Artisan Touches – US Food Trends

29 May 2007
Artisan Touches – US Food Trends

From cheeses and pickles to cured meats, tofu, sodas and more, crafty chefs showcase skill and authenticity when producing house-made products.

This article first appeared in the 1 May 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

Walk among booths displaying the latest food-product innovations at a foodservice trade show and you're bound to wonder if cooking from scratch has become so last century. But house-made is on the minds of a growing group of chefs, including Staffan Terje.

"There's a lot of convenience offered in our jobs but I've chosen the route that's not so convenient," he says. Terje, who grew up on a family farm in Sweden, started working in a slaughterhouse at age 14 and a year later was butchering sides of meat.

At Perbacco, a Northern Italian restaurant that opened last fall in San Francisco, he has 2,000 pounds of meat aging in a curing room. Among the selections are three varieties of mortadella (pork, pork liver and duck), finocchiona (fennel salami), coppa piccante (spicy cured pork shoulder) and ciccioli, an Italian pork pâté. On Sunday, when the restaurant is closed, Terje and his sous-chefs catch up on salumi production.

"Quite honestly, I could find other things to do with my time," Terje admits. "But to me it's a completion of what I do."

Many chefs feel the same drive toward authenticity, setting their culinary selves in search of formulas for a diverse array of foods, including vinegar, preserves, cheese, sausages, meats and even wine.

Why Not Buy?

Preparing artisanal products requires the maker to have an understanding of kitchen chemistry and production and even specialized equipment. For this reason, many artisan products, such as naturally leavened bread or salumi, are purchased from vendors. Yet the pull of house-made fare is strong, and like Terje, many chefs feel that preparing artisan items in house is a natural extension of their jobs.

"In general, I choose to make certain things rather than buy them for a personal sense of satisfaction. That's why I'm cooking," says Ben Pollinger, executive chef at Oceana in New York City.

It also means exposing consumers to foods they can't get elsewhere. For Pollinger and Oceana Pastry Chef Jansen Chan, house-made bread, such as buttery, honey-glazed rolls and olive bread punctuated with lemon zest, are among the lures for guests.

"Great bread is easy to find in New York City and it's easy to have it delivered twice a day," Pollinger explains, although for him, that's not the point. "You can go into any number of good restaurants and they have the same bread; it's indistinguishable."

To Market, to Market

Making items in house also creates a customized marketing angle that meets the consumer quest for new flavors. Philadelphia-based Aramark's business-services division has taken on house-made beverages to give customers refreshed choices. Scott Keats, director of culinary development for the division, has introduced house-made aquas frescas with flavors such as blueberry, lime, and strawberry that incorporate fresh fruit and sparkling or soda water.

"They're low in sugar, low in calories and fresh," Keats explains, highlighting some of the trends that drive interest in the beverages.

There's the cost factor to consider as well. While it is not always less expensive to make items in house, Executive Chef Mark Sapienza of The Langham Hotel Boston finds that it helps him cut the food cost on smoked salmon by more than 400%. It also allows him to customize flavors, curing the salmon with maple syrup, pear, apple and salt before smoking it.

"I have a unique product that nobody else has, and the quality stands up," Sapienza says.

House-made items also enable chefs to capture a season's bumper crop when quality peaks and prices drop. "All Christmas long we use fig compote with smoked pork loin," says Amy Tornquist, executive chef at Nasher Museum Café at Duke University and owner-executive chef of catering company Sage & Swift, both in Durham, N.C. "It would be too expensive otherwise, and it also tastes better when made by hand."

Just as Sapienza leaves smoked salmon open to interpretation, Pollinger riffs on traditional Swedish gravlax by rubbing a side of salmon with gin, then coating it with coarse black pepper and crushed dill. The side is packed in a mixture of two parts salt to one part sugar, cured for three days, then rinsed and patted dry. House-pickled radishes, red onions, salmon-belly tartare, salmon roe and dill brioche toast points accompany the gravlax.

"You like to balance flavors in a dish," Pollinger reasons. "Pickled vegetables are crunchy and give textural context."

Pickled vegetables have a playful role at Salt House in San Francisco, where servers encourage guests to start off with a "pot o' pickles." Executive Chef Robert Leva cures cucumbers as well as carrots, cauliflower, ramps and just about any vegetable that he comes across. For pickled cauliflower, Leva blanches florets then pickles them in a hot liquid of toasted curry powder, white-wine vinegar, red onions, cinnamon, mustard seed, chile flakes and sugar. The biggest challenge for Leva has been keeping production ahead of demand.

