Why Chefs’ Claims of Serving Only “the Best” of Everything Are Often False

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A few years ago, I saw the late French chef Joël Robuchon standing in front of his eponymous Parisian restaurant with a raspberry vendor. Looking at the apartments with an eagle’s eye, Robuchon said: “That one, not that one, not that one, yes, that one.” . . “and accepted perhaps four of the twelve boxes. Note that the sellers would not dare to bring a chef like Robuchon, whose restaurant then had three Michelin stars, other than their best. Yet, among these apartments, Robuchon chose the best of the best.

I also once accompanied the late Tony Cortese, owner of Amerigo’s, one of New York’s finest Italian restaurants, to what was then the Meat Market District on the West Side of Manhattan (now occupied by boutiques and Millennial restaurants). As he did every week, Tony generously tipped his butcher for helping him pick out precisely the carcasses he wanted to cut up for his cooking, and they were as delicious as any in New York City, which made him feel good. the times meant better than anywhere else in the country.

Robuchon and Cortese are both gone, but I would like to think their spirit lives on with discerning chefs and restaurateurs who really want, research and pay for the best ingredients available. Sadly, with rare exceptions, that spirit has dissipated, even among highly respected chefs, at a time when they blithely sign management contracts to put their names on so many restaurants in so many cities and countries that they have no say in what is actually bought by their minions thousands of miles away. Yet the claim by just about every restaurant in the United States above the standard of a Macaroni Grill that it only serves the finest ingredients has become sheer nonsense, especially when those claims are based on names of ingredients that once held some well-deserved prestige but have now been as ubiquitous as Idaho potatoes and Maine lobsters (neither of which is an actual species but only a marketing label) .

For starters, Russian and Iranian caviar have been banned for export since 2007 for years because sturgeons have been nearly wiped out in their Caspian Sea habitat. Yet many high-end restaurants now charge the same price as Caspian Sea caviar for sturgeon fish roe raised in China – with a notorious reputation for fraudulent labeling – in Malaysia, Moldova, Madagascar. , Uruguay and even Saudi Arabia. Yet the boxes they are packaged in will either say “Russian,” “Royal,” or attach a Tsarist name like Romanoff. Much of it comes from a sturgeon hybrid called Kaluga. It is even served in many French three-star restaurants. Does it compare favorably to real Russian or Iranian caviar? Maybe, but more like a hybrid sports car compares to a Maserati.

Then, of course, there’s the wagyu beef, which has become a farce of marketing magic. Until five years ago, only a handful of restaurants in the United States could claim to serve the authentic wagyu of a renowned Japanese prefecture, especially Miyazaki A5, whose production was tiny and whose export was infinitesimal (only grade A3 to A5 is certified for sale in Japan). Today, however, with exports up 500% over the past five years, just about any restaurant that is willing to pay a little more can get it and put it on their menu. Yet, according to Nikkei Asia, the biggest importer is Cambodia, followed by Hong Kong and Taiwan with the United States in fourth place. (Much of Cambodia’s imports are believed to be re-exported to China, which still bans Japanese beef.)

Most chefs and butchers confuse the term “wagyu” (which simply means “bovine” in Japanese) to mean anything from a lower quality Japanese beef to one grown more or less from a steer. similar, usually a hybrid with another breed. The fact is that the Japanese breed is not allowed to be exported (some live cattle passed briefly before 1997). Most British, American and Australian wagyu are only 50% purebred; true wagyu calves can cost 40 times the price of American cattle, and it is estimated that there are less than 30,000 head of pure wagyu in the United States – that’s about 0.029% of all American beef cattle – and adding the name “Kobe”, which is the Japanese city where a lot of wagyu is grown, doesn’t mean anything at all. So any restaurant that sells you a wagyu or Kobe burger for $ 25 is actually only selling you a merchandise bill. That said, it’s rare today to find an upscale American restaurant, especially steakhouses, that doesn’t put a facsimile of the name wagyu on their menu.

“Wild game” is often seen on menus, but in the United States, by law, no wild game, including freshwater fish, can be sold or served, because the fish even in the stream. more pristine Alaskans can carry dangerous bacteria. The exception is wild game from places like Scotland, where the animal must be examined by a professional before it is approved as safe for consumption. Wild salmon are hard to find, whether they come from the Atlantic or the Pacific, and they are usually frozen or cryovac for sale, so even the more expensive restaurants use farmed salmon instead of the version. Savage. Many are labeled on the menu as coming from Faroe Island, but this is not a wilderness sanctuary; it is also a fish farm. Recently a foodie friend told me that he was told wild salmon had been caught, gutted, packaged, trucked to a Seattle airport for a plane to Las Vegas this afternoon – there, which seems more than impossible to achieve day after day, especially if the salmon does not bite during its seasonal spawning.

Likewise, it is almost impossible to find wild branzino outside the Mediterranean. ‘Dover sole’ is not a distinct sole species, but indicates sole of fatter and finer quality which may or may not originate from British or Scandinavian waters. There are three stocks of Dover sole in the United States on the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering Sea.

Whenever you see truffles on a menu before or after the fall season, you don’t get the famous black truffles from the French region of Perigord (dug up by pigs) or the incredibly expensive white truffles from around Alba in Italy (sniffed with hounds). Farmers have tried for decades to produce truffles by inoculation, but the results have been modest at best. Other countries harvest truffles (New Zealand’s are pretty good) and ‘summer truffles’ are just that, but their flavor rarely comes close to that of the gems of autumn.

The same goes for a number of foods, from these raspberries so carefully selected by Joël Robuchon to white asparagus, the finest examples of which only appear in the spring in certain European countries such as Belgium. Eating fruits or vegetables out of season won’t provide the best of them, although the northern and southern hemispheres have opposite seasons and some places, like California, may eat two or more. Truly wonderful raspberries, strawberries and blueberries simply cannot be offered on a menu all year round. Asparagus has their peak season, bay scallops are unique to New England waters in season, shads do not run all year round, and Chinese crabs are hardly comparable to the fresh Florida waters, available only from October 15 to May 1.

There is no doubt that agriculture and animal husbandry have regularly provided much more and often better products. (Let’s face it, you used to have the chance to buy delicious summer corn from a farm stall, whereas today even supermarket corn is still sweet.) But unless you can. frequenting a local farm with small, carefully tended crops, you get a tomato of any taste after mid-September. Wild mushrooms like porcini are almost never found fresh in American markets.

I know that in Europe, chefs with a feverish commitment to quality and seasonality can still buy lamb and chickens raised in their community with lettuce and herbs, while forests can be rich in mushrooms. wild and fish markets teeming with catching.

The best costs a lot of money, and a menu claiming to serve the best should reflect that. There aren’t any great deals on wagyu, white truffles or caviar, but far too often, whether it’s at a princely hotel in Dubai, a high roller steakhouse in Las Vegas, or a restaurant on the Eiffel Tower, you really have to ask yourself, “What’s in a Name?” before paying for what you get.


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