Articles in People
Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.
One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.
Crafting good food, good staff
At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.
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Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”
Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”
It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.
Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’
Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”
And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.
These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.
Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.
Innovative but approachable
Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”
It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.
Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”
Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck
Fresh seafood is the beating heart of Chef Michael Cimarusti’s culinary universe. At his Michelin-starred Providence, named “Best LA Restaurant” by food critic Jonathan Gold for the last three years, Cimarusti turns the ocean’s bounty into delicate, edible art. That same super premium seafood is also on offer at his chowder and oyster joint, Connie & Ted’s. “We take fish seriously and want our customers to do the same,” he says.
That’s a challenge in Los Angeles, a rare coastal city far removed from major fishing grounds where both chefs and home cooks rely on fish shipped in from other regions. “People are always asking where they can buy great fresh fish,” says Cimarusti. “There are so many issues — traceability, the sustainability of various species. Concerned cooks want to buy fish with integrity. They want to feel good about what they eat and have it taste good. It’s difficult to know what to buy here.”
Cimarusti addressed that challenge head-on by opening his own fish market, Cape Seafood and Provisions, where he takes the guesswork out of shopping for fish. “All of our fish is wild caught, sustainable, and we can tell people who caught it and where it was caught,” he explains. “You have to be steadfast and stick to your guns with vendors. No compromises. People expect that from us.”
Bringing quality, sustainability
The secret to doing that for an affordable price is volume. Cimarusti serves the same quality fish at both of his restaurants and his fish market, which not only lowers his costs but also gives him access to more of the tip-top quality portion of a catch he needs for Providence’s specialized menu. L.A. home cooks shopping at Cape Provisions have access to that same product, he says, including Morningstar’s seasonal Maine scallops and the wild, line-caught striped bass previously only available to the city’s chefs. Plus, Cimarusti’s fishmongers cook in his restaurants, lending serious food cred to the serving tips they share with shoppers. “It’s what separates us from other seafood markets,” he says.
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“We’ll be priced competitively,” he says. “But good fish is not cheap, and cheap fish is not good. Farm-raised fish is cheap. The methods used to bring that fish to market are questionable. People have to come to grips with the tremendous environmental costs behind cheap fish. And the taste? There is no comparison between farm and wild.”
Cimarusti is part of a movement among environmentally progressive chefs who are betting that a market-supported approach will rebuild threatened fishing grounds. Buying wild, sustainable, traceable fish, he says, supports the small-boat American fishermen dedicated to using managed fishing to bring back wild fish stocks and restore fish habitats. The higher price honors that investment and assures the economic viability of these small businesses.
In Providence’s hushed dining room, Cimarusti rarely discusses fish politics. The new market is his soapbox. Standing behind the fish counter, he explains to consumers how they can play an active role in restoring our ocean ecosystem. His message is simple: If you want to protect wild fish, you should eat wild fish.
Cape Seafoods is a double bottom-line business for Cimarusti, supporting both his restaurants and his values. The best part, he says, is the opportunity to share the stories of the fish he sells. “Consumers want answers,” he says. “It behooves us to supply them.”
Chef Michael Cimarusti, left, and Donato Poto, partners in Cape Seafood and Provisions, on opening day, March 23, 2016. Credit: Copyright 2016 Zester Media
Steamed rice is a perfect side dish. Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.
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Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.
An unlikely path to becoming a chef
If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses. Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.
Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.
He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up. He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.
Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook. A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.
Korean flavors for American palates
The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.
Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.
Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg. Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.
Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice
Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.
Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.
Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.
For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg
Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up
1 tablespoon sweet butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil
¾ cup chopped kimchi
3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese
Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt
2 tablespoons kimchi juice
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic
2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped
2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish
1 teaspoon furikake for garnish
1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.
2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.
3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.
4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.
5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.
6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.
7. Add scallions and stir well.
8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.
9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.
10. Serve hot.
Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
To understand about Bettys, the legendary, Swiss-born, Yorkshire-based café-tea rooms, celebrated for their exquisite chocolates and classy cakes, you need to go back to at least 1907. This was the year when an impecunious young baker named Fritz Bützer set off from his native Switzerland across France in search of work in prosperous Edwardian England.
