Ingredient Source Branding.... What Is Your ACTUAL Experiences?
A lot of places seem to be advertising where they source their ingredients... i.e., we proudly serve Niman Ranch meats, South Central L.A. grown Corn etc., and many people seem to really appreciate it, and even use it as a barometer to compare restaurants.
But my question to you.... has it really made a positive impact in your dining experiences. In other words do you find the actual food to be better at a place that brands their ingredient sources versus those that don't?
In my experience:
> Most places that have made a big fuss about where they source things, haven't been particularly good. Its almost like they hide behind the highly reputable supplier to mask their sub-par execution while typically charging higher prices.
> The vast majority of the best dishes I've ever eaten out, have not gone out of their way to highlight their source.
Now, I do appreciate a good marketing strategy, differentiation and restaurants that have a story, a gist... and there are times when a special ingredient sure makes a huge difference. But in my experience the current restaurant trend has gone way overboard with what I think is fake artisanry. I have seen a lot of MBAs, Lawyers, Marketing Execs etc., make alot of money in their professions than go out & use their business savvy to successfully create "Artisan" food businesses that provide more hype than substance. And I have also seen highly professionalized restaurant venture capitalists that own dozens of "independent", unique restaurants that use successfully branded, relatively high volume, "Artisan" products to standardize their operations across many concepts i.e., delivering the same lack of soul as McDonald's on a smaller scale, but with high-end images.
I have two recent experiences to contrast:
> At Sassafras in Santa Rosa I had a braised lamb shank PROUDLY sourced from the local, fancy famous lamb processor that was probably on the same plane as eating cow pie (not that I've ever had the honor).
> At Nick San in Cabo San Lucas I had Nigiri from local, unbranded, unfluffed, never frozen fishes that was significantly better than anything I've had since my last meal at Matsuhisa in L.A. about 5 years ago.
In the first case the corporate run, "Locatarian" restaurant hid behind an "Artisinal" brand... while in the 2nd case... the highly successful Exec Chef (who now runs 3 sushi places in Cabo) probably used his talent to find a particular relatively low paid fisherman or fish monger that could deliver the goods etc.,
What do other people think of the recent Artisinal trends... am I the only one that has been underwhelmed?
Artisanal meats, produce, etc. have never made a difference with these taste buds. Only discernable difference has come at the wallet.
I could say the same thing about organic v. non-organic ...
Yes and no.
The bottom line is a good restaurant is a good restaurant no matter what the source of the products.
When I'm at a good restaurant I want to know the source. It gives me an idea of the quality producers. When Bizou changed to Coco500 they dropped all the source names and it drives me up the wall. I want to know the source.
At a joint in the Chez Panisse category, I want to know.
I do agree though that some places use the brands as a crutch to give a little razzle-dazzle to average or incompetantly prepared food. Often Niman Ranch is a warning bell to me. It is too over-used.
However, I was really glad to learn that Nimske bacon is used at another joint because it alerted me to this great bacon.
On the other hand ... well, in a recent thread on the SF board, a local restaurant uses some quality stuff, but they don't hype it. As a result there seems to be a sort of dismissive attitude toward the joint ... becuase they are not shouting it out. There food is better than the joint it was compared to that does hype the source doing self-congratuallory pats on the back. The latter is packed with the foodie crowd. The former sits empty usually. Sometimes its smart to give the crowds what they want ... pedigree.
In SOCAL there is this Denny's-like chain where the menu has always amused me. They proudly mention supermarket brands ... Real Tropican OJ, Hormel bacon, Heinz catsup, Best food Mayo, Birdseye frozen veggies. And you know, what is great is they are doing this without any irony. They are proud of their sources. Sorry, forgot the name of the place .. not that I ate there often because ... you know ... frozen veggies.
Now what I really hate is the trend to house-make sausages, cold-cuts and cheese. Not everyone has that skill and often what most kitchens produce is crude drek. These days I will rarely order that type of thing until I read some good reports ... even then ... I proceede with caution. People get stars in their eyes with the words house-made and it seems to cover a multitude of sins.
That is a very good point you make about house-made... there are some benefits to specialization and synergy. Part of a restaurants value is delivering a good balances between house-made & purchased. I for one usually am dissatisfied with places that don't make their own sauces, but I am perfectly happy if they buy their cheeses.
