by Amy Huo, Executive Chef, The Informalist
In the age of the Food Network, the Travel Channel, of Anthony Bourdain and Top Chef, kitchens and chefs have become rock stars. But in the age of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and other public review platforms, they’re finding themselves the subject of increased public scrutiny. Sometimes the dining public is not familiar with how fine dining kitchens really work. Most people would agree that it matters that you know your farmer, but it’s also important to know your chef and the kitchen that chef works in.
Understanding the rigorous process in which most chefs and cooks engage to bring you a plate of food can enhance your enjoyment of your meal and your appreciation for the chef and cooks. In most kitchens, a kitchen manager, a chef, or some other worker plugs in an order via the computer or a fancy new iPad (if they’re lucky) maybe two or three times a week. This means that most raw food items are delivered in large boxes off of a semi pulled up to the restaurant’s back door. How has this process changed as of late? At The Informalist our process of ordering is very different. On any given day, as the executive chef, I handle orders from twenty or more farmers, farmers markets, producers, and butchers to ensure our kitchen has everything that it needs to keep the menu fully stocked for guests to enjoy. Add to this, farmers who may show up at the back door with produce they have left over or could not sell elsewhere, and it becomes almost a full-time job to just keep the kitchen fully stocked.
But ordering for a menu in place is only one part of the farmer-chef relationship. We must be thinking months ahead at all times. For example: pickling apple blossoms and lilacs for a dish that may not go on the menu until July or freezing rhubarb for rhubarb ketchup next January. Parcooking and freezing, pickling, drying, and otherwise preserving vegetables at the peak of their freshness is what allows us to stay 80 percent local even during the winter. Produce that arrives fresh has a day, or maybe two, before it has lost its life and luster. Respecting ingredients and the farmers who produce them means never allowing that produce to go to waste. While we do compost as much as possible from our kitchen, we consider throwing away any produce that has not been properly cared for an absolute sin. Because our ordering process is so complicated, because we know our farmers so intimately, and because this is very important to us at The Informalist, we are able to keep waste to a minimum.
Because kitchens and chefs have become so visible as of late, I believe it is equally important to make fine dining kitchen processes as transparent as the chefs that lead them. In farm-to-table kitchens like ours, or The Lakely, ordering isn’t simply plugging in numbers to an already-set system of bulk ingredients. It is planning ahead, it is understanding how much staff can devote hours to preservation, and frankly how much sheer space a kitchen allows to execute an 80 or 90 percent locally sourced and grown menu. It is speaking with local farmers and producers about growing seasons, how much rain we expect, whether their soil is suited to grow a certain kind of vegetable, or why White Park beef is superior to Scottish Highland. I am not insinuating that these conversations don’t happen in other kitchens in the area, but what I believe is important to understand is that a farm-to-table locally sourced kitchen is a unique sector of the restaurant world. The sheer amount of work and dedication to simply employing day-to-day processes of ordering can boggle the mind.
At the end of the day, does understanding this process help a diner enjoy the plate of food in front of them at a restaurant? Does knowing that the chef spent hours reaching out to farmers, amassing ingredients, adapting recipes to fit locally available products, and training cooks to appreciate those ingredients change how diners look at their entrees when they “hit” the table? I feel that in most cases, it must contribute to a dining experience in the same way that cooking for oneself and one’s beloved friends or family does. That is to say, when you do the work, you can appreciate the result. And being aware of the work that goes into your meal can help you appreciate the result too. Increasing the transparency of kitchen processes can only help farmers and chefs alike, as well as your own personal dining experience.