Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cooking with Integrity Pt.2

I don't claim to be a presence in many restaurants around town. I have a few favorites that I like but I just don't get out much. As is the case with most chefs and restaurant owners, I am always working. The rare occasion I do eat out, I admit I will dissect the menu to the last vowell. As I wrote in my last blog post, my menus have always stated the provenance of my foodstuffs. Whether it's lamb or veal from a particular farm or heirloom tomatoes (before they bacame ubiquitous) from a good customer's backyard, my guests always knew exactly where the ingredients came from. I've always believed in truth in dining, so to speak. Can you hear the rant coming? In the past months, I've dined at a few places, and seen the menus of a couple more restaurants that has raised my ire somewhat. PLEASE! Can we call a moratorium on chefs calling their dubious scallops "Diver Scallops"? I am sure that all of you have seen this on menus. A brief history is in order. The late, great, Jean-Louis Palladin was looking for the perfect fresh scallop to serve at his legendary restaurant Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, DC. Rod Mitchell, the owner of Browne Trading Co. came to the chef with these freshly harvested scallops from Maine. They were hand harvested by scuba divers going in the ocean. Hence the name "diver scallops". Chef Charlie Trotter is widely credited with making the term mainstream. "Diver", "diver harvested", and etc. refers to the process of gathering the scallops. Not the size of them. 98% of chefs using this term on the menu is using this term to describe the scallop size. How do you know if what you're ordering is indeed what you're getting? Please allow me to give you some indicators. Price and texture are the top two indicators. Scallops are not cheap by any means. Even for the standard sea scallops that are available from the local seafood guys are going to be about $11.00 per pound. Most restaurants I've seen around Memphis are charging $25-29 for an entree. The scallops that I use are dry-packed sushi grade scallops. That means they have not been pumped up with a solution that preserves them and also adds to the weight and size of the scallop. The texture is very firm and sticky to the touch. It is not wet and milky white. The taste is sweet and of the ocean. The price difference is about $3 more dollars a pound. Diver scallops are very seasonal. The quality is perfect. And the price? Dear readers, you pay handsomely for them. They are around $20.00 per pound. Are they worth it? In my humble opinion, Absolutely! Can I afford to serve them? Sometimes! I cannot put them on my menu regularly because I cannot charge what I need to make a profit. For a regular entree portion with the garnishes of vegetables, starch, and sauce, my price would have to be $40.00. Very few people in this town is willing to pay that price, especially when the price reference point is around the corner for $25.00. Can you honestly tell me that what is on the menus around town are true diver scallops?
While we are at it, there should be a law against calling your fish "Wild Salmon". We all know that wild fish is the buzz word these days. It is far healthier, environmentally friendly, and tastier than farm raised fish. Everyone claims to serve "only the freshest fish flown in daily", yadayadayada.....Again, the difference in price is humongus. Fresh, wild, salmon from the Colombia River in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska is just now coming into season. There is a season boys and girls. Mid May to August is the season for wild salmon. A little price comparison is in order here as well. Farm raised Atlantic Salmon is around $6.00 per pound for fillets. True wild salmon is $15.00 per pound for whole fish! If you get Copper River or Yukon River salmon, expect to pay even more! How can these places serve "fresh, wild salmon" in the dead of winter with a straight face? Most of the dining public will not be able to tell the difference and that's what these guys rely on. I take great pride in my products and as enthusiastic as a little boy at Christmas with the arrival of the new crop of morels in the spring, heirloom tomatoes in the summer, autumn squashes, and winter root vegetables. Everyone should demand better of us. At the very least, we should hold ourselves accountable.