travel: less twerk, more cook…

Red barn on a hill.
~

I have neglected my blog. And I am sorry for it.

In the months since my trip to Chicago in March (the last, substantive post on this blog), I have seen spring, summer, and autumn happening in fragments all over the Western Hemisphere, both above and below the equator. While I intend to write about all of these trips eventually (I have my work cut out for me), I pause to regroup and recap, if not for your sake, then for mine.

~


Grating horseradish.

~

In April, I had a four-hour layover in Atlanta – just long enough for me to exit the airport for a quick dinner – on the way to Chile, where I spent two weeks touring the central region of that lengthy country. I was in the capital city of Santiago and visited the seaside port of Valparaíso, as well as three different wine valleys – Casablanca, Colchagua, and Elqui. Thereafter, I headed to San Francisco for a few days of eating.

It has become an annual tradition for me to spend the first week of May in New York. It was my seventh year attending the James Beard Awards, and my second time photographing the event for All-Clad Metalcrafters. In the second half of that month, I attended the second annual Mesamerica conference in Mexico City.

In June, I photographed a Bocuse d’Or fundraising dinner at the Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. I stayed a couple of extra days to eat around that city, and then headed to St. Louis, where I met up with a couple of friends for a road-trip home to attend the Harvesters Chefs Classic, which I have helped host for the past three years. At the end of the month I was back in San Francisco, briefly.

July was a busy month. I was first in Austin photographing Paul Qui’s new restaurant. When we weren’t shooting food, we were eating it: Thai, pizza, sno-cones, sushi, and lots of barbecue. We celebrated Independence Day with agua frescas and chiles rellenos; Mexican take-out for our tired, lazy, and overheated bones. I made a quick suitcase exchange at home and was off to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to photograph for Richard Rosendale, the American candidate at this year’s Bocuse d’Or. From there, I crossed the continent to Seattle, my first visit to that corner of our country in fourteen years. I loved it there. I want to move there.

I ended my July travel with a trip to Chicago.

I started August with a quick, short visit to San Francisco, my fourth trip there this year. Thereafter, I enjoyed some much-needed down-time at home in Kansas City before launching off for a two-week trip to New York and New Jersey, which carried me over into September.

~

Chris Bennett

~

It would be easy to dismiss all of my eating and traveling as simply sport, or leisure, or – to those who falsely make assumptions about me – that thing that rich people do when the have to much time on their hands.

For me, eating, like travel, is education. Whether they be good or bad, every meal I treat as a lesson. I try to learn from every one and to rarely regret.

So, while I’m summarizing my past few months of travel and eating, I’d like to record a thought that has been turning in my head on the issue of quality, and the attendant observations that I have made along the way.

Happily, it seems that access to high-quality ingredients has widened. Or, perhaps, awareness of the channels through which high-quality ingredients can be obtained has spread. Either way, we are living in a time of embarrassing riches.

We are also living in a time of embarrassing ignorance. Sadly, this increase in access and awareness isn’t seeing a correlating rise in discernment or knowledge about quality, or what to do with it once it has been identified. I hear a lot of chefs and see a lot of menus boasting the quality or provenance of ingredients. But, more often than not, the end-product on the plate is a poor representation of the original; the celebrated quality having been compromised or ruined by unknowledgeable or unskillful handling. I’ve even noticed otherwise talented chefs back-seating quality to “technique.” Let’s not forget who should be serving who, here. Technique exists and should be used for the benefit of ingredient quality, not the other way around.

And this is how I parse my meals. This is how I evaluate chefs. This is how I separate the cream from the crop.

Is there a true understanding of quality? Is there discernment about it? And is there the skill and confidence needed to showcase it?

What I see nowadays is a lot of culinary twerking, which, like Miley Cyrus’s tasteless stunt at this year’s Video Music Awards, is nothing more than an immature attempt to force a coming of age where none exists. There’s a lot of strutting and stripping, but very little substance. Likewise, many chefs are cooking out of tune, creating a lot of hype, and, in my opinion, making fools of themselves.