From Calais, France, he made the rough crossing over the Channel to Dover, England. On arrival, exhausted, seasick and with a sketchy command of English, he discovered he had lost the precious piece of paper on which he had scribbled the name of the town where a job had been promised. All he could remember was the name sounded something like bratwurst. He tried this out forlornly on a few passers-by, before an elderly gentleman came to the rescue. “Oh, you mean Bradford!” cried his savior, and the man promptly took Bützer to King’s Cross station, where he put him on a train up to Yorkshire. In Bradford, the young baker tracked down a chocolate shop owned by a fellow Swiss, where he found work.
Bettys born in England of Swiss roots and inspiration
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Within a few years, the ambitious baker — by now also an accomplished chocolatier — had set his sights on opening a high-class tea room of his own. For this he realized that the refined spa town of Harrogate, which lay some 20 miles to the north, was going to be a better bet than coal-stained, industrial Bradford. Bradford was where the money was made; Harrogate was where the spending power resided. He also understood the disadvantages, in this post-World War I period, of having a German-sounding name, so he changed it to the more French-sounding Frederick Belmont. In 1919 he opened his first café in Harrogate. Bettys was born.
Today, Bettys is a household name — though the question of “Who was Betty?” remains unanswered. The Harrogate café has been joined by others in York, Ilkley, Northallerton and at the stately home Harlow Carr. They’re magnets for discerning customers from all around north Yorkshire and far beyond, lured by the promise of exquisite chocolates and magnificent iced or seasonal cakes, or in search of coffee, brunch or lunch and a break from a strenuous day of retail therapy. There’s also a thriving mail-order business.
A signature brand
Harrogate remains the center of Bettys operations. At the Craft Bakery on an industrial estate just outside the town center, every single bread, bap, cake, pikelet, scone, muffin or iced fancy destined for the various café-tea rooms is freshly made and baked daily. These are then dispatched to Bettys branches around the county by a fleet of cream-colored vans, each one proudly bearing the Bettys name inscribed in curly script on the sides.
In the bakery, white-coated employees, looking more like lab technicians than bakers, bend low over trays of supersized, raisin-speckled scones known (and trademarked) at Bettys as Yorkshire Fat Rascals, carefully placing on top of each one a pair of glacé cherries and a couple of blanched almonds. At the other side of the bakery, a batch of freshly baked loaves — between 20 and 30 different kinds are baked each day — are plucked, crackling and chuntering, from the jaws of a massive wood-fired oven.
Chocolate is huge at Bettys, and the link with Switzerland has endured: All the couverture, the raw material for the vast selection of Bettys chocolates, comes from Felchlin, the famous, family-owned chocolate specialist in canton Schwyz in the heart of Switzerland. Easter is similarly huge in the Bettys calendar, rivaling Christmas as their busiest time of the year. (A 1932 poster from the company’s archives solemnly reminds customers that “there is NO present quite as appropriate at Easter Time as a Bettys Easter Egg.”)
Eggs, pralines and assorted truffles aside, Bettys is famous for its chocolate novelties: There’s a new one born every year. The large Bettys family of badgers, hares, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, hens, rabbits, piglets and lambs was recently joined by a romp of milk chocolate otters, reflecting the theme (appropriately, given the waterlogged state of much of Britain this winter) of river banks.
Almost 100 years on, Bettys cafés seem to go from strength to strength. Elegant and understated, warmly lit and buzzing with life, they are the kind of places where you almost expect Lady Mary from “Downton Abbey” to sweep in with her shopping and settle down to smoked salmon sandwiches and pink Champagne.
Beaming waitresses in crisp white aprons recite the day’s specials, notebooks poised in midair. A recent menu featured local sausages from a butcher in the Vale of York served with Rösti, followed by a seriously decadent dark chocolate and raspberry torte filled with fresh raspberries and a silken chocolate buttercream: Yorkshire bratwurst with Switzerland’s signature potato dish and a magnificent Swiss chocolate creation. Fritz (alias Frederick) would have been proud.
When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.
I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.
Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”
An ‘anonymous labor’
Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.
And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.
But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.
A sense of fun
Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”
It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”
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I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.
