It is very easy to take for granted the raw materials that we (cooks) work with on a daily basis. We are so removed from the source, that many of the incredible items we use in kitchens have become simple commodities. Sure, more and more restaurants have jumped on the farm to plate bandwagon, but how many of those have stopped to develop a relationship with the farmer and the ingredients that he or she brings to the back door of the restaurant?
In the majority of kitchens if you were to pose a simple question to the staff: “Where does that produce come from”, they may very well respond: “From the Sysco truck.” This is not to slight the vendor, they distribute what is called for and what they find profitable. The less that a buyer cares about in regards to purchasing, the less information that he or she demands- the easier it is for the vendor to generate the sale. When the source becomes important, not just because it is marketable information, but rather because it helps cooks understand the importance of their job – the vendor must, and will pay attention.
Let’s take a look at one ingredient that is certainly taken for granted – the potato. The potato originated in South America and now grows in most climates throughout the world. There is between 4-5,000 varieties of the tuber, most of which grow in the Andres region of South America and the chosen few exceptional varieties in North America. Potatoes are propagated by planting pieces of another mature potato. These “vegetative propagates” produce genetically identical potatoes. The seeds from the potato flower, however, can also produce potatoes, but they will be genetically different. Ho, hum, enough of the agricultural science, the important thing is that the end result is one of the single most versatile ingredients used in kitchens.
Potato farmers invest time, talent, hard work and passion in the process of growing these incredible tubers. When you pick up that potato, take a moment to look at it with a different level of appreciation. Potatoes, like other crops, require a significant amount of time and attention from the farmer. Planting in loose soil with appropriate organic fertilizer, mounding to protect potatoes from turning green and bitter, watering sufficiently to nurture growth, but not too much or the potatoes will rot. In August, farmers are involved in harvesting at the right time with dry weather, cleaning and storing without moisture to protect the potatoes storage life, grading by size for restaurant needs, packaging and finally distributing through your preferred vendors.
That simple ingredient, so common in any and every restaurant, can be one of the most important and delicious comfort food signatures for the restaurant. Vichyssoise in summer, whipped potatoes for that braised lamb shank in winter, pommes frites for anything and everything in your bistro, home fries or hash browns on every breakfast menu, potatoes Anna, rissole, pommes Dauphine, Parisian potatoes, potato and parsnip puree under that perfect Diver scallop, turned potatoes for the Pot au Feu, and even Saratoga chips as an accompaniment for luncheon sandwiches – the potato is king in every kitchen. How much respect does the average cook or chef give to this humble ingredient and the farmer who cared for it? When you look at that potato, are you cognizant of how significant it is and how much of a privilege it is to work with it?
The potato is just one example of the incredible ingredients that we have an opportunity to work with in the development of a signature restaurant cuisine. The same can be said for carrots, harvest tomatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, cipollini, celery, seasonal asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, field greens, cucumbers, more fruit varieties than space in this article, and the enormous array of chili peppers. When was the last time we stopped to really appreciate the crop and give thanks to the person who nurtured it so that we might build it into a finished menu dish?
As cooks, we are able to do what we do because the farmer does what he or she does. The items that we buy do not simply come from the truck that delivered them. Each ingredient had a home and is remarkable because the farmer provided the same amount of caring during growth that we provide as cooks on the line.
How much care do we give to respecting the ingredients that we buy? Do we handle each ingredient properly before and during preparation? Do we work diligently to not waste what was so carefully grown and harvested? Do we make sure to use the right procedure and method of cooking to extract all of the flavor and character from a product that deserves our attention?
It would be distressing for many farmers to see how their creations are handled from receipt at the farm till it winds up on a cutting board in your kitchen. We, as serious cooks, should invest the time and effort in handling so that the end product not only tastes good, but also shows respect for the source.
Farm to plate doesn’t begin and end with buying, it is a philosophy that requires the chef and the cook to know the farm, the farmer, how the ingredient is grown and brought to the table, the optimum way to handle and store the ingredient, and the details of its flavor profile so that correct decisions can be made when creating a dish. This is what it means to be a professional cook.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
COMING SOON: “The Event That Changed Everything”, a novel by Paul Sorgule that follows the lives of two cooks and the impact that society’s handling of the environment has and could have on how they approach their profession.
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