But those chefs and restaurateurs aren’t entirely at fault. At the risk of coming off as elitist or condescending (neither of which I intend to be): part of the problem is that diners are uninformed, misinformed, or misguided. There is a growing awareness of quality, but there is not a growing understanding of it. And therefore, there is not a demand for it.*

Diners are herded by the media. (I have written about this subject before.) And, sadly, these days, the media are applauding twerking more than cooking. There’s a lot of grandstanding, idyllic philosophies, and innovative techniques administered through feel-good videos and a circuit of conferences, where the media hang on chefs like groupies. But the quality of ingredients and the quality of cooking is rarely explored in detail.

We are arriving at a destination where food is the byproduct of chefs, and not the other way around. And this troubles me. (I have written about this too.)

I acknowledge and understand that not all restaurants and chefs are created equal. Some chefs and restaurateurs aren’t interested in idyllic philosophies, or innovative techniques, or finding the highest-quality products available (or, to be fair, they probably are, but aren’t willing to do what it takes to make it sustainable). They just want to cook decent food and make a decent profit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. At the end of the day, restaurants are businesses, and I respect the business approach to cooking. But, when I am eating in one of these restaurants, I draw the boundaries of my expectations respectively. And, as a result, I am rarely disappointed. [It is the responsibility of the food media to understand the intentions of each restaurant and chef, and to evaluate them accordingly (instead of evaluating them according to what the media thinks, or wants to think of them). To do otherwise would be unfair to both the restaurant and the public.]

But for many of the chefs who are reaching for the stars, who deign to write a new page in our culinary record, I worry. I worry because they pose and posture as if they are delivering the world to us, and yet, what arrives is often but a shadow. I worry because we are applauding them for it, a coronation of emperors, who turn around and terrorize us with their nakedness.

Most of all, I worry because I see the divide between awareness and understanding widening – not just with respect to quality, but with respect to the industry in general.

Please: less twerking, more cooking.

~

Communal.

~

You want specific examples of skillful cooking with high-quality ingredients? Here are a few recommendations from my recent travels.

Have breakfast or lunch at Ameryll Schwertner’s newly opened bouli bar in the Ferry Terminal Marketplace (San Francisco), or at Tartine Bakery in the Mission District (San Francisco).

One dinner at Joshua Skenes’s saison (San Francisco) will teach you more about quality than dozens of meals elsewhere.

Go watch Anthony Mangieri make your pizza at una pizza napoletana (San Francisco), or wait on line to see Domenico DeMarco make yours at Di Fara Pizza (Brooklyn); both are true artisans. Their pies are the product of excellent ingredients and years of craftwork.

Have a plate of pasta at Del Posto in New York City. (Actually, order anything that Mark Ladner is cooking. Don’t forget to have desserts; Brooks Headley is one of the most talented and intelligent pastry chefs I know.)

Go to The Modern, and do it quickly, before Gabriel Kreuther leaves at the end of this year. While you’re there, have some of Marc Aumont’s desserts. They’re amazing.

I found a stunning showcase of quality on Lummi Island. Blaine Wetzel is cooking thoughtfully and remarkably out of the Pacific Ocean at Willow’s Inn. Hundreds of miles down the coast, Justin Cogley is doing the same at Aubergine in Carmel-By-The-Sea.

Consider the art of cross-spit roasting at Mesón de la Patagonia, just outside of Santiago, Chile. There, I had amazing lamb from Patagonia. Or, come to Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Missouri, just a few miles from where I live. Sarah Hoffman and Jacqueline Smith are producing some of the finest, sustainably raised lamb meat and sheeps’ milk cheeses I’ve ever had.

In Mexico City, Enrique Olvera’s Pujol is a fine example of how Mexico is celebrating and studying its own culinary history with quality ingredients and skillful cooking.

In Seattle, go to Matt Dillon’s Sitka and Spruce, in Austin, go visit Paul Qui’s Qui.

And at elements in Princeton, New Jersey, tell chef Scott Anderson that you want him to cook for you. He will show you the best ingredients he can get from local land and waters.

