By Tracey Taylor
Published: June 6 2009 02:21 | Last updated: June 6 2009 02:21
The cocktails have been ordered, the birthday greetings extended. Now comes the complicated part – deciding what to order from the menu at Pizzaiolo, an acclaimed restaurant in Oakland, California, known for its blistered wood-fired pizzas and regional Italian specialties. The conversation among friends gathered for a celebratory dinner centres not on appetite or taste but on the intricacies of provenance.
A dish of braised goat prompts the most debate – the meat is listed as being from Bill Niman’s ranch in Bolinas, 50 miles north of Oakland. Niman’s humanely raised Niman Ranch beef was the darling of the foodie set for years. But Niman left the company and has started afresh with a small herd of grass-fed goats, as well as a young wife nicknamed Porkchop. So what about the goat? No one doubts it will have lived a good and healthy life. But has anyone tasted the squid pizza with aioli whose main ingredient was sourced just down the coast in Monterey Bay? Another diner is leaning towards the Becker Lane pork with cannellini beans, artichokes, fennel and spring onion salsa because he’s heard the pork from this organic farm is unequalled.
Such menu dissection is not uncommon among northern Californian diners. They are choosy and, invariably, knowledgeable about where their food comes from – a result of interaction with producers at farmers’ markets and the fact that restaurants routinely highlight the provenance of food on their menus. They also live in a fertile part of the world with a climate conducive to producing quality ingredients.
The focus on suppliers is not new. Its local pioneer was Alice Waters, owner and executive chef of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant and café in Berkeley, who, along with her peers and protégés, has been interpreting farm-to-table cuisine for years, providing shout-outs on her menus to all her favoured producers.
Chez Panisse was also one of the first restaurants to proclaim unadulterated fruit a more than suitable dessert option. It has been featuring a simple offering – whether a single peach from Frog Hollow orchard in Brentwood or a bowl of Sparkling Red nectarines – on its menus for several years. Last month’s café menu listed a bowl of Pixie tangerines from Churchill-Brenneis Orchard and Medjool dates priced at $8.
In January, Todd Kliman, the food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine, pondered on National Public Radio’s Monkey See blog: “Do we really need to know the provenance of an egg?” And more to the point: “Shopping is not cooking.”
Russell Moore, chef-owner of Camino in Oakland, agrees that there is a way of writing menus that can make them seem like shopping lists. He and his partner Allison Hopelain don’t put producers on the menu. “There isn’t a bigger supporter of farmers than me,” he says. “But ultimately it’s about customers liking the food.” Moore only serves organic or biodynamic wines and doesn’t touch refined sugar but neither of these facts is conveyed to diners. “I don’t want to come off as holier than thou,” he says.
A backlash against showcasing suppliers doesn’t seem likely. For those who live in one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, there is profound satisfaction in knowing that the lamb chop you are about to tuck into was not only raised humanely but done so on local pasture land by a farmer whose name you recognise.
There is no doubt that producers have taken on minor celebrity status. Chefs on both US coasts are discovering goat meat from sources such as Niman’s BN Ranch and Marin Sun Farms. Chef-owner Daniel Patterson at Coi in San Francisco is serving it with “sprouted beans, seeds, nuts and wheatgrass”.
Thomas Keller, owner of French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York, likes to highlight the fact that he uses yogurt made by Soyoung Scanlan at her Andante Dairy in Santa Rosa for his yogurt sorbet with a cream scone, sour cherry and proprietor’s blend tea foam. And Boulevard, one of San Francisco’s most venerated restaurants, is proud to proclaim that the quinoa used in its quail stuffed with duck merguez is from Rancho Gordo, a producer whose heirloom beans have become so well-known they have spawned a blog and a book.
They may not appear on his menu, but Moore at Camino is happy to name-check several producers he holds in high regard, including Annabelle at La Tercera, “whose chicory and shelling beans are superb”. Just don’t go to Camino any day soon expecting to eat chicken. If Soul Food Farm isn’t sending Moore its “spectacular” fowls, they’re off the menu. “We haven’t served chicken since November,” he says.