Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Spices that represent the stories of our global diversity."

Please allow me to quote Lila Byock writing in the New Yorker, May 17th issue, p. 20, in the "Tables for Two" feature in which she reviews the new ABC Kitchen, a restaurant inside the renown furniture store :

Jean-Georges Vongerichten's latest venture (his second this year) marks the chef's debut on the crowded farm-to-table scene. On a rough-hewn table, a shrine to greenmarket produce is lit like a Vermeer. There's a rooftop garden, mismatched china, and waiters wearing thrift-store plaid. It's enough to make you think you're in Brooklyn. But while the vegetables are organic, the atmosphere is canned - a seductive advertisement for the boho-chic appliances sold at ABC Carpet and Home. The menu, printed with soy-based ink, boasts of "bread baskets handcrafted by the indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia" and "spices that represent the stories of our global diversity."
This is where we are, folks. The farm-to-table movement, to use the given terminology, is a fantastically positive development for our nation. Because of this movement, thinking about where our food comes from is common in all social strata, not just among the granola-fed hippies. And we need to think about it because a lot of what is sold as 'food' you simply would not feed your children if you really knew what it was made of. This movement is real, and the money is talking too. Swaths of people are willing to pay a farmer at a market more money for meat and produce than they would pay at a grocery store. They want the quality, and they sometimes believe in the cause. There are rooftop farms in Greenpoint, butchers in Williamsburg, and everyone is a beekeeper. And for years now, any hip new NYC restaurant knows and can proudly recite the provenance of everything it serves, from salt to lettuces to pork chops.

I think this is great! I'm a healthier person now that I buy exclusively antibiotic-free, hormone free meat and milk that comes from grass-fed antibiotic-free, hormone free cows. And local fruit and vegetables - I know the farmer, Bill Maxwell, and he's a solid guy whose hands are dirty and he warns me what I have to wash before giving to my kids (his strawberries) and what I don't need to worry about. Imagine how much healthier our nation as a whole would be if everyone's eating habits conformed only a bit towards the principles of this farm-to-table movement.

Still, there is something that just rubs me the wrong way about JGV opening a restaurant devoted to this trend, and apparently doing it in a kitschy way, hitting all of the right buttons, getting in on the act. For me it feels cheap, like he and his business planners are using everyone who worked 10 lean years tending barely profitable organic vegetable farms, or 15 lean years tending herds of lovingly raised goats. His restaurant couldn't exist if it weren't for those people. And something about the way he is presenting this ABC place stinks of bull$#*} to me.

I should be glad that this thing has taken hold with the likes of JGV, right? Or is this simply another calculated means of making money, and in the process cheapening the values of the message being delivered?

9 comments:

Fillay said...

No, I think your unease is well-founded. JGV is in the business of selling status, and what better status symbol than food that is by its very nature limited in supply? (Not to mention loaded with possibilities to connect to cosmopolitan fantasies of diversity.) Sustainably-grown local foods currently have all the characteristics of what Hirsch called "positional goods" - by consuming them you get not only nourishment and sustenance, but you also derive a sense of distinction that sets you apart from the proles. Not just any pork chop, but a *special* pork chop that only the few, the insiders, know about and are lucky enough to consume...

peter said...

I think it's both. The top moves the rest of the market, but it also seems like a cynical ploy to stay relevant (by coincidence, I was looking through a cookbook of his from 1990 today) and cash in on another trend now that he's not creating any more (e.g. Post-nouvelle Asian fusion™).

And I'm with Fillay; that's smug self-satisfaction in the special sauce. If he really meant it, he'd take all the capital from this venture and make a garden for inner-city kids who don't know what vegetables are. THAT'S farm-to-market.

Deetrane said...

Well put, Peter. If he was serious he could also put a chicken coop in Union Square and a beehive on the roof of ABC Carpet.

King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

Sounds like a restaurant designed by the a green-washing PR company. Ugh!

Otto Tarchin said...

I guess JGV deserves some credit here. He was one the early restauranteurs who adopted the produce-from-within-100-miles approach. To tell the truth, now that farm-to-kitchen is becoming more and more mainstream and more people are enjoying it without going through the thought&experimenting&learning&maturation process most of us have gone through, now that I have lost my cool thing, I feel a little pissed off :) But I agree with Brooklynguy that this is a good thing to happen.

Tamara said...

JGV has actually been working with local farmers & fishers for years, well before he opened ABC. It does seem like he's just jumping on the bandwagon now, but he was actually one of the first in town to embrace local products. I don't think it's fair to pan him without considering the fact that he has helped the local farmers garner more business with other restaurants in the area.

Anonymous said...

It's the same in San Francisco. This long-overdue shift in attitudes to food won't have succeeded until the local BBQ joint offers sustainably-raised meat. Frankly, I don't see how you could open a 'hip' restaurant these days without trumpeting the sources of your produce, but things have to filter through a few levels yet before they lose their perceived snob appeal.

Timothy said...

JGV's new place may well be a cash grab jump on the latest trend, but who cares? If it bring more local food to the mainstream, then it's a good thing, regardless of the posturing. Being upset about sounds similar to indie rock fans being angry when "their favorite unknown band" gets popular and rather than being happy for them making good, decide to selfishly call them sellouts.

You could argue that this cheapens the local food movement in some way (i guess), but it only cheapens the niche IMAGE of the movement, since in the end it's about getting more local produce out there, plain and simple. But i can't help but feel that some in the local food camp only want it for hipper-than-thou cache.

Brooklynguy said...

thanks for all these comments.

Timothy - your band analogy is something that i thought of when writing the post, and it rings true for me.