Thursday, October 18, 2007

We're in Edible Chesapeake!

This marks the Slow Cook's second appearance in Edible Chesapeake since the magazine resumed publication earlier this year. My assignment: challenge a local chef to design a budget meal around locally-grown ingredients.

If you read the piece, you'll notice right off that I took a somewhat different approach than most of these chef challenges. First and foremost, I did not set a budget for the chef in question because I did not want this to be perceived as a stunt. Most of these challenges call for the chef to make a meal for four on $5, or some ridiculously low figure. Or, they give the chef $50 to make a meal for two, as if....

To tell the truth, I had mixed feelings about this from the start. For years, I've been trying to dissuade editors from going the chef route. This may be because I question the need to have professional chefs as arbiters of what the rest of us eat. And I am frequently peeved that chefs seem to be stealing the limelight where local foods are concerned.

I guess you could say I walk around with a chip on my shoulder where chefs are concerned. Maybe it's some kind of locker room-type grudge. I am a self-taught cook--not profesionally trained--and I've never been a restaurant chef. Truth be told, I'm just your average grower and eater, a garden variety populist where food is concerned.

I don't appreciate chefs dictating the terms of our cuisine. I rankle at the idea of chefs pushing food trends that the rest of us are supposed to follow. But then I read a penetrating essay by John Thorne (always penetrating, sensible, gracious), wherein Mr. Thorne pretty much echoes my own feelings, only he'd come around to the conclusion that professional chefs are good for food. Frequently they are the ones discovering the best new ingredients, supporting farmers and other purveyors, introducing the eating public to things that deserve closer attention.

So now I have to concede that chefs are responsible for some of the best in the food world, as well as the worst--the worst being the Food Network, the cult of the celebrity chef, Las Vegas as a food destination, overly fussy food, the dominance of chefs in food magazines, etc.

But I digress. What I'm trying to get at is, there are so many great home cooks out there not only making wonderful food, but intimately familiar with the requirements of feeding a family on a budget. So why do we not seek them out? Why do we not celebrate the work they do, the knowledge they have to share?

When he first took the job as food editor for the New York Times back in the 60s, one of Craig Clayborne's first acts was to introduce the idea of writing about great home cooks. When did that become passe? What I keep urging editors to do is not hand $20 to a chef and ask him to come up with a great Latin meal. Lets give $50 bucks to a Salvadoran grandma and see what she does with the money. My bet is, the grandma's going to take you places you would never see otherwise.

So, too, it is with this local food business. As John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate, has been reminding us--and reminding us, and reminding us--there are two Americas, one of which can afford lots of things, the other of which can't. Those of us who support local foods are kidding ourselves if we think there isn't a class divide involved in the eat-local paradigm. Face it, most Americans don't eat local, don't have access to locally produced foods and wouldn't know where to start.

So why do we keep beating them over the head with professional chefs as a primary means of selling sustainable, local foods? Time, I think, to change the equation....


Ellen said...

It's so good to read your views regarding professional chefs, and how our dining experience is influenced by them. Everytime I eat at a restaurant where the plates come decorated with colored sauces squirted out of sqeeze bottles, I feel like I've been robbed. It's all about presentation, and not so much about taste, and thus, I rarely eat at those places. And don't get me started on entrees containing so little food that you leave the restaurant feeling hungry. I'm supposed to be impressed by this?

The cost of producing and transporting food is rising rapidly, and I believe that soon we'll all be wishing we had a Salvadoran grandma to teach us all how to feed our families for less. It's only a matter of time.

Kevin said...

Damned straight!

There's nothing wrong with having food look good (assuming it is good). After all, our first "taste" of any dish is its appearance. I love having the opportunity to give some thought to presentation, even if I'm serving something like beef stew only for myself. (Not that I garnish every meal I eat alone.)

Ed Bruske said...

Ellen, One of the big problems with the restaurant scene is that too many chefs are trying to outdo each other and catch the latest wave. Sorry, not interested. But I do think food should look good, as Kevin says.

Kevin, I hope you are kidding about eating alone. You don't really have to eat alone, do you?

Melanie Lytle said...

"Those of us who support local foods are kidding ourselves if we think there isn't a class divide involved in the eat-local paradigm."

Couldn't agree more. It's all a bit pretentious and on occasion I feel a bit obnxious about my own choice to eat local. At the same time, there have been several efforts to bring local, organic food to low-income areas of San Diego through high school gardening programs. These teenagers who take the ag classes have the opportunity to not only learn how to grow food, but also provide local food for themselves and their families that otherwise would never be available to them.

Kevin said...

Nope. I'm single and like it that way. So I almost always eat alone -- but well.