The Challege for the New Professional Chef: Incredibly Fresh Ingredients
And Keeping the Plates Incredibly Simple
By Nicolas Bour Executive Chef, Ocean House | August 27, 2017
When I began my journey to becoming a chef twenty-five years ago I could have never envisioned a world that would be literally travelling at light speed, with my guests as critics that carry the weight of a seasoned food writer, and a culture of “Foodies” that would turn my entire industry on its head.
It seems like just yesterday the produce “dude” at my local grocer gave me a blank stare when I asked him if he had any baby French beans in the back cooler because I didn’t see any on display. It was as if I had requested a rare species of Amazonian cactus. His eyes seemed to almost pleadingly guide me to the canned vegetable isle a stone’s throw away, where I could find some tasteless, mushy version of the common legume used in the preparation of my beloved “Salade Niçoise”. As a chef I was spoiled by the ability to pretty much order whatever I needed at any time to produce a myriad of dishes, often using ingredients that my customers “hadn’t enjoyed since their trip to the south of France last year” and the veritable reason they were in my restaurant to begin with, they wanted access to that very dish and were willing to pay dearly for it.
That very same trip to the very same produce department a decade later, which by the way has grown to take over half of the store’s real estate, has become a mosaic of fruits and vegetables, a tribute to a dozen local farms, ripe tomatoes in the dead of winter, cape gooseberries for the hell of it, and grape flavored apples that god knows who would purchase, let alone eat. The very same question asked a decade before is now posed to the “Director of sustainable produce procurement,” who proceeds to offer me a dozen different heirloom beans, from as many local farms, a choice of baby potatoes that would make Idaho blush, as well as all the rest of the ingredients that I need, right down to the sushi grade yellow fin tuna line caught yesterday by his brother’s cousin, and some salted capers from Spain to boot.
With the advent of technology, Food Network, Facebook, Instagram, and many other resources for the home cook (chef; everyone is a chef now, or an elite food critic) the demand for ingredients has risen to a fever pitch among the masses. Not to mention the expectation of everything to have a traceable pedigree for its “heirloomness”, artisanal, handmade, small batched, hidden secreted source from some tiny valley apparently in a land not unlike Narnia, which had to be produced by a man wearing a lumberjack outfit and a well oiled beard and new old fashioned horned rim glasses.
What does this all mean for the “new professional chef” or better yet grizzled veterans like me and many of my colleagues? To me it means do not panic. What was once overly easy (impressing the masses) now becomes the true challenge. Can we make something they can’t in the comfort of their own home kitchen, which these days are often better equipped than our “professional” ones. It means buying incredibly fresh, and keeping it incredibly simple, not throwing dried Peruvian tree bark you found at Acme Gourmet Market on the plate just because you want to have a hundred exotic ingredients on one composition. Stay with what you know and let the ingredients speak for themselves.
Chefs need to both stick to our guns and stick together. One of the best things about this shift is the facilitated connection we are experiencing, both with each other as professionals as well as the farmers, cheese makers, cattle ranchers, fisherman and a long list of boutique producers that show up at every street fair and community farmers market. In my opinion chefs have bonded together in a way that seemed rarified in my early days. A time when several of my more intensely competitive mentors would pale at the idea of sitting down with their competition for a chat, let alone getting together to cook a dinner for their shared customers. Those were times of envy, jealousy and secrecy in some cases.
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