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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?

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  1. Ditto.

    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 ...

    1. 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.

      2 Replies
      1. re: rworange

        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.

        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          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.

      2. 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.

        1. 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.

          6 Replies
          1. re: ccbweb

            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.

            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              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.

              1. re: Morton the Mousse

                I also like my beef (or venison) rare... even then I haven't had a fancy burger that surpasses the Dino's burger. They are different and each have their merits, but Dino's hasn't been surpassed.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  I'm surprised to hear the Dino's serves rare burgers. Definitely an exception to the rule.
                  I usually have to "train" a restaurant to get my burger right - most versions of rare are what I call medium.

                  1. 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.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      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.

          2. a local chain used to source pastries from a friend's artisan chocolate operation & used his name to imply "we are better than starbucks" and "we support other local businesses." they put the thumbscrew down on him to drop the price of his pastries by a couple of pennies-- what savings for them on a grand scale over a year's time! to make the pastries a few cents cheaper he would have had to source his chocolate at a much lower grade, and additionally stop doing business with the sustainable operations he had a 10-year working relationship with. he wasn't willing to do that so the local chain dropped him in favor of a cheaper competitor. they save the 4 cents/pastry but the product is SIGNIFICANTLY more shoddy-- to me, no longer worth paying for at all, at any price.

            to me the artisanal movement in food serves to highlight the fact that there is indeed sometimes a vast difference in quality in food. i mean, otherwise why wouldn't we eat every meal at mcdonald's? when sourcing veggies by the case i can see the difference a couple of bucks a case makes in the quality of the veggies. yes i get the organic tomatoes, not the ones in restaurant depot from new mexico that say on the case "for export only." starting with cheaper, shoddy ingredients can mean you're wasting your time cooking-- your food won't be good with made out of such low-quality stuff.

            worked at a lot of places where mgmt didn't care about the quality of the food: they'd say-- "yeah we used to get the 100% beef hamburger patties, but these are cheaper per case & the customer won't know that there's msg and tvp in these-- you know, when you make food cheaper and cheaper, you wind up with cheap food. i personally don't want to eat cheap food & wouldn't insult people by trying to feed them cheap food i wouldn't feel right about serving to my mom.

            sure there will be some "what the heck is the big deal about this" artisan products-- give them a while on the market and they won't be around. sure niman ranch is overused, but i still am happy when a restaurant doesn't get absolutely everything from urinal cakes to bleach to beef to cheese off of the u.s.foods truck. some places will always try to ride food trends without any real understanding of quality-- but some do understand and the higher quality stuff they put out serves as a benchmark for the guy putting pump cheese on his burgers because it saves him a few cents a burger.

            4 Replies
            1. re: soupkitten

              Well put, soupkitten.

              Lumping all the foods produced under the whole "artisinal trend" together and then passing a blanket judgment on them is kind of silly.

              Does organic taste different from non-organic. No, I don't think so, although there are other reasons to buy organic. Does fresh, local produce taste better than stuff shipped from Chile? You bet!

              Do artisan dairy products taste better than commercial, mass markets ones? Absolutely.

              Does fresh bread from an artisan baker taste better than plastic wrapped stuff? Do you really have to ask?

              I've never thought Niman Ranch meats were any better on the plate than equivalent grade supermarket meats, but I support them because I support their humane animal husbandry practices. Heritage pork is a whole other story: it's not only the way it's raised but also that mass-produced pork has been bred to reduce the fat content so it's almost flavorless. Lamb is yet again another story, as lamb is produced on a much smaller scale and most of it is raised under very similar conditions. But the lamb that I get from a local CSA is by far the best lamb I've ever cooked, so there's definitely something to it! And buying local is certainly better than racking up food miles flying lamb from Australia or New Zealand.

              As other people have pointed out, a good chef can make tasty food with mundane ingredients and a bad one can make uninspired-to-bad food with good ingredients. But a couple of "underwhelming" experiences doesn't reflect the overall worthiness of the "trend."

              And some people actually like crappy mass-produced food full of fillers and artificial additives. It's what they're used to. It's comforting. It's full of salt and fat and sugar that give them big hits of "flavor" even if the flavors themselves aren't as good as they could be. And some people really can't tell the difference.

              Eat Nopal, perhaps if Dino's made their burgers exactly the way they make them but with good quality beef, you might like them even more! Or perhaps you just like them for what they are, the same way I like sometimes crave Pringles. A Pringle isn't even really the same thing as a fresh, housemade potato chip. It's a completely different food, just as a "gourmet" burger is different from a fast-food burger. They're each enjoyable in their own ways, and it's really beside the point to try to say that one is better than the other, and then to extrapolate to judging a whole trend based on that faulty comparison.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                You make a really excellent point about Niman Ranch's practices. Whether I thought the product was a better tasting one, I'd still want to buy their prodcuts when given the option because of the way they run their business.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I should note that I am not dismissing the "Artisinal Trend" from a philosophical perspective... I actually embrace Artisinal products with all my might... what I am saying is that we (as a society) including Chowhounds have no clue what Artisinal products really are.... we are too easily fooled by sophisticated marketers. That is why I am focusing on empirical evidence... I don't think its bad if someone lists their source... its just that as I think back over the last 3 or 4 years of dining out... most places that list their sources have turned out to be let downs... and it seems at least some others have shared my experience.

                  I am now turned off by the whole marketing aspect... and getting back to appreciating the discreteness of true artisinal products. A perfect example... I have an uncle that migrated to California (without having, ehem, all his migratory documents in order)... he worked his way up restaurant kitchens eventually becoming an Exec Chef in a Bay Area Italian restaurant. He moved back to Jalisco a couple of years ago and started an Italian eatery as well as a rabbit farming business where he supplies an extremely successful weekend eatery that specializes in rabbits. The restaurants owner & my uncle worked together to determine the optimal feed and conditions... and they now have a great product.. but no one knows my Uncle is the supplier, he isn't branded etc.,

                  I contend that will keep him grounded, and focused on putting out great rabbits rather than worrying about how to expand his brand and sell into Guadalajara, Zacatecas & Leon etc., Further, if he actually expanded a lot, he would have to change the way he operates etc., To me he is a true Artisan because he is small... and there is no branding & marketing corrupting consumers perceptions... only their senses determine if his product & the restaurant are special.. nothing else.

                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                    I get the ideas your'e writing about here. But, people want to make a living too, so even though marketing can be off putting in some ways, I understand the need for it. We do need to be more vigilant about wading through the marketing to find out whether the ingredients (and the resulting chow) is better and worth our time, attention and money. Simply calling something "artisinal" doesn't mean its good and just because something is not called "artisinal" doesn't mean its not good chow. i think the call should be for chowhounds to pay attention to the sources of their food and, where possible try to reward those who have good business practices _and_ put out good ingredients for top notch chow.

              2. A poor cook can make even wonderful ingredients come out poorly. I'm inclined to think that local ingredients are often fresher, and therefore will taste better, until some idiot in a kitchen messes with them royally. Which happens, as I've had a restaurant mess up even a simple salad of locally grown organic greens, which is bizarre, IMO. Clearly, the salad chef that day didn't eat salads. Just looking at it you could tell it wasn't up to par.

                As for artisanal, there will always be "wannabes" who don't really know what they're doing. If the chef is good, he won't use the wannabes, at least not until they've survived long enough to learn to do it right.