A Locavore Dream

Or, Chang and Change, Part II: Bringing it home to Humboldt

| September 04, 2008
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In a previous column, I wrote of New York's newest culinary destination, David Chang's Momofuku Ko, a restaurant at the forefront of a new American cuisine, making eating out an exciting yet relatively affordable adventure ("Table Talk," Aug 21).

But there is another kind of culinary adventure, one presaged by Michael Pollan, whose books (most recently, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto) have endorsed the concept of eating food that has traveled 100 miles or less to the store. He inspired the term "locavore," one that is gaining in popularity in large urban areas. Of course, such an approach in New York City is possible for only a tiny sliver of the community, and a wealthy one at that. Here in Humboldt we have an entire month dedicated to local foods.

At the end of the column I asked if this area might be up to the Chang challenge? Well, we certainly couldn't do what Ko does -- a 13-course meal with foie gras, caviar, Kobe beef, and so on. But wait, we have local food that New York pays big bucks for: crab, oysters, wild mushrooms, goat cheeses, organic vegetables, beef, lamb and chicken. In fact, we could maybe do Chang's concept better, and make it more local and less expensive.

You know what the problem is? People want to choose. As an example let's imagine a local restaurant, we'll call it "Le Foyer." To maintain the high quality and an extensive menu expected of a high-end restaurant, Le Foyer will require at least six starters and eight main courses, among them a steak (every party will include a steak-eater), a "catch of the day," a less expensive chicken dish, a cheap pasta and, this being Humboldt, a vegetarian special. On a typical night, some food is bound to be wasted. The restaurant can't absorb such waste and make a profit, so other items have to be priced higher. Your simple wood-fired pizza may be paying for the seared sea bass that wasn't ordered. Now, don't get all indignant; this is the way it works. Simple economics. Having a variety of choices costs money. In fact, it should cost money.

Now let's imagine a North Coast restaurant somewhat in the image of Ko. You arrive, are seated, and a chef brings you an amuse-bouche while you consider the wine list. You will eat well tonight, perhaps 10 courses, none of them large, none of them selected by you. And you will pay $45, rather less than if you went to Le Foyer and had appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert of your own choosing.

The setting of this theoretical restaurant will be modest, ideally in a remodeled Craftsman-style house. Lots of wood, but no tables: the central room will have been enlarged to contain both the main kitchen and the dining area, with a big U-shaped counter seating perhaps 16. Each day, the three chefs and pastry chef will plan and prep a menu according to availability and cost. Naturally, some food can be preserved, but nearly everything will be from local organic sources.

Let's look at a possible late summer menu:

Baked house-made goat cheese ravioli with bing cherry chutney

Paté of local mushrooms, tarragon wine gelée, frisée salad, pickled mustard seeds

Clear tomato "martini" with lemon olives and a savory sorrel cream puff

Crisp-skin pan-charred rock cod filet, Fuju persimmon coulis

Mini green-corn tamale with poblano chile and cheddar cheese

Terrine of Kune Kune pork and chicken breast, Meyer lemon mustard, toast points

Braised smoked beef short rib, double tomato confit, blue mashed potatoes, garlic custard

Salade composée of mache, chicory, blue cheese focaccia, and pancetta

Heirloom tomato sorbet with crisp sweet potato latke

Deep-fried apple pie, fresh ricotta ice cream, caramel/clove froth

Naturally, the start-up costs are out of the range of most entrepreneurs, but in a county where one local millionaire can produce a daily newspaper or a fine arts venue with the flick of a checkbook, not impossible. The economics of running such an undertaking are equally demanding, requiring stable arrangements with local farmers and producers and a complex system of planning and buying. No rule demands that everything be local, but the hallmark of the business, and the feature that will make it a "destination" for tourists, is the bounty of the North Coast.

Glancing back at "this week's menu," notice how much of it can be made in advance, and assembled quickly. I can imagine other such dishes -- standards, but special in a local way: a garlicky cassoulet of Bayo beans and local bacon; pasta a quattro formaggio using Cypress Grove and Rogue Creamery cheeses and house-made sheep's-milk ricotta, Caesar salad with duck-egg garlic mayonnaise.

Notice too, that many "fixed costs" of quality restaurant experience have been subsumed by the new concept. Tablecloths and printed menus, for instance.

Granted, this is a fantasy, not a business plan. If this is a workable idea, why hasn't someone tried it? Well, for one thing, David Chang's concept, which underlies mine, is less than six months old; the Michael Pollan book that began the "locavore" movement came out just a year earlier.

And a year ago, there weren't the resources locally. In fact, many critical suppliers are just getting started: Wild Chick Farm has branched out from eggs to chickens and is rumored to be considering ducks; Tule Fog Farm has just begun raising its breeding pigs, and will be buying sheep for milk next spring. Goat meat -- along with organic Niman Ranch pork -- has only recently been available at Murphy's Market. And a handful of commercial fishermen have discovered that they can do better selling direct to restaurants and markets.

To change the topic slightly, food costs are still on the rise. The growing use of the corn-based ethanol in fuel is one reason; there are others. "A family's average grocery tab could leap from $300 a month last year to $400 a month this year," says The Christian Science Monitor.

This is no less true for restaurants. Yet the fear of losing customers has kept many restaurants from raising prices. High food costs are the elephant in the dining room: No one wants to charge more, so other measures are necessary.

In fact, raising prices would be a blessing. Come on, what else can we expect? It would keep us honest. It would say, "restaurants are part of the real world." But that's not gonna happen, because the restaurants don't trust you to understand. Sadly, they're probably right. I personally know of just two restaurants that have raised prices to match food costs, and I'm keeping it to myself. Who knows what revealing it would do to their patronage?

Much of my radical concept is in fact not all that radical -- you won't find abalone, lobster or venison on the menu. But what you do find will be priced not because it's been processed and shipped from some distant location, but because it is the very best local stuff you can get.

I know, I know. It may never happen. But think about what it would say to the North Coast, and the world: "We love living here, buying here, and eating here. We are the new time and place in American culinary history."

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The theoretical restaurant you describe sounds much like Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley in 1971. (The only difference, really, is the seating arrangement.) Do you really believe that you can fool Humboldt County readers into thinking that this is a new idea?

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Posted by lynnerd on 09/10/2008 at 10:18 AM
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