Sometime during the barrage of chef tweets going on during the recent MAD Symposium, there was a definite enticement to the growing idea (is that a pun or double meaning?)... one that seemed to reach out globally through social media. As this media was darkened by the role it played in facilitating the international rioting, it was also assisting in getting more positive messages to the world at large. Chef Jeremiah was the only Miami chef in attendance in Copenhagen, and my curiosity led me to ask if I could interview him upon his return. We intended to do this as a chat over beers, but ended up sitting in a Lowes (not the Loews hotel, but the home improvement store) in the patio furniture department... thus making the beer part a little difficult. There have been a few online articles out previously with chefs discussing the symposium and the objectives and all of them very good reads. The important points for me with this discussion deal with the realities... how to push the 'apply' button after we've made the choice. More importantly, how to make the changes specifically in South Florida. I was curious to hear Jeremiah's thoughts on this. I've never done an interview before on this blog, so I'm going to free form it somewhat. I really just wanted to focus on subject matter that I feel is too important to ignore at this moment in time... who really cares if Bourdain and Paula Deen are feuding or if someone is stealing the bubbles off Alinea's menu? There is a slightly more pressing subject matter at hand in the food world. This is simply sort of a recap of a chef to chef conversation.
How was this chef congregation different from the others we've seen over recent years? "MAD was all about vegetation. The cool thing about was it wasn't just chefs. It was foragers, farmers, a few chefs, and a few other guys.. I'm not sure what their titles were... but, they were just talking about life in general, which was very interesting. I think everyone sort of had the same mentality where it was what we need to do to change the way we as a society are living, and try to save Mother Earth. So, it was cool to see that kind of focus rather than just... this is how you cook a duck breast. There were only one or two cooking demonstrations. The focus was more on plants. A few different scientists and farmers and even the chefs were focused on plants, and what they're doing for us and why we need to promote them to be healthier so that we in turn can be healthier."
On the new growing 'chef community' and dialogue between chefs and others involved in the food supply. "What I think was cool about the MAD symposium was that it had nothing to do with individual personalities or egos. It basically shunned all of that. We as chefs are not really important if we're not doing the right thing. It wasn't about this is how many restaurants I have or this is my menu, but more about these are the ingredients I'm using, the people who are finding the ingredients for me. It was about building relationships with farmers. It was bringing in a different aspect of our industry which is the most important... who's bringing us the food."
What exactly is the 'New Nordic Cuisine' and why the shift to that part of the world from Spain and from the areas before that? How is it different from what chefs such as David Kinch are doing? "There are a lot of similarities in what they're doing in Copenhagen to what guys like Chef Patterson in California and David Kinch, Sean Brock in South Carolina are doing. I mean they're just using what's there locally and what's weird for us here is that it's a whole different mentality. Even Rene Redzepi was saying 'what is Nordic cuisine?' He was asking everyone else. I think he was just surprised and dumbfounded that it is a cuisine like everyone else's, because it's still in its infancy. But, having been in the kitchen and being able to translate it in how it goes to the plate, it's really about hyper local products. Nothing comes more than from a hundred and twenty mile radius or so. It gives you this focus on 'how do we do this' by using what we've got."
So, how do we bring those philosophies on food home to South Florida? "I think the hardest part is finding something that's growing in our climate now other than tropical fruits."
Is it possible to create a second wave from that of the 'mango gang' in a sense that we look towards things that are less obvious? A mango is a fruit, and that's a given edible thing so how do we push that philosophy in a direction that is maybe not so obvious? "What popped up in my mind was a few different things of what we can utilize. I grew up in Miami, and we're surrounded by water, so rather than doing the traditional foraging in a forest why not go foraging in the water. Maybe there's some sort of barnacle we can find that's edible or crustaceans which are more obvious. Underwater foraging would be cool, but I'd also like to find a real forager. Someone who is knowlegeable about botany and plants and go with them into the Everglades and see what we're missing. It poses a lot of interesting questions. I've learned a lot from this symposium even when I got back reading other people's comments. One of the coolest comments was from Sean Brock comparing what he's doing to what's going on in Scandinavia. He was saying that if we didn't use all of these pesticides and poison we would have wild mushrooms growing everywhere and we would have... I mean, you walk around the grounds of the MAD symposium, and then there's wild fennel, here's lavender, here's lovage, you know... a hundred varieties of plants. So as a nation, we've really just killed our land with plowing."