The foregoing list is, by no means, comprehensive. I hope to write about many more of the restaurants that have I visited in later posts. If there is a restaurant or chef that you think I should visit, I encourage you to comment below, or email me.

~

Fire pits.

~

Listed below are all of the restaurants that I have visited in the past few months.

APRIL

Alegre at the Palacio Astoreca (Valparaiso, Chile)
Ana Maria (once, twice) (Santiago, Chile)
Antulican (Santiago, Chile)
Aqui Esta Coco (Santiago, Chile)
Arola at the Ritz Carlton (Santiago, Chile)
Bar Tartine (San Francisco, California)
bluestem (Kansas City, Missouri)
Bocanariz (Santiago, Chile)
Boragó (once, twice) (Santiago, Chile)
Boulette’s Larder (San Francisco, California)
Canela Patisserie (Santiago, Chile)
Casa Mirador (Casablanca Valley, Chile)
Empire State South (Atlanta, Georgia)
flour + water (San Francisco, California)
haus (Kansas City, Missouri)
La Folie (San Francisco, California)
La Fuente Vitacura (Santiago, Chile)
Liguria (Santiago, Chile)
Marisqueria Bahamondez (Santiago, Chile)
Mercado Vega (Santiago, Chile)
Mesón de la Patagonia (Santiago, Chile)
Mill, The (San Francisco, California)
Osaka (Santiago, Chile)
Pigwich (Kansas City, Missouri)
Pilar Rodriguez Food + Wine Studio (Colchagua Valley, Chile)
Rancho Doña Maria (Santiago, Chile)
Rye (Leawood, Kansas)
Saison (San Francisco, California)
Slanted Door, The (San Francisco, California)
State Bird Provisions (San Francisco, California)
Viña Lapostolle (Colchagua Valley, Chile)
Viñedos de Alcohuaz (Elqui Valley, Chile)
Viñedos Montgras (Casablanca Valley, Chile)

MAY

aamans of Copenhagen (New York, New York)
abc kitchen (New York, New York)
American Restaurant, The (Kansas City, Missouri)
Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, New York)
Boulud Sud (New York, New York)
Butcher’s Daughter (New York, New York)
Carbone (New York, New York)
De Gustibus (Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson; New York, New York)
Eleven Madison Park (New York, New York)
eno (once, twice) (Mexico City, Mexico)
Gotham Bar & Grill (New York, New York)
Gramercy Tavern (New York, New York)
Green Dirt Farm (Weston, Missouri)
Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen Bar (New York, New York)
il buco alimentari (New York, New York)
ippudo (New York, New York)
Keens Chophouse (New York, New York)
kokage (New York, New York)
Lady M Confections (New York, New York)
Lafayette (New York, New York)
Maialino (New York, New York)
Mero Toro (Mexico City, Mexico)
Nico’s (Mexico City, Mexico)
Paxia (Mexico City, Mexico)
per se (New York, New York)
pok pok (Brooklyn, New York)
Port Fonda (Kansas City, Missouri)
pujol (Mexico City, Mexico)
Quintonil (Mexico City, Mexico)
Rosetta (Mexico City, Mexico)
Rye (once, twice, thrice) (Leawood, Kansas)
Wong (New York, New York)