The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove.
Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.
Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History
South Korea is in the middle of a food revolution. Led by expats, returning Korean-Americans and Koreans who have fallen in love with food overseas, once unheard-of dishes are now being served up all over Seoul. Spinach and artichoke pizza, pulled pork sandwiches and Spanish paella were just exotic dreams 10 years ago, but today they’re widely available, though price and quality can vary enormously.
Gemma Wardle, 31, is the self-described “fat girl” from England (though she lost significant weight two years ago). She is dedicated to documenting the Korean food revolution through her blog, A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. In four years, the Fat Girl’s Guide has become the go-to resource for foreign food in the Korean capital.
“I have been fat all my life,” Wardle says, tucking into a slice of macaroni and cheese pizza at Maddux, a new by-the-slice pizzeria near her apartment. “And I’m a person who loves to eat.”
The beginnings of a blog
Wardle began running the blog four years ago, after eating and shopping her way through the city. “I had this wealth of information, and people were always asking me, ‘Oh, how did you make this?’ or ‘Where did you buy this?’ or ‘Where’s a good date restaurant?'” Wardle says. “And I was just sick of saying the same things over and over again. So I started writing it down.”
Today it gets over 100,000 unique views a month, and advertisers are flocking to it. Wardle describes the blog as a “kimchi-free zone” that focuses on the influx of foreign food into this once isolated, now rapidly diversifying country. Though blogs covering Korean food are legion, there is little that focuses on the expanding foreign food market.
“I felt, as a Westerner living in Korea, I didn’t need to find Korean food. It’s everywhere you look,” Wardle says. “For those people coming up to Seoul a couple times a year, I wanted to say look, come here, this is the place you need to eat at.”
An international city
Though Wardle covers the whole of Seoul, she focuses mostly on the central neighborhood of Itaewon. Located near the gates of Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison, for decades it had a reputation as a sleazy, U.S. Army camptown, the place only soldiers, and the prostitutes who served them, would visit.
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But beginning in the late 1990s, Itaewon started to gentrify — the number of soldiers was drawn down, and those left were put on tighter leashes. Foreign businesspeople, English teachers and migrant workers began hanging out and opening businesses. Finally, Koreans themselves, eager for an “authentic” foreign experience in their own country, started visiting and investing their money. Today, it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.
“It’s become more of an international kind of city,” Wardle says, a phenomenon she attributes to Koreans traveling more and developing more of an international palate.
Cocktails — which Wardle adores — have also become popular, in a country where a few years ago the only way to get liquor at most bars was by the bottle. Wardle says today’s other big trend is American comfort food, like barbecue, meatloaf and hamburgers.
A boom in restaurant growth
There has also been a liberalizing in trade laws that allows you to get nearly any ingredient you want, provided you can pay for it. A lot of the blog used to be recipes to make hard-to-find items from scratch, like cheese and yogurt. Today Wardle does much less of that, since almost everything is available on the shelves.
“I will still do a recipe now and again,” she says. “And I used to do a lot more where-to-shop posts, and I will still throw one in if there’s something worth doing. But I’d say the bulk now is restaurant reviews, where we used to be a bit more evenly split.”
Every week there is at least one, and often up to four, new restaurants to review, a rate of growth unimaginable a few years ago. There are currently at least 300 restaurants listed on the blog — Wardle doesn’t know exactly how many.
Wardle continues to teach English part time. She’d like to only write the blog, but the money just isn’t there yet. In the meantime, she plans to stay in Korea at least two more years before contemplating a return to the UK.
“I’ve loved living here, and I’m very happy writing here,” Wardle says. “I just wish I’d started it sooner.”
Main photo: Gemma Wardle is the voice behind the blog A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dave Hazzan
At The Vegetarian Butcher in Netherland’s The Hague, the only thing they sacrifice is your prejudice. It’s a snappy marketing slogan and deliberately provocative in its contradiction, but it lays it on the line: As the downside of meat-eating is increasingly understood, this is an alternative for the concerned carnivore who still wants the sizzle without the self-reproach or sacrifice.