So maybe the question is not 'what we need to do' but rather 'what we need to start not doing? "There were a couple of foragers from the UK and France and they were showing slides of what they would find, and how they would come about it. To see asparagus growing in the wild is something unique for a chef in the United States... we're used to getting it in a box. Even the flowers and the leaves (of wild plants) are necessary cause what it all boils down to is we are taking away the by-product... and throwing it away."
Aside from the water and the Everglades, what would be potential foraging grounds here in South Florida amongst the real estate industry? Are we at a point where forgaging would even be possible? "Unfortunately, we are in for a battle with this. There was another presentation by a chef from Australia (Ben Shewry), in the coastal towns not in the cities. He was saying how they go foraging by the highway, and people look at him strangely and call the cops who question by asking if he was taking the food to re-sell it. It's peoples' perceptions... why are you taking these things? Well, it's food. The same chef was also saying how he drives along the same highway everyday, and one day he saw all of this wild asparagus growing. Then he got out, and he wasn't taking it, but more or less in awe of how all of this asparagus was just growing by the roadside... but then, better yet why is this road running through all of this wild asparagus?"
There was a definite new awareness from chefs returning to their respective areas of the U. S. A. from MAD of noticing what's local. Certain chefs like Sean Brock made comparisons of Nordic ideals to American Southern cuisine, and Kevin Sousa tweeting that some of the same wild plants that were being utilized in Scandinavia were also prominent and 'wild-growing' in the Pittsburgh area. That brings us back to focusing on our region... how does this play out in a tropical zone. There is a perception that there is an amazing agricultural bounty here, but the reality is that it is much more difficult in many ways. A lot of these new farming techniques don't literally translate to a tropical climate. "Look at the variety of things that grow here even in season. In the winter we're growing corn, peppers, and tomatoes. It's so backwards from what everyone knows as 'seasonal.' So to be seasonal in South Florida, I have to cook summer food in the winter."
Understood. We are in a situation where our guests expect to see fresh strawberries on the breakfast menu 12 months out of the year. "It's that strange dichotomy that's always been in South Florida. I've always been surrounded by it from growing up here, so I've never focused on being a seasonal chef. If there's something here now that I can use, then awesome, but it's always been an uphill battle I guess. I think what's really cool now is what's going on a bit further north in Florida. There's this whole new scene popping up around Orlando and beyond, and chefs like Chris Windus are able to get things that I never knew we could get here further south. We both suffer from horrible summers, but they have more fertile grounds and it's more wide open. I'd like to go up there with Chris and meet some of his suppliers."
A lot of what we've seen from the realm of Nordic Cuisine has manifested itself in fine-dining restaurants. Is it possible to translate this into the expanding casual style that we see in America. Can it be done on this level? "Yes, to some degree. Look at what Sean Brock is doing at Husk. He's only using what's local and from the South. They're really blessed in Charleston with great produce. When I went to eat there, he was really excited about these crackers he made. They were made from flour from a wheat that was no longer harvested... sort of an heirloom variety now. He said there was nothing in the cracker but flour and water, because he wanted everyone to taste the flour. Can you really call that casual cuisine? It's considered casual. You can go in wearing jeans and sneakers and sit in a beautiful dining room. I guess the problem is what is considered fine dining usually correlates to the price. I'm going to charge you $38 for this steak, there's service, ambiance, what the people sitting around you are wearing. That's it basically. We all know that fine dining is dead, and has been for awhile due to the economy, but why can't we use this as a sort of segway to a new dining or eating... sort of create something different, genre-bending, something you can't stick a label on. I've always been that type of chef and that type of person. Look at what I'm trying to do out of an Airstream trailer. Are you going to say it's street food... or this... or that."
You've definitely shown the flexibility of that through the dinners you've done... from putting out truck-cuisine to sit down dinners with some amazing visiting chefs cranking out 5 star food from a trailer. "That's been our whole mentality, so it's pretty fitting that we're trying to be a big proponent of what's going on now as well. Are you going to say we're just a food truck? Don't label it. Just enjoy it for what it is. We are all sort of pigeon-holed as chefs... and diners as well. I correlate it to the music scene in Miami as well. Why don't more bands come play live music in Miami? When you go on tour through the south and stop in Birmingham, then Jacksonville, maybe Orlando, do you really want to make that next leap all the way down and blow your budget and your time? The same thing goes for chefs and for product as well. We're kind of in our own little world. We're closer to the Carribbean and the islands than to any other major city."
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