Which big ideas will drive the food world? The Globe spoke with five leading players to find out.
Give the people what you want
Todd Perrin, chef and partner, Mallard Cottage, Quidi Vidi, Nfld.
I’m in the unique position of just having opened a brand-new restaurant. The biggest thing for me is, and I’m trying to figure out a way to put it into words, it’s the idea of having a restaurant where we don’t pander to our clientele.
We’re putting our food up on the chalkboard: “This is what we have today and hopefully you like it and if you don’t like it, well, you gotta go somewhere else.” And it’s a very freeing feeling. I’ve never felt more liberated as a cook. A happy cook is a good cook, right?
We do a lot of game, we do a lot of offal meat and local Newfoundland ingredients. The idea that you can go to someone and say, “Yeah, you know, it is cod tripe, but it’s really good and you should try it and we worked really hard on it and this is a good dish, even though you’ve never had it before.” In the past in St. John’s, in a much tougher economic environment, you had to have the same steak and piece of chicken and piece of fish as the restaurant down the street because if you didn’t, nobody would come to your restaurant.
We’ve been in business now for seven weeks, I haven’t served one piece of beef and I haven’t yet served one piece of chicken, because I haven’t yet been able to find a good local supplier, so I don’t use it. The idea that I have a restaurant in St. John’s and I don’t have a single piece of chicken or steak, it blows my mind that I can get away with it. But, we’re getting away with it in spades.
Vegetarian is going up-market
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner, Dirt Candy, an acclaimed vegetarian restaurant in New York
Dirt Candy is 350 square feet and has 18 seats. When we first opened five years ago, we’d have these couples come in and the wife would be, like, “I’m the vegetarian.” And the husband would say, “I’ve never eaten a vegetable in my life.” And all I could think was, “Well I’m glad you’re still alive.” I don’t know what to say to that – I hope this goes well, for all of us. No pressure. But we’re not seeing that any more.
This year, I’m going to open a giant vegetarian restaurant in New York City, an 1,800-square-foot, 55-seat restaurant. Jean-Georges Vongerichten is opening a vegan and raw food restaurant in New York City. Both of us are opening within months of each other and neither of us caters to regular vegetarians – we cater more to the mainstream, to people who aren’t necessarily vegetarian, but who want to eat vegetarian a couple of nights a week, or who think, you know, it’s not the worst thing ever to have to eat a plate of vegetables – fancy vegetables. The world is finally starting to embrace this idea that vegetables can be the centre of the plate.
I don’t think that either of us, five years ago, could have opened the restaurants that we’re about to open. I think people are sort of bored, actually, with meat and pork and bacon and pork belly. Vegetables are a new frontier.
Top chefs should do as much good outside their restaurants as in them
Matthew Orlando, chef and owner, Amass, Copenhagen
When you open your own restaurant you start to feel responsibility to actually give something back. If the restaurant were to close down, what impact would we have made, aside from cooking good food? What impact would we have made within the industry, and maybe within the world?
In 2014, we’re going to do a series of dinners throughout the year, maybe every six to eight weeks, where we really focus on making diners aware of the issues that we talk about in the restaurant industry.
The first dinner is going to raise awareness about sustainable fishing; we’ll bring some of the fishermen down to the restaurant to talk about it. We’re also going to do a dinner around waste. Waste is a huge issue with restaurants. We’ll base that dinner around different off-cuts of vegetables that generally you would throw away. It’s to show the general public that you can use a lot of that stuff.
We use a lot of the food waste for compost in the garden, and then a lady who raises chickens for the eggs for us, we save all the green vegetable trim for her and she picks it up twice a week to feed her chickens. At the end of the meal we’ll actually bring out every single trash bag that was produced that day to make the food, to show the guests how much we actually produce.
If I don’t do this, if I focus all my effort within the restaurant, you kind of feel shallow, I guess. And if you don’t, you’re stuck in your own little world and nothing will ever change.
We’ll finally start paying real money for ‘ethnic food’
Hugh Acheson, Ottawa-raised, Georgia-based chef and restaurateur, judge on Top Chef (U.S.)
Why do we have this automatic belief that Chinese food, or Thai food, or Mexican food or Central American food – that all of that should be cheap? That $6 pho, when you really think about it, it’s kind of like eating a Happy Meal. Do you really want to eat that? It’s probably not going to have the greatest ingredients in it.
That’s what we have to get over, is this First World viewpoint, that food from other cultures is naturally less expensive than our own. You know what should be cheap? Pizza and pasta should. They cost almost nothing to make. Yet those are First World foods, so you’re allowed to charge $22 for a plate of pasta and $24 for a nice pizza in a joint now.
This month, we’re opening up, for lack of a better term, a farm-to-table Mexican joint, called Cinco y Diez, in Athens, Ga. It’s cooking with foods of our area in a Latin-inspired way, invoking the foods of Mexico and Central America.
If you get Berkshire pork belly with a really vinegary slaw on top of it and a hand-pounded salsa made out of obscure chilies from a local farm, that’s not lowest-common-demoninator ingredients any more. We have to make that decision to charge more for good food. And hopefully it’s going to allow that place that’s selling the $6 pho to buy better ingredients and pay better wages to make $10 pho, and raise their own standards.
Prime agricultural land is overrated
Lauren Rathmell, greenhouse director and founding member, Lufa Farms, Montreal
We’re trying to do to agriculture what Starbucks did to coffee. We want to be able to replicate and scale this so that we can bring it to cities worldwide. We build and operate commercial rooftop greenhouses. We harvest our produce the same day as delivery and bring it directly to individuals, so we’re not selling through retailers. We grow without pesticides; we recirculate all our water and capture rainwater and compost on site. We use a lot less energy as well because we’re on a rooftop and not on the cold ground.
We have two rooftop greenhouses in Montreal right now. Our first greenhouse is about 3/4 of an acre, 31,000 square feet. Just that greenhouse alone can feed 2,000 people their fruits and vegetables, year round. And our new site is 43,000 square feet, that’s an acre. It would take the equivalent of about 15 shopping centres, the rooftops, to feed Montreal.
The next step is another greenhouse in Montreal to satisfy a growing subscriber base, and then a greenhouse in Boston, which our CEO Mohamed Hage is in talks for right now. We grow a core array of things that do really well in a greenhouse: any kind of greens, we do cucumber, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, many varieties of each of those. And fresh herbs as well. We do about 40 different varieties of things.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.