The guys at The Vegetarian Butcher, the first of its kind in the world, have taken fake meat to a new level. Their success is measured in part by an expanding international market, a large new factory to manufacture their innovative plant-based products and a wave of successors in Canada, Australia and, most recently, Minneapolis.
Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery in the field of imitation meat, but it would be hard to beat The Vegetarian Butcher’s meat-alike products. As research and development chef Paul Bom emphatically says, “We are producing food that tastes really good. Even Ferran Adria was convinced he was dealing with high-class chicken thighs. We are not a vegetarian butcher, we are The Vegetarian Butcher.”
A fresh take on a butcher shop
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At their flagship “concept” store, designed to reference a traditional Dutch butcher’s shop with blue and white tiles and marble tops, art nouveau logo and classic delivery bike propped outside, do not expect to see rows of pink lamb chops or hefty ribs of beef. The art of replicating meat does not stretch to include bones and joints: instead products, both raw and ready-made dishes, are neatly packaged in chilled containers. The range, from chicken shawarma to smoked bacon strips, minced “meat” to fish-free prawns, is largely based on lupini (or lupin), a legume that grows well in the Netherlands. Other components in their unique formula include soya (free of genetically modified organisms) and other pulses, grains and vegetables. Most products are organic, some vegan; others may contain egg whites.
The firm was started in 2010 by Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer, in the wake of various food disasters such as swine fever and mad cow disease. Last year, he won the title of Best Dutch Entrepreneur, and he and his staff have also gained awards in the national “golden meatball” competition and for their vegetarian smoked eel salad.
Reasons to not eat meat are well documented: health, environmental damage, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability and the like. What is refreshing, however, is the acceptance by The Vegetarian Butcher that you can have your steak and eat it too.
Many of their customers are not hard-core vegetarians or vegans. They simply want to cut down on their meat intake and satisfy a craving without actually eating animals. As Bom says, their aim is to “infiltrate” the normal world. “We want to take vegetarian food out of the green corner and make it gourmet and sexy.” They also, I might add, make it fun.
After initial resistance, Dutch butchers now sell their products alongside “real” meat to encourage people to eat better quality, albeit less often. It also solves the common problem of feeding the one vegetarian at the dinner table — especially when it’s hard to differentiate. In fact, it is not the genuine independent butcher who has to worry but the large industrial food producers responsible for the reconstituted rubbish that goes into many mass-produced meat products.
Should veggies, however, be perpetuating a meat-eating practice? There are those who believe faux meat encourages the acceptance of the unacceptable, or who prefer to simply replace meat with grains and greens. “Yes, some vegetarians have a problem,” Bom acknowledged, “but in our experience it’s a very small percentage. We’re only giving them another eating option, a way of eating more protein in their diet.”
All the feel of meat, without the meat
Meat analogues are not new, but previous products have largely tasted awful or simply functioned as a vehicle to carry other flavors. As for tofu and tempeh, they were never meant to fill in for meat, Bom said. At The Vegetarian Butcher, the mind-set is altogether different.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. And when put to the taste test, I was truly amazed. I cannot swear I would never be able to mistake it for heritage breed, slow-reared chicken and meat, but it was certainly was a more than acceptable everyday substitute.
Starting with The Vegetarian Butcher’s new line in development, teriyaki beef strips made — astonishingly — with carrots, potatoes and yellow peas, I was immediately won over by the succulence and satisfying chew. The MC2 Burger was juicy and savory and the sausages disconcertingly good. The Fish Free Tuna was a piquant spread, although more crab-like to my mind. The realistic, fibrous and juicy Vegan Chicken Chunks — they even have a touch of bronzing — are the flagship product, best used in salads, pita bread, stir-fries and curries.
The Vegetarian Butcher has modest ambitions — to be the biggest butcher in the world. It’s typically tongue in cheek. Veggie tongue in veggie cheek, of course. And, judging by the brand’s success to date, it’s going to be a plant-based future.
Main photo: The Vegetarian Butcher’s MC2 Burger. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman
I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.
There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.
Eating in China
The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.
We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.
I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.
Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?
Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.
The best of both worlds
N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?
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L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.
N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?
L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.
N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?
L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)
Lessons from the trip
N.G.: And what about the spice market?
L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.
N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?
L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.
Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman