normally be swimming in flavor and soft as can be, were tough, and almost inedible. Even at medium rare, the ribeye was like well done churrasco, chewy, dry and bland--a sad realization that best efforts don't always yield best results.

So as I listen to Michael Pollan and Oprah discuss the merits of veganism, knowing thy farmer and why shrink-wrapped meat completely removes us from the knowledge that that steak came from a once-breathing animal, I can't help wanting to simply go back to square one, to something as basic as showing a person how to cut an apple or peel an orange. Before I can ever convince a diner, a friend or a vegan that a ruddy-faced farmer raising marbled, Texas, grassfed beef is better than a shrink-wrapped tenderloin, I have to prepare dishes for people that barely involve cooking, let alone meat. Farmers may smell or have dirty hands and the market might be full of self-righteous yuppies or far-too-politically correct advocates, all enough to drive would be clientele away from discovering peak-of-season specialties, but the grocery store, even the supermarket, need not only be home to boxed cuts, pre-cut fruits and more refined sugars and starches than the man who discovered wheat could ever imagine, but also all the raw ingredients to make each and every one of us healthier, happier eaters.

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