Creativity and Science Have Merged on Hotel Menus
Artisanal, Hybrid, Old-World and Heirloom
By John Signorelli Executive Chef, St. Regis Houston | July 30, 2017
When Chefs create menus, we look at many different parameters and angles of how to design a dish, and how to group those dishes into a menu. We look at what is new or exciting, or, what is old and forgotten about which may be "resurrected". We look at seasonality, colors on the plate, quality of the ingredient, trendiness of an ingredient, or uniqueness of a preparation or combination of flavors. These are not mutually exclusive, and they all can play into each other. Chefs sometimes bounce these ideas off of the guests who are dining with them, as "experimentation" whether they admit it or not! Some of these fail, and some take off with such fervor, that they can become national trends. Many recent trends have been successfully focused on artisanal ingredients or old-world preparations.
So, what does it mean to use these hybrid, artisanal or old-world ingredients, and are we being true to them?
The term "Artisan" or "Old-World" is normally used to describe food ingredients produced by non-industrialized methods, often handed down through generations but is now in danger of being lost. Tastes and processes, such as fermentation, are allowed to develop slowly and naturally, rather than curtailed for mass-production. Production methods are kept authentic to the nature of the item, so that modernization of processing does not alter the flavor, consistency, or quality as they originally were.
Artisan traditionally refers to both what it is made of and how something is made. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an artisan as, "one that produces something (as with cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods." The artisan process requires a specific knowledge, a caring philosophy and is most often carried out by hand. Furthermore, artisan foods have been mostly associated with fresh, non- or minimally processed ingredients, and are often locally sourced.
Most associate artisan foods which are handcrafted by a skilled creator from pure, local ingredients. Artisan bread comes to mind. One might expect the loaf to be a bit irregular and a bit different looking from the one that shared a spot in the wood-fired stone oven. Its taste and texture would be superior to manufactured bread. These are unlikely conditions under which fast or frozen foods are sourced and manufactured.
Often so, these handcrafted or simplified methods may impact the volume or quantity of the item produced, with limited production runs, and thus the pricing of these items are also impacted. Simple economic terms of supply and demand are evident when there are lower quantities to go around, yet with higher qualities of a product. Chefs must be able to account for this through their menu pricing structure, as well as to capitalize on an artisanal product's uniqueness.
Though not always the case, higher prices for artisanal ingredients usually indicate such supply and demand relationships, but there are examples where, due to less processing and handling of a product, do the prices remain quite competitive to the market of comparable products which are massed-produced. Pricing is not always a concern for Chefs, however, and many Chefs take a more ethical viewpoint on what to use and how to use an ingredient.
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