JUNE

American Restaurant, The (Harvesters Chefs Classic; Kansas City, Missouri)
Black’s BBQ (Lockhart, Texas)
bluestem (once, twice) (Kansas City, Missouri)
Café Europa (Kansas City, Missouri)
commonwealth (San Francisco, California)
Fifth Floor, The (San Francisco, California)
Genessee Royale (Kansas City, Missouri)
Green Dirt Farm (Weston, Missouri)
Highland’s Bar & Grill (Birmingham, Alabama)
Hot & Hot Fish Club (once, twice) (Birmingham, Alabama)
Knead Bakery (San Francisco, California)
LC’s Barbecue (Kansas City, Missouri)
Lidia’s (Kansas City, Missouri)
Little Donkey (Birmingham, Alabama)
niche (St. Louis, Missouri)
Niki’s West (Birmingham, Alabama)
Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ (Kansas City, Kansas)
Outerlands (San Francisco, California)
pastaria (St. Louis, Missouri)
Port Fonda (Kansas City, Missouri)
Red Door Grill (Leawood, Kansas)
Rieger Grill & Exchange (Kansas City, Missouri)
Saison (once, twice) (San Francisco, California)
Smitty’s Market (Lockhart, Texas)
Spin Modern Thai (Austin, Texas)
SPQR (San Francisco, California)
State Bird Provisions (San Francisco, California)
Thiên Long (San Jose, California)
una pizza napoletana (San Francisco, California)
Vittoria Macelleria (Birmingham, Alabama)
Winslow’s Home (St. Louis, Missouri)

JULY

Á La Mode Bakery (Seattle, Washington)
Bakery Nouveau (Seattle, Washington)
Barley Swine (Austin, Texas)
Bar Sajor (Seattle, Washington)
Beach Store Café (Lummi Island, Washington)
belly q (Chicago, Illinois)
Canlis (once, twice) (Seattle, Washington)
Canon (Seattle, Washington)
Carlitos (White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia)
Cascina Spinasse (Seattle, Washington)
Easy Tiger (Austin, Texas)
East Side King at Hole in the Wall (Austin, Texas)
Fuji Bakery (Seattle, Washington)
Genessee Royale (Kansas City, Missouri)
grace (Chicago, Illinois)
Home Slice Pizza (Austin, Texas)
Hoosier Mama Pie Co. (Chicago, Illinois)
Irish Pub (Lewisburg, West Virginia)
Josephine House (Austin, Texas)
La Condesa (Austin, Texas)
Little Goat (Chicago, Illinois)
Next: Vegan (Chicago, Illinois)
Nightwood (Chicago, Illinois)
Pleasant House Bakery (Chicago, Illinois)
Red Door Grill (Leawood, Kansas)
Rye (Leawood, Kansas)
Salt & Time (Austin, Texas)
Sitka & Spruce (Seattle, Washington)
Staple & Fancy (Seattle, Washington)
Qui (Austin, Texas)
uchi (Austin, Texas)
Walrus and the Carpenter (Seattle, Washington)
Wiener’s Circle (Chicago, Illinois)
Willow’s Inn (Lummi Island, Washington)

AUGUST

American Restaurant, The (Kansas City, Kansas)
aziza (San Francisco, California)
blanca (Brooklyn, New York)
Bluel Ribbon (New York, New York)
bluestem (once, twice, thrice) (Kansas City, Missouri)
Bouli Bar (once, twice) (San Francisco, California)
Café Boulud (New York, New York)
Diane’s Bakery (Roslyn, New York)
Dominque Ansel (New York, New York)
elm, the (Brooklyn, New York)
extra virgin (Kansas City, Missouri)
Genessee Royale (Kansas City, Missouri)
Hot Bagels (Roslyn, New York)
Hummus World (Roslyn, New York)
Lidia’s (Kansas City, Missouri)
louro (New York, New York)
Novel (Kansas City, Missouri)
Minetta Tavern (New York, New York)
Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ (once, twice) (Kansas City, Kansas)
Port Fonda (Kansas City, Missouri)
Rice & Miso Everyday (Brooklyn, New York)
Runner & Stone (Brooklyn, New York)
Rye (Leawood, Kansas)
Saison (San Francisco, California)

SEPTEMBER

abc cocina (New York, New York)
Ada’s Latin Flavor (Long Branch, New Jersey)
bluestem (once, twice) (Kansas City, Missouri)
Café Shirin (Manalapan Township, New Jersey)
casa mono (once, twice, thrice) (New York, New York)
danji (New York, New York)
Del Posto (New York, New York)
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro (Keyport, New Jersey)
elements (Princeton, New Jersey)
Epicerie Boulud (New York, New York)
Jean-Georges (New York, New York)
Lincoln Ristorante (New York, New York)
Mistral (Princeton, New Jersey)
Modern, The (New York, New York)
Peacock Inn, The (Princeton, New Jersey)
Perry Street (New York, New York)
Pines, The (Brooklyn, New York)
Rye (Leawood, Kansas)
Sushi Abazu (New York, New York)

* I have met chefs who are very knowledgeable about their products, and who are capable of cooking at a very high level, but are casting their pearls upon swines. The uninformed diner doesn’t appreciate the quality, and rejects it based on price, or unfamiliarity. As a result, these chefs are forced to compromise.

