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Creativity and Science Have Merged on Hotel Menus

When Chefs create menus, we look at many different parameters and angles of how to design a dish, and how to group those dishes into a menu.

creativity-menu

By John Signorelli, Executive Chef, St. Regis Houston

We look at what is new or exciting, or, what is old and forgotten about which may be "resurrected". We look at seasonality, colors on the plate, quality of the ingredient, trendiness of an ingredient, or uniqueness of a preparation or combination of flavors. These are not mutually exclusive, and they all can play into each other. Chefs sometimes bounce these ideas off of the guests who are dining with them, as "experimentation" whether they admit it or not!

Some of these fail, and some take off with such fervor, that they can become national trends. Many recent trends have been successfully focused on artisanal ingredients or old-world preparations. So, what does it mean to use these hybrid, artisanal or old-world ingredients, and are we being true to them?

The term "Artisan" or "Old-World" is normally used to describe food ingredients produced by non-industrialized methods, often handed down through generations but is now in danger of being lost. Tastes and processes, such as fermentation, are allowed to develop slowly and naturally, rather than curtailed for mass-production. Production methods are kept authentic to the nature of the item, so that modernization of processing does not alter the flavor, consistency, or quality as they originally were.
Artisan traditionally refers to both what it is made of and how something is made. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an artisan as, "one that produces something (as with cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods." The artisan process requires a specific knowledge, a caring philosophy and is most often carried out by hand. Furthermore, artisan foods have been mostly associated with fresh, non- or minimally processed ingredients, and are often locally sourced.
Most associate artisan foods which are handcrafted by a skilled creator from pure, local ingredients. Artisan bread comes to mind. One might expect the loaf to be a bit irregular and a bit different looking from the one that shared a spot in the wood-fired stone oven. Its taste and texture would be superior to manufactured bread. These are unlikely conditions under which fast or frozen foods are sourced and manufactured.

Often so, these handcrafted or simplified methods may impact the volume or quantity of the item produced, with limited production runs, and thus the pricing of these items are also impacted. Simple economic terms of supply and demand are evident when there are lower quantities to go around, yet with higher qualities of a product. Chefs must be able to account for this through their menu pricing structure, as well as to capitalize on an artisanal product's uniqueness.
Though not always the case, higher prices for artisanal ingredients usually indicate such supply and demand relationships, but there are examples where, due to less processing and handling of a product, do the prices remain quite competitive to the market of comparable products which are massed-produced. Pricing is not always a concern for Chefs, however, and many Chefs take a more ethical viewpoint on what to use and how to use an ingredient.

Let's highlight a bit of background on the science and ethics behind such innovations as Heirloom, Hybrid and GMOs: With "Heirloom" products, they represent a time before industrial agriculture hit the ground running, when fruits and vegetables weren't bred for high yields and durability, but for flavor. Heirlooms have a penchant for flavor because they're generally grown on a small scale. Farmers don't need to worry about breeding them so they can withstand long journeys in refrigerated trucks for mass consumption. Preserving agricultural heritage and small-scale farming is really what heirloom ingredients represent. Chefs like that!

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"Heirloom" doesn't stop at the tomato, as most may associate it with: it applies to other plants like apples, carrots, and zucchinis, and it even applies to animals such as the Berkshire and Red Wattle pig, or the Devon or Ayrshire cow. With heirloom plants, most simply defined, they are grown from old seeds, passed down from generation to generation. The consensus is that if they're more than 50 years old, they're heirloom. Other criteria for an heirloom classification are the use of open pollination. That is, pollination driven by natural forces, like bees and the wind. Although heirlooms are characteristically robust, they are still susceptible to disease and pests. Commercial hybrid crops, on the other hand, are bred to resist diseases; their defensibility, at least against common afflictions, is greater.

With regards to hybrid ingredients, primarily from plant-based foods, cross-pollinating two different but related plants from 5 to 10 plant generations, eventually creating a new plant variety, farmers have been cultivating new plant varieties for thousands of years through selective breeding. By selectively cross-pollinating related plants in this way, farmers could create varieties that were healthier and stood up to the farmer's micro-climate. The plants were adapted to the region's soil, predatory insects, and the weather patterns in the region, therefore increasing quality, quantity, and overall economic stability of the products.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the scientist Darwin and monk Mendel discovered a method of controlled crossing that can create these desired traits within just one generation. This method produces what's known as "F1 hybrid seeds". These hybrid seeds are just as natural as their historic counterparts; they're still cross-pollinating two different, but related plants.
The biggest disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that they don't "reproduce true" in the second generation. That means that if you save the seeds produced by F1 hybrid plants and plant them, the plant variety that will grow from those seeds (known as the second generation) may or may not share the desired traits you selected for when creating the first generation hybrid seed.

This may in turn keep a farmer dependent on a particular seed company year after year since they can't save the seeds and expect the next generation of plants they grow to be identical to the first. This could be devastating to subsistence farmers around the world, who are depending on consistency and quality. Furthermore, major portions the world's food biodiversity has been lost due to the controls over seed production being shifted from farming communities to a handful of multinational corporations controlling these hybrid seed strains.

Some hybrids are also not grown on a massive scale, and retain the uniqueness that an heirloom has. A hybrid can pack just as much punch as an heirloom, and should not be overlooked either.
With GMO seeds, as opposed to hybrid seeds, they are not created using natural, low-tech methods. GMO seed varieties are primarily created in a lab using high-tech and sophisticated techniques like gene-splicing. GMO seeds seldom cross different, but related plants. Often the cross goes far beyond the bounds of nature so that instead of crossing two different, but related varieties of plant, they are crossing different biological kingdoms - like, say, a bacteria with a plant. Therefore, GMOs are today's great, big scientific unknown.

While Hybrid Seeds are nothing to fear, Chefs may choose not to support their production given that they fail to breed true and have caused so much global farming industry havoc. GMO seeds are far more unnatural and reportedly likely to cause possible harm - both to your environment and your health, possibly.

For the Chef, however, the positives in utilizing either old-world heirloom or hybrids brings excitement to the plate, showcasing products that the region may have never seen before, and generating a buzz about a dish due to the origins of the product. Relishing in creative freedom, Chefs value the fact that there are such hybrids in which to utilize. Avoiding GMOs, however, takes a few steps which a Chef must be willing to undertake:
Opt to buy single-ingredient certified organic food.
Choose Non-GMO verified labeled foods.
Grow their own open-pollinated, heirloom variety plants.
Get to know the farmer and ask pointed questions about his or her growing practices, then opt to support GMO-free growing.

Examples of trending old-world, hybrid, or artisanal ingredients would be: Hemp seed (ground or whole), Spelt, Amaranth seed, Quinoa flour, Burdock or Salsify, Raspberry Leaf or Dandelion or Moss Tea, Rose Hips, Comfrey, Romanesco, red carrots, squash, mushrooms, cucumbers, chilies, and certain fruits such as melons, and tomatoes, of course.
So, how can a consumer distinguish between real artisan food and a marketing gimmick? Try asking yourself these three questions about the product: Does a real person craft this product with care? Is it made by hand, in small batches or limited quantities using specialty old-world or artisanal ingredients? Does it reflect expertise, tradition, passion, and a refined process? To learn the answers to these questions, one would need to develop a relationship with the person who crafted the products. Though this is nearly impossible to do with supermarket, fast or frozen food products, a Chef at a restaurant will have done this legwork, and have those relationships and understand the passions and science behind the products.

With the incredible and wide variety of today's ingredients grown in a responsible and ecologically beneficial manner, Chefs' heads are swarming with ideas which present nearly limitless possibilities for you to reap the rewards on your plate!

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