Articles in People
Fans squeal with delight, marked-up tickets show up online, people travel across the country.
The latest boy band? Broadway’s “Hamilton”?
No, these days all that excitement is for cheese. On the heels of a busy spring of cheese festivals and competitions that drew nibblers by the thousands, more summer events across the country will connect many more cheese lovers with the people who make their favorite food.
This isn’t grocery store sampling. At these events, mountains of cheeses await hungry visitors — some lavishly styled, some pulled from the 40-pound blocks that judges had been sampling earlier in the week. With a game plan in hand, cheese lovers head for their favorite cheddar or brie or a hard-to-categorize original creation by a favorite maker.
“American consumers’ education about cheese has just skyrocketed,” said Wisconsin-based Jeanne Carpenter, who has organized cheese festivals throughout the Midwest since 2009. “They know what it is, they know the cheese-makers by name.”
In early April, a whopping 500 tickets were sold in two weeks to Chicago’s first-ever CheeseTopia, organized by Carpenter. The tickets sold for $75 a pop, but Carpenter, whose Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization has been hosting festivals and classes since 2009, said she saw CheeseTopia tickets for sale on Craigslist “for high amounts, which doesn’t make me happy, because I don’t like people scalping tickets.”
Cheese on the rise
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Carpenter hosted her first cheese festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Held in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace, it was designed to promote Wisconsin makers and educate consumers. It included seminars, tours and “meet-the-cheese-maker” receptions full of sampling.
“I had a hard time filling seats,” Carpenter said.
Now, Carpenter’s festivals aren’t the only thing moving tickets for cheese fans in Wisconsin. In March, the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison quickly sold out the 500 tickets for its award ceremony and tasting event.
Cheese is creating a frenzy outside of America’s Dairyland. California’s Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, California, home of Cowgirl Creamery, was held for the 10th time in March. There were three days of seminars, tastings and farm tours, capped off by 1,500 fans gathering under a big-top tent to sample cheese, cider, wine and beer, meet the producers, get books signed and watch demos. Also in March, the Oregon Cheese Festival had 4,000 attendees at its 12th annual event, sampling cow, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses made by Oregon creameries
And tickets are available for the annual American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese. The July 30 event, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, charges $60 to sample the 1,500 cheeses entered in this year’s contest. Organizers expect 1,000 people to attend. On July 17, Shelburne Farms hosts the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, which has sold out its 1,750 tickets the past three years and is expected to do so again this year.
At Carpenter’s events, she requires the cheese-maker to be present. People want to meet them, she said, and then they treat them like rock stars.
“I see women squeal like schoolgirls seeing the Beatles when they see Andy Hatch for the first time,” she said of Hatch, of Uplands Cheese Co. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, who makes the much-celebrated Pleasant Ridge Reserve. “It’s so embarrassing for him, he just lets it pass and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’”
For Hatch, it just goes with the territory.
“Aside from occasional blushing, I do enjoy the general buzz at these events — the sense that cheese is something exciting,” he said. “It’s flattering that people go out of their way to pay money and stand in line to taste cheese and ask a few questions. If people are willing to do that, I’m willing to go out of my way to be there for them.”
Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation cheese-maker best known for Dunbarton Blue, the cheddar-blue he introduced seven years ago. He enjoys the events, though it’s a far cry from years of anonymous commodity cheese production of the early part of his career. Now people line up to talk to him.
“I never expected anyone to ever ask for my autograph,” said Roelli, whose eponymous cheese company is based in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.
The main event
While drinks and other local foods are often featured at these festivals, there’s no doubt cheese is the star of the show. At the contest events, displays resembling edible sculptures are made from the blocks used for judging. Veteran contest-goers bring plastic bags so they can take home what remains, knowing the blocks that made up the entries are just big chunks of cheesy leftovers. A plan of attack is necessary; it’s impossible to sample everything.
Carpenter’s event was in Madison for four years, but has expanded its reach. She moved it to Milwaukee last year, and 750 tickets quickly sold out. This year it traveled to Chicago, and next year will be in Minneapolis. From there, Carpenter said, she’s debating whether to keep it in the Midwest or go national.
People have come to her events from across the country, including a couple on their honeymoon and a woman from Nashville who has been at every event Carpenter has created.
“There are cheese groupies out there, I don’t know what else to call them,” Carpenter said. “It’s so cool that people care this much about cheese.”
Main image: A fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon product from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.
“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.
Cultivating an agrihood
It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.
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“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,” Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”
Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.
A cornucopia of crops
“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”
The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.
Enjoying the fruits of their labor
The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.
Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.
Rural life, redefined
When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.
“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”
Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.
Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?
Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.
Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?
Chicken production in a nutshell
Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.
The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.
Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.
Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.
Consumers demand healthier chicken
Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.
Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.
A sustainable buying guide
After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).
In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.
“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.
Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.
“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.
Buying better poultry
One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.
At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.
So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved.
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There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.
Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.
Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock
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