Photos: A red barn on a hill in Weston, Missouri; Vinny Dotolo plating at the 2013 Harvesters Chefs Classic at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri; Chris Bennett, a forager, at his family’s farm in Pell City, Alabama; dinner at Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Missouri; the open, barbecue fire at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas.

~ by ulterior epicure on September 16, 2013.

9 Responses to “travel: less twerk, more cook…”

  1. Any of Ricardo Zarate’s restos – Mo-Chica, Paiche, Picca (L.A.)
    Donut Man in Glendora – Jim Nakano – strawberry or peach if in season
    Bier Beisl, Austrian in BH – perfectionist cooking
    others, too

  2. So much sturm und drang. The ethos of your former trade doesn’t seem a right fit for your new educational endeavors. I guess you can take the lawyer out of the law school, but…

  3. Interesting article – and stunning restaurant list. You might not be travelling for the same reasons as “those rich people”, but you have to be, like, pretty damn rich (moneywise, I mean) nevertheless ;-)
    For suggestions: Try “Maaemo” in Oslo. They seem to know and think and care about what they are doing in every way. Same goes for some places in Stockholm.

  4. Well yours seems to be a problem that one only runs into after paying entryway to the extensive list of restaurants you have. What’s your Per Se count so far? 6? I’m afraid to ask what your total bill at EMP is by now. Embarrassment of riches indeed.

    I felt the same way with your denouncement of the ‘sameness’ of tasting menus (amuse, foie course, chocolate dessert, etc.)–is there more of a ‘first world problem’ than ‘all the fancy restaurants I go to value technique too highly!!!’

    These are problems that simply do not arise for the majority of your readership–and to be clear, I consider myself a committed member of said readership–so maybe hold off on your surely unintentional condescension towards us “misinformed diners.” If the path to information is eating at twenty or so fine dining restaurants per month, most of us don’t really have a chance.

  5. Is an example of culinary “twerking” like when Next Restaurant in Chicago serve’s Bocuse’s famous “Truffle soup V.G.E.” on its latest menu, but decides it doesn’t actually need truffles in it (or foie gras for that matter)? And still charges $225 pp…

  6. @Mark: I disagree. This is a problem that effects everyone who eats out, regardless of the frequency. The baseline standard, or the “average,” of the “quality” of restaurants is set by dining public as a whole. While it may effect people who eat out infrequently less than people who eat out more often, we all share and shape the same dining culture.

  7. Why do people turn to Martha Stewart for inspiration on home decor? Why do people ask Warren Buffet for his financial advice? They have a passion for their respective professions and their focus and attention speak for themselves. And so does the Ulterior Epicure’s. To criticize his opinion because it’s a decidely “first world problem” or that the typical diner can’t afford to eat and travel like he does, says more about your own jealousy than the legitimacy of his observations.

    I live in Seattle which might be one of the epicenters of the movement toward local, fresh, sustainable products. I am not a seasoned diner by any means, but I can understand and appreciate his message even though I haven’t seen fragments of seasonal changes on two separate hemispheres this year.

  8. I think that most readers, myself included are looking towards bloggers like Ulterior Epicure to take us on a journey through their words and photos. I find his writing informative, smart, creative and yes opinionated, but not condescending. He has a right to his opinions and my personal quote is, What you say and write paints a picture of who you are. Live a life of a beautiful self portrait. I believe he is.

  9. besides Qui, what else would you recommend in Austin

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