Janet Fletcher / June 2012
Do-it-all chefs, mixology wizards, and service oracles step up at the Greystone Flavor Summit to show that the great hospitality wheel can magically spin in the directions of change and tradition at the same time. Janet Fletcher reports from the annual conference co-produced by Food Arts and The Culinary Institute of America.
From sauerkraut to salumi, from paprika to pickles, the prized ingredients in today’s top kitchens are made on-premise. At the recent Greystone Flavor Summit, a two day Napa Valley ideafest for leaders in volume foodservice, the do-it-yourself movement dominated the stage, as proponents like Nicolaus Balla, executive chef at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, showed off the laboriously handmade items that distinguish their cooking. Cider vinegar, smoked fish, mortadella…no kitchen staple escapes the DIY chef’s calculation: Can I make it better or cheaper myself?
“We try to process and preserve as much as we can in-house,” says Balla, whose Hungarian-inspired menu has jaded Bay Area critics raving. Balla’s innovative larder includes powdered dried sauerkraut that he sprinkles on fried potatoes (“like a natural lemon pepper,” says the chef); a cider vinegar that he makes with bargain-priced second-quality pears and a home juicer; green chile powder from New Mexico’s Hatch chiles; and dried powdered orange peel for the pastry department. Balla’s smoked onion powder fortifies the restaurant’s stocks and sauce bases. “Even with labor, we spend less than purchasing it,” says Balla, “and we get a much more complex flavor.”
Balla and his team make brine-fermented pickles from carrots, turnips, beets, and radishes. The absence of vinegar makes the pickles more wine-friendly, a big plus in this community. The Bar Tartine kitchen also dries fresh smelt, makes fruit jams and, with the buy-in of the local health inspector, produces yogurt, kefir, sour cream, and farmer cheese on-premise.
The same DIY impulse drives Laurence Jossel, chef/owner of the relentlessly busy Nopa in San Francisco. In tight quarters, Jossel and his crew smoke their own trout in a jury-rigged smokebox set over a grill. With pickled red onions, house-made farmer cheese, and a grilled bagel, the delicate smoked trout is among the draws at Nopa’s weekend brunch.
Like their kitchen colleagues, mixologists have also embraced the made-from-scratch mentality. Fresh-squeezed juices are de rigueur for a top-tier bartender like Camber Lay, who heads the cocktail program at Parallel 37 in The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. Producing their own bitters, infusions, and syrups enables these ambitious bartenders to make a creative statement. Parallel 37 chef Ron Siegel actively collaborates with Lay, scouting unusual fruits and herbs for her at the local farmers’ market, or sharing a spiced syrup that might inspire a drink. The St. Georgio cocktail she demonstrated at the conference evolved from some red shiso Siegel brought her. She muddled the leaves with lemon/ginger syrup, then added the locally produced Botanivore St. George Gin, Aperol, and a splash of soda.
Persuaded that local flavors could help elevate her bar program, Lay pushed management to put more Bay Area beers on draught—a switch that meant some better known national brands had to go. “I haven’t had any guests complain,” reports Lay.
Like-minded mixologist Craig Lane of San Francisco’s Bar Agricole also believes in using his bar to communicate a local vibe. “We wanted our cocktails to be specific to our place,” Lane told conference attendees. To reclaim what he calls “that sense of regionalism,” Lane reaches out to farmers and local distillers to secure distinctive ingredients. One grape and citrus grower in the Fresno area provides a fragrant Curaçao-type liqueur for Bar Agricole. “Question your ingredients constantly,” urged Lane, echoing a sentiment common in high-end kitchens but less so in lounges and bars.
Service came under the microscope, too, with several hospitality experts sharing their approach to creating memorable moments for guests. “We train in scenarios,” said Mark Harmon of Auberge Resorts, operators of Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil, Solage, and Calistoga Ranch, among others. “Then we let staff be creative in making the magic happen.” Paradoxically, Harmon said, better service in this print-your-own-boarding-pass age can sometimes mean offering more self service.
Trendspotters at the Flavor Summit, an annual invitational retreat co-presented by Food Arts and The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, would have discerned several other concepts with momentum. Chef Mourad Lahlou’s modern Moroccan food for San Francisco’s Aziza restaurant underscored the allure of creative riffs on tradition. Jared Van Camp from Chicago’s Old Town Social made mortadella look easy; the enthusiasm for this Chicago chef’s demo suggests that the salumi craze is far from played out. Julian Serrano, executive chef of Picasso at the Bellagio and his namesake restaurant at the Aria, both in Las Vegas, concocted several dishes, such as goat’s milk cheese/pistachio truffles and croquetas Ibérica with pistachios to demonstrate the nut’s versatility in savory dishes. Operators were amused by the news that pistachios have been dubbed the “love nut” because of their “Viagra-like” powers. One f&b executive exclaimed they would make a great turn-down amenity.
And as if Denmark isn’t getting enough attention with the ascendance of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant, Danish smørrebrød (literally, “buttered bread”) seems poised for take-off. The Nordic open-faced sandwich is gaining traction thanks to influential restaurants like Bar Tartine, where whole-grain Tartine Bakery bread is the launchpad. Balla joined Greystone chef and Denmark native Lars Kronmark in a side-by-side smørrebrød demo at the summit. Balla’s entry: smoked brisket on thin-sliced rye bread with whipped marrow butter. Kronmark’s take: buttered wheat bread topped with sliced radishes, grilled asparagus, cold scrambled eggs, watercress, horseradish, and fried onions. Is it time to pack up the panini press?
No doubt this audience of high-volume operators questioned the scalability of some of these notions. Beehives on top of the Chicago Marriott? Yes. Vegetable gardens in Dubai? Maybe not. As several hotel and cruise-line executives said in a closing panel, customers can resist paying for the costly goods and services they claim to prefer, like sustainable seafood or cage-free eggs. “We’re focusing on what guests really want and not on what they don’t want,” said Marriott International corporate chef Brad Nelson.
Balla doesn’t downplay the challenges—even Bar Tartine plans to move some of its food processing to a lower-rent location—but he urged attendees to consider the possibilities.
“What we’re doing might not make sense for others,” acknowledged Balla, “but processing one or two things might make sense. If you can build relationships with farmers and get closeout deals, it could save you money and help the local community.”
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