Burns My Bacon: Cheflebrity Pseudo-Locavorism

There are plenty of controversies in the food world, but one thing pretty much everyone agrees on (except maybe Sarah Palin), is that the proliferation of local and seasonal ingredients on restaurant menus is a good thing. Even if you don’t care about counting carbon miles, it’s hard to deny that vegetables grown nearby and eaten in the correct season just taste better. Even if you love McDonald’s, it’s difficult to not be at least a little grossed out by factory-farmed meat. So every foodie should be excited that the farm-to-table ethos has expanded from homey, reclaimed-wood-paneled spots in places like Brooklyn and Portland to restaurants run by some of the nation’s most celebrated chefs. Right?

Maybe not.

I recently ate at ABC Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vegetable-centric, farm-to-table restaurant in Manhattan. Now when I say farm-to-table, I mean outrageously, over-the-top, down-to-the-tiniest detail farm-to-table. There is the requisite rooftop garden growing the eatery’s herbs, and everything down to the soy-based candles is organic. The tables themselves are made from salvaged northeastern woods. Decor consists of discarded tree branches and photos from local artists who understand how to put a bird on it. The menu has two sides: the first lists the dishes, while the flipside relates where every single ingredient is from. And we’re not just talking about sourcing the fish and the tomatoes. Literally every ingredient is accounted for. Thinking about ordering the pretzel-dusted calamari but need to know which artisan pretzel establishment makes the pretzels that generate the dust? They’ve got you covered.

The approach has won JGV no shortage of acclaim. The James Beard Foundation called ABC Kitchen the best new restaurant of the year and plenty of others agree. I suppose as someone who believes in farm-to-table I should be happy about this. On one level, it’s cool that one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs has taken a break from perfectly-executed scallops to serve rustic pizzas with unevenly-charred crust and lots of dishes topped with slow-cooked farm eggs. But on the other hand, it kinda feels like Jean-Georges is pulling one over on us. Does he really care about where his ingredients come from, or does he just want the locavores’ dinner money, in addition to the millions he already gets from the fine dining crowd?

The Jean-Georges brand’s motto is “a cuisine to suit every taste,” and that’s just how he’s approaching locavorism — as the hot cuisine of the moment. Not as a principle that all restaurants should embrace, but as a trend — locavore is the new tapas. And if locavore is the new tapas, Jean-Georges is gonna make the most goddamn perfect locavore restaurant in the world. The thing is, I’d be more impressed if Jean-Georges made all of his restaurants 50-percent local than just making one new over-the-top shrine to locavorism, and leaving the rest of his menus as is.

There is no ingredient source list at Jean-George’s other eateries. His sushi spot always has yellowfin tuna in stock. His steakhouse in Vegas serves lobster tail year-round. His southeast Asian concept offers every vegetable that could be found at a farmers’ market…in Bangkok. Now, I’m not a farm-to-table fundamentalist. I don’t think every restaurant in New York has to serve only butternut squash and beets all winter. I like eating mangoes and Kobe beef as much as the next east coast elitist. But I do think we’d be better off if every restaurant considered which of their menu items could be made more local. What I don’t like is when farm-to-table is approached as a trendy cuisine, like sushi or steakhouse, that a celebrity chef can do at one restaurant and then completely ignore at all of his other places.

I had a similar reaction when dining recently at another famous chef’s new farm-to-table spot. Jose Garces — the Philly chef who has already mastered tapas, Mexican, Asian-Latin fusion and more — and now is doing modern American, locally-sourced share plates at JG Domestic. Like my Endless Simmer brethren, I had to admit the food was delicious and I enjoyed everything on the seasonally-appropriate menu, particularly that Hudson Valley Potted Duck, served in an appropriately hipster-fied mason jar. But something about the restaurant felt not quite right. It didn’t feel anything like true farm-to-table spots, places like The Farm and Fisherman or The Herb Farm, where hard-working chef-owners are waking up every morning and thinking about what they can do with that day’s farmers market finds. It felt like a place where an already-wealthy celebrity chef is cashing in on the latest trend, a place that might still be locavore next year, but just as likely might be converted into a Filipino gastropub or a gourmet grilled cheese shop or whatever is hot in 2012.

So yes, it is a good thing that farm-to-table has gone mainstream. But as Bill Maher would say, new rule: if you’re a celebrity chef, you’re not allowed to open a locavore-themed restaurant unless you’re going to at least try to incorporate locavore principles into your existing restaurants.

(Photo: ABC Kitchen)

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  • gansie November 3, 2011  

    fucking bravo, dude. bravo.

  • Dan November 3, 2011  

    PUT. A. BIRD. ON. IT! I put a bird on toast.

    But in all seriousness, I totally agree with what you are saying here, but I am a bit torn.

    I sort of wonder if it is inevitable that these things will happen and we should just be happy that they exist. For example, all these organic food product start ups have now been bought out by the huge food producers. So should I be mad at Muir Glen for being part of the same company that makes hamburger helper? If they maintain the same quality, then I don’t think it’s an issue. In my brain, this analogy works…

    Also going with the same analogy, its the ability to give the people what they want that makes him a good chef and also makes a successful food producer. In a way, you could say that without making money off his other restaurants, he wouldn’t have had the initial funds to open such a huge undertaking of a restaurant.

    Just some thoughts…

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