Better Know A Dish

Menu ancestry.

July 2, 2015 ● 2 min read

The debate over flavor and where it comes from rages on in earnest! It’s the next step in this whole farm-to-table thing people now say they’re sick of, and it’s not as easy as decorating a menu with feel-good buzzwords.

When we talk about sustainable farming and holistic approaches to agriculture and eating, theres so much more to consider than just sourcing locally. Sourcing locally is just the itty-bitty tip of the iceberg you see as you sail idly past.

What about the less-sexy items on the menu? The fucked-up wholesaler carrots that get thrown in the stock, the huge vat of flour in the back, the cartons of sugar...if you’re not milling the grains yourself, is that cheating? In the quest for more meaningful food in our restaurants, it’s not just about who does what well, but endorsing how they do it, and where they do it, and why.

Just choosing a restaurant at random—here, Concord, Massachusetts’s Bondir—and dissecting a few dishes off its menu, means triggering an avalanche of people interacting with any given plate. Chef-owner Jason Bond is a wonder in the kitchen, and his creations are absolutely among the most flavorful and thoughtful in the country. This is a dude doing things right, by all accounts. But cinnamon does not grow in Concord, so he’s screwed there. What do we do with that? 

When a plate hits the table, what the diner sees is a minute fraction of the story of the dish. We know this. Every dish tells a story, from the growers, to the distributors, to the chefs, and right on into your mouth, dear customer! People gobble this stuff up, and we all regurgitate it to the next nearest person, because it’s a very simple way to signal trendy consideration. An informed eater. But—there is still a massive disconnect in the middle of all this celebrated farm-to-table heavy-handedness. Farmer So-and-So’s watermelon radishes are absolutely going to be alongside some bulk stuff from a restaurant depot. Who’s to say that it’s wrong? Is it?

The New York Times recently held a conference on the the role of the chef outside the kitchen, bringing Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, and Andrea Reusing together to muse over the struggles they face in running a modern restaurant. Batali had this to say about sourcing: 

“When the Northeast is snow-covered, we are not kidding anyone, we get our broccoli from somewhere where it’s sunny. We buy things from [farms] here as much as we can. But at the end of the day, when you have eight restaurants in New York City, and you serve the kind of volume that we serve, we’re looking at getting products outside of what we consider the ideal.”

Living outside that ideal is reality. So, what do you see when you look at these maps? What can be gleaned from one chef’s efforts to support his community and chase after the best ingredients? The unknowns do not cancel out the farms; the faraway doesn’t overshadow the close. This is a constantly shifting snapshot of one chef's universe.

By Cassandra Landry