Necessity can, indeed, be the master of innovation, as Govind Armstrong, executive chef of Table 8 in Los Angeles and Miami Beach, Fla., discovered after inadvertently receiving a double shipment of duck breast. "There was no way I was going to go through that much duck," he recalls.

Hence, his foray into house-made duck prosciutto, a journey that found him curing the meat in a mixture of sugar, salt and aromatic herbs for several days, then air-drying it in the walk-in.

"It's so easy and the final product is phenomenal," he says. Armstrong serves prosciutto on a salad with green beans, tangerine segments, toasted hazelnuts and vinaigrette lightly flavored with truffles and honey.

Training Wheels

The romance of house-made items aside, there are practical considerations, including often lengthy production processes. "You have to get up a lot earlier than the other guys," admits John Tesar, executive chef of The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.

That's all the more reason to get staff on board. Many operators feel that artisan products bring value not just to the menu but also to the kitchen staff, many of whom are eager to learn new skills.

When Sapienza joined The Langham Hotel Boston nine years ago, he had 40 cooks. Now he's down to 27 while handling between 4,000 and 5,000 covers a week. Though it sounds counterintuitive, Sapienza is making more products in house than he did nine years ago.

"I get great productivity out of the staff here," he explains. "I have a whole different work ethic in the kitchen now. To them it's a career and they get to do things that they don't get to do somewhere else."

Tesar also notes how artisan-food projects capture the cooks' attention. "That's the time in the kitchen when they drop what they're doing and become a lot more focused on learning," he says.

During summers, Tornquist builds a stock of freezer jams and pickles. It not only keeps employees busy during her slowest season, but also connects them to the food they serve. "It adds a lot of value to what they're doing," she says.

She's even bartered with staff to take better advantage of their interest, for the mutual benefit of all parties. For an employee enrolled in a sausage-making class, she purchased equipment so he could refine techniques. In return, he makes sausages for her for free.

In addition, artisan products are tethered to legacies that run much deeper than merely teaching cooks skills. There's a sense of obligation to preserve the past. "If I don't teach my cooks and chefs to do this, they're not going to be able to carry on traditions that otherwise are being lost," Terje says.

Up to Code

For operators who decide to enter the realm of house-cured meats, pickled beets and other such products, there's more to consider than formula and technique. It may also require serious conversations with the health department.

The differences between regional health regulations are staggering. San Francisco permits chefs to cure raw meat on premise as long as they follow standard sanitation practices while Chicago requires a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Plan with approved equipment to do the same thing. Meanwhile, New York City and Durham, N.C., won't permit chefs to can preserves or pickles. So it pays to find out what the rules are in your neighborhood.

To ensure his smoked salmon would get the green light, Executive Chef Mark Sapienza of The Langham Hotel Boston sent samples to a third-party lab that then sent test results to the health authorities.

Amy Tornquist, executive chef at Nasher Museum Café, found the health department in Durham, N.C., helpful. "We called and asked them if they were uncomfortable with us storing preserves in glass jars. They were. So we preserve things, then put them in our freezer in containers."

And playing by the rules sure beats the heartbreak of watching precious product being thrown away when the inspector comes calling.

Artisan Challenge

Chef share their more unusual experiments:

  • At Sona in Los Angeles, Sous-Chef Kuniko Yagi taught herself how to make tofu. She soaks organic soy beans in mineral water overnight, blends the beans with the water in the morning, then cooks the puree with natural magnesium to coagulate the curd. "The flavor is reliable if you make it yourself," she says.
  • Jake Addeo, chef de cuisine at Abboccato in New York City, is experimenting with curing his own bottarga using shad roe. "I use a red mullet bottarga now that costs $80 to $90 a pound. Shad roe is $4, so I'm salt-curing it overnight, then wrapping and hanging it in cheesecloth."
  • Just north of San Francisco, Poggio in Sausalito, Calif., always has served house-made mozzarella. Executive Chef Peter McNee is taking it a step further by making burrata, a Southern-Italian mozzarella-like cheese with a cream-filled curd. The experiment took trial and error. "It required getting the right cream and the right consistency," he says.
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