Reality Bites

Mass-market restaurant chains often take extraordinary steps to stress their particular ethnic identity. Cracker Barrel, for example, oozes Southern charm--that is, the South of Moon Pies, RC Cola, lynchings, Bonnie and Clyde and rabid defiance of all things learned--from every crevice. At Bennigan's, hostesses greet you with obscure Gaelic phrases, and American-Irish iconography assaults diners from every angle. Yep, Boston Celtics banners, Notre Dame memorabilia and all things green. It's as if that Lucky Charms character suddenly brandished a shillelagh against the kids who terrorized him for so long. They even serve so-called Irish margaritas alongside more authentic items like Guinness.

"You take Bennigan's, and you take here," scoffs a somewhat annoyed Martin Lombard, owner of Tipperary Inn East Dallas. "Sometimes I look around and people are drinking and talking and I say, 'We really are an Irish pub.' It has a buzz about it. You never get that in Bennigan's."

Ah, but authenticity, or the lack thereof, simply doesn't faze most Americans.

"Every guy pictures himself as a combination of Sinatra and Bond," observes Matthew, Samba Room bartender and poet laureate of Dallas nightlife. "But they order a sour apple martini."

Thus it's somewhat odd that chefs at fine dining establishments fret over the procurement and presentation of rare and authentic products: Kobe beef, beluga caviar, Jameson ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Vidalia onions and the like. Chefs have access to ingredients culled worldwide, often selecting items from specific locales. Nana, for example, insists on diver-harvested scallops. Il Sole scours Italy for small-batch olive oils. "As refrigeration has gotten better, as the Internet has gotten better, as shipping has gotten better, it's easier to be address-specific with product," explains David McMillan, executive chef at Nana.

One could argue that this level of pedantry simply turns leather-bound menus into nothing more than vast run-on sentences. But the increasing globalization of available ingredients and a growing awareness among consumers that reality exists somewhere beyond McDonald's or Bennigan's often distort the market for authentic products. For instance, several Dallas-area restaurants advertise Kobe beef, the Japanese steak famed for its rich marbling, curious handling (caretakers feed the wagyu cattle a very specific diet and--the story goes--massage each cow with sake) and hefty price. A 12-ounce serving rings up at more than $100. Because of concerns over the safety of imported meats, however, restaurants can no longer purchase Japanese beef.

Steak houses offering Kobe beef actually purchase their product from numerous suppliers in the western United States, including Oregon, Washington and Texas. "The beef we've seen from Oregon or Washington is 30 percent wagyu crossbred with Angus," reports Carlos Rodriguez, executive chef at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. By breeding wagyu with the larger Angus, shrewd ranchers increase their yield. "I wouldn't be surprised if some restaurants were selling that as Kobe," says Al Biernat, who recently tested some of the prime crossbred beef at his namesake Oak Lawn restaurant. Other top steak houses acknowledge purchasing Kobe beef from American producers, but defend the quality. "We buy it out of Texas, and the particular ranch we deal with has a 100 percent herd," Rodriguez explains, "and you can tell." American ranchers began importing wagyu cattle from the original bloodlines in 1976, and a few maintain the lines. Abacus purchases Kobe from the same Texas ranch as Pappas Bros., but executive sous chef Aaron Staudenmaier is less sanguine than Rodriguez. "True Kobe beef could never be 100 percent re-created in the U.S.," he says. "What the Japanese do to true Kobe, you'd never get past the SPCA and PETA."

According to Staudenmaier, Japanese handlers only massage the wagyu cattle in order to keep their overburdened hearts pumping. "They massage them to keep them alive," he says, "because there's so much fat and so little muscle."

Other products suffer from similar dilution as awareness and demand grow. Twenty years ago, Jamaican growers exported just over 400,000 pounds of the famed Blue Mountain coffee annually. By the mid-1990s, increasing demand encouraged producers to cultivate new land, and exports approached 3 million pounds. Despite the larger production numbers, Blue Mountain coffee runs close to $40 a pound. And the tendency of dealers to blend the rare bean with more common Colombian and Brazilian coffees forces reputable outlets in the United States to certify the authenticity of anything dubbed Blue Mountain. San Marzano tomatoes, once grown and handpicked only in a small area of Southern Italy, now ripen on farms in California. Cuban seed tobacco grows in all countries acceptable to President Bush and the handful of Cuban exiles who somehow manage to maintain the embargo by directing money and votes to politicians willing to do their bidding. Truffles grow in Oregon. And Spain produces a decent approximation of Italy's prosciutto de Parma.

Yet chefs agree location affects flavor.

"Just like wine, food picks up characteristics from its location," Staudenmaier says. The type of soil, the feed provided to animals, even the manner of care provided the plant or animal determine taste and texture in subtle ways. Government regulations reinforce the influence of location on food--as in ethical treatment for cattle or banning unpasteurized cheese.

"Flavor is indigenous to a region," agrees Gilbert Garza, chef-owner of Suze. "They have genetically engineered our food system to such a degree that it's very good, but very straight-line. Once you've been to Europe, you'll know there's a difference."

The battle is one of authenticity vs. cost. The Spanish version of prosciutto sells at half the price of the real thing. It's also one of fresh vs. frozen or preserved. "You compromise the product by the packaging required," Garza asserts. "I've never seen any mechanism that doesn't compromise seafood at some level. There's nothing wrong with frozen; it's a good product. But it's just not the same."

Yet the drive for authenticity prevails, and the assurance of authenticity depends on knowledge and trust. Chefs are often approached by people offering everything from cheese to Copper River salmon at much reduced prices. "You have to deal with reputable vendors," Rodriguez says. That means checking their references, testing their product and maintaining a certain amount of vigilance. McMillan approaches new vendors with a healthy amount of caution. "If someone has a rare product, I wonder, 'Why do you have it?' A quality vendor is the biggest thing." Jeffery Hobbs, executive chef at Il Sole, occasionally visits producers. Mostly, however, he relies on basic sleuthing. "You do a lot of phone-calling and taste-testing products," he says. "It takes time."

As experts, chefs in fine dining restaurants must learn to distinguish variations. "If you've never tasted the source of something before, you must develop that first point of reference," Garza explains. "There are taste differences between Northern Italian olive oil and Southern Italian olive oil, and you need to know them." Ask Rodriguez about beluga caviar and he eases into a lecture on size and source, the differences between Iranian and Russian caviar, pollution, overfishing and so on. "It requires a certain amount of product knowledge," McMillan confirms. "Truffles are a good example. An Oregon truffle and an Italian truffle, there's no comparison."

Mention truffles in a conversation with a Bennigan's line cook and you might receive a Whitman's Sampler.

Considering that sales at the almost 300 Bennigan's nationwide must outpace chef-driven restaurants by a whopping margin and that most diners rarely stray beyond the most basic menu items, one again wonders why chefs spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down lamb from Colorado, lobster from Australia or foie gras from France.

"You start using good product from the beginning and it's hard to go to lesser stuff," Garza replies. "It impacts the way you feel about the food you create, and that's not worth the price."


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