Yeah, I want everything house-made except those items that require a special skill. If you don't know anything about sausages, don't try it, buy the best source. There's no need to make your own bacon or roast your own coffee unless there is a staff member with some special skill in that area.
Ingredient sources are irrelevant if you don't know what to do with the ingredients. A lousy cook is a lousy cook, period.
But in the hands of a master, yes it makes a difference, a huge difference. It is intuitive that the food a pig eats will affect the flavor of the pork, or the growing conditions of a plant will affect the flavor of the fruit. There's a reason why the best chefs in the world use artisan ingredients.
Example: two plates of pork belly from Pizzaiolo, eaten within two weeks of each other. Same preparation, same chef. One belly was from Niman Ranch, the other was from Heritage Foods, from a Red Wattle Pig. The Red Wattle belly was a thousand times better: richer, fattier, more luscious, with far superior flavors. We were fighting over the last bite of Red Wattle, and had trouble finishing the Niman Ranch.
Example: 10 year aged Wisconsin Cheddar vs the presliced swill they sell at the supermarket. If you can't tell the difference between these two, there's something seriously wrong with your palate.
One exception is beef. If you're accustomed to grain fed beef, the tougher texture and "gamey" flavor of grass fed can be a turn off. I love grass fed beef, but it's an acquired taste. However, the difference is huge with pork and lamb - once you try the good stuff, you will never go back. (for the record, I don't consider Niman Ranch meat to be "the good stuff.")
Seafood is seafood., no such thing as artisan fish. If it's wild, fresh, and well prepared it will be delicious. Better example would be to compare fresh, wild Alaskan King salmon with the farmed crap they sell at CostCo.
If you've been unimpressed with small farm, artisan foods (note I say small farm, not organic. Industrial organics are consistently what give people the wrong impression of artisan foods) then you're going to the wrong restaurants or markets.
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I've consistently found that the particular dishes I've chosen that note their sources have been better than similar dishes at other restaurants, but I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that they named their source. Its just that the dishes have been better. There are a couple of burger joints near my place in SF that source from Niman Ranch for their beef and their burgers are excellent. Better than the burgers at nearby places that don't mention their sources. For all I know, they all get the beef from the same place and the two places I'm thinking of just do a better job cooking them and get their tomatoes from a better place or don't store them in the fridge or some other thing that makes a big difference.
I know burgers aren't the same as the other more high end examples on this thread so far...but the principle holds. If you know what to do with the ingredients, then better ingredients will really make a difference. If you don't know what you're doing with them, then it doesn't matter a bit.
Superior ingredients have a place & time... I don't know that burgers are one of them. I have yet to eaten a burger in the U.S. at any price that has truly surpassed the $1.89 burgers at Dino's in East L.A. that used purely institutional ingredients with a few personal twists.... the seasoning blend they used on the patties, the accumulation of charred meat goodness over the years, and their sense of proportion.
Have I had other memorable burgers... sure, a number of them that usually include some kind of Blue Cheese... but nothing that has surpassed that $1.89 (now $2.69) burger.
Depends on how you like your burgers cooked. Places that serve industrial beef wont serve your burger rare, because they don't want to be sued when you get sick. My father in law has been grousing for years about how you can't get rare burgers anymore. I took him to an upscale place in Berkeley where they basically sear the meat like ahi - he was in heaven, didn't even object to the $12 price tag.
re: Morton the Mousse
I didn't say Dino's served theirs rare... I said that imho, the rare burgers I have liked, have NOT been better than Dino's standard medium cooked (slightly pink) burgers. One thing I like about Dino's is the thin patties... two for 8 ounces which maximizes the tasty smoky, charred surface... while bland pink center in a fat 8 ounce patty is kind of wasted real estate to me.
yeah, I think we're talking about very different kinds of burgers. The places I'm thinking of that serve Niman Ranch beef serve closer to 1/2 pound burger where the beef is the largest part of the sandwich, including the bun. Other 'fast food" style burgers, in my opinion, have a lot less to do with the quality of the meat and more to do with balance between ingredients. This is not to say that I don't love my share (or more than my share) of fast food style burgers but in those cases, the quality of the beef isn't so key because its more about the whole thing. IE, I love In N Out burger but its got nothing to do with exceptional beef, in my opinion.
The burgers from joints (Burgermeister, for example) that serve the larger beef patties and source from places like Niman Ranch are, in my experience, considerably better than similar burgers elsewhere that don't source such high quality beef.