Burning Question

Just last week the Burning Question crew stumbled upon a major scientific discovery.

We noticed that as Americans become more selective in their choice of cuisine, they lose their ability to discern skill in, say, leadership and moral stature. Once upon a time, people went out for "Chinese" food--which back then meant chop suey--then ambled home to debate the vagaries of Nixonomics or civil rights. Diners nowadays recognize the nuances of Hunan, Cantonese and Szechuan but can't figure out obvious flaws in a "stay the course" foreign policy.

Our theory: The human brain processes only so much information before discarding whatever it deems irrelevant. That's why a night of heavy drinking blurs the memory. Alcohol takes up a lot of space.


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At least according to our theory.

Anyway, a glance at local restaurant menus confirms our discovery. Not only are Americans in the midst of a culinary renaissance, the very breadth of consumer knowledge has created a cycle of expanding menu descriptions and an increasing focus on provenance. Selecting appetizers or entrées requires a familiarity with regional cuisine and the rivers and farms responsible for each ingredient. Sit down at George and order a seared Fran's Farm chicken with Anaheim goat cheese relleno. Don't like the Sonoma foie gras served at Aurora? Then head over to the French Room--um, Freedom Room--for a plate of the Le Bella Farms version.

"It's like when you open Bon Appétit and go through 30 pages before you see an article," acknowledges Joel Harloff, chef at Landmark Restaurant.

But do the products of specialty farms really make a difference?

"It depends," waffles Doug Brown of Beyond the Box. Chefs prepare dishes with the sophisticated palate in mind but realize only the most experienced diners understand the advantages of Pipestone or Cabbage Hill pork.

"I think there has to be a little bit of education," says Kent Rathbun, chef at Abacus. Restaurant staff, for instance, must spend some time clarifying the value of a certain producer. "The difference between farms is the difference between a Ferrari and a Chevy--to people who know."

For some reason, local dealers wouldn't allow us to test-drive a Ferrari, even after we explained the Pipestone/Cabbage Hill thing.

Hell, we even offered them a sip from our flasks.

"You have to do some homework," agrees Michael Zeve of Sevy's. "There are all kinds of specialty farms out there."

And that's where the mind starts to shut down. You can't just order salmon anymore. You see, the Yukon River carves a 2,000-mile-long swath through Canada, eh, and Alaska, while the Copper River covers a relatively short course of only a few hundred miles, tumbling out of the Wrangell Mountains. To navigate either stream, salmon must store up a tremendous amount of fat to burn along the way. Must...resist...urge...to insert...Oprah comment. Thus Yukon River salmon and Copper River salmon vary in color and flavor but feature a moist and delicate texture. Keep that in mind, along with the difference between artisanal cheeses (traditional cheeses made in small batches by artisans) and farmstead cheeses (cheese in which all the milk came from one farmer's herd or flock). And certain farms create flavorful meats through grazing techniques or by using only locally grown feed, free of growth hormones and other additives.

"Consumer awareness has grown," explains Kevin Ascolese, chef at Ferré. "People are educating themselves in what they're eating."

Chefs spend time researching each product and, ideally, select ingredients based on a perception of quality and taste. Todd Erickson at Hector's buys Deep Ellum Bleu cheese from Paula Lambert's Mozzarella Co. Russell Hodges of Iris raves about Maple Leaf Farms duck. Over at Lola, chef David Uygur prefers Sonoma foie gras to the Hudson Valley product.

But, again, do restaurant patrons really benefit from knowing which farm slaughtered their entrée?

"There are people who are trying to create the best product possible," Rathbun says. "These products become known to diners, so there's a value to having the name on a menu."

Good marketing for the farm as well.

Food service accounts for roughly 52 cents of every dollar Americans spend on food each year, compared with 25 cents a couple of decades ago. Boutique farming, however, struggles for recognition against the likes of Kraft or Perdue. Without a mention on one of Dallas' Tolstoy-esque menus, few people would learn of their products.

"It's important information if they enjoy it and want to try it again," Uygur agrees. "But there's an air of snobbery going on."

Ah, yes. Food snobs.

"Some people get carried away with it," Erickson adds. "You need to start with good-quality ingredients, but ultimately it's good technique and letting the food speak for itself that matters."

A few chefs, in fact, are starting to question the value of all that information.

"It starts to look ridiculous on a menu," Uygur complains. "You don't need to know that the carrots, a minor part of the dish, are from a specific farm."

Copper River, Yukon River, heirloom vegetables, Yama beef..."It's like Wag the Dog," Hodges says. "If there's a tangible difference in flavor and texture, I'll try it." But, he continues, descriptors for some ingredients mean little. "You read on the menu they use a certain wine in a sauce, or an extra virgin olive oil. Well, as soon as it hits the pan, the nuances are gone."

Anyway, unless patrons spend some time learning the qualities of each item, none of this matters much. Last year Ascolese bought an expensive chicken from a specialty farm, but no one picked up on the change.

"With Niman Ranch pork, there's a significant difference," Brown concludes. "But you could probably say 'Jack's Backyard pork' and it would mean the same."

Oh, well. To paraphrase a representative American: Is our restaurant patrons learning? Do specialty ingredients really make a difference?

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