Some years ago I watched while the late French chef Joël Robuchon stood outside his namesake Paris restaurant with a vendor of raspberries. Looking over the flats with the eye of an eagle, Robuchon said, “That one, not that, not that, yes, that one. . .” and accepted perhaps four out of the twelve cartons. Mind you, vendors would not dare to bring a chef like Robuchon, whose restaurant then had three Michelin stars, anything but their absolute best. Yet among those flats Robuchon picked the best of the best.
I also once accompanied the late Tony Cortese, owner of Amerigo’s, one of the best Italian restaurants in New York, down to what was then the Meat Market District on Manhattan’s West Side (now occupied by boutiques and Millennials’ restaurants). As he did every week, Tony tipped his butcher generously for helping to choose precisely the carcasses he wanted cut up for his kitchen, and they were as delicious as any in New York, which at the time meant better than anywhere else in the country.
Both Robuchon and Cortese are gone, but I’d like to think their spirit lives on in demanding chefs and restaurateurs who truly want, seek out and pay for the best ingredients available. Sadly, with rare exception, that spirit has dissipated, even among well-respected chefs, at a time when they blithely sign management contracts to put their names on so many restaurants in so many cities and countries that they have no say in what is actually being purchased by their minions a thousand miles away. Yet the claim of just about every restaurant in the U.S. above the level of a Macaroni Grill that it serves only the finest ingredients has become sheer nonsense, especially when those claims are based on ingredient names that once held a certain well-deserved prestige but that have now been spread around as ubiquitously as Idaho potatoes and Maine lobsters (neither of which is an actual species but only a marketing label).
To begin with, Russian and Iranian caviar has been banned since 2007 for export for years because the sturgeon were almost wiped out in their Caspian Sea habitat. Yet many high-end restaurants are now charging the same price that Caspian Sea caviar once commanded for fish roe from sturgeon raised in China—whose reputation for fraudulent labeling is notorious—Malaysia, Moldova, Madagascar, Uruguay, even Saudi Arabia. Yet the tins they are packed in will read “Russian,” “Royal” or attached a Czarist name like Romanoff. Much of it is culled from a sturgeon hybrid called Kaluga. It is even being served at many of France’s three-star restaurants. Does it compare favorably to true Russian or Iranian caviar? Possibly, but more in the way that a hybrid sports car compares to a Maserati.
Then, of course, there is wagyu beef, which has become a farce of marketing magic. Even five years ago only a handful of restaurants in the U.S. could claim they serve the authentic wagyu from a renowned Prefecture in Japan, especially Miyazaki A5, whose production was minuscule and whose export was infinitesimal (only A3 to A5 grade is certified for sale in Japan). Today, however, with exports risen 500% in the last five years, just about any restaurant who is willing to pay a bit more can obtain it and put it on its menu. Still, according to Nikkei Asia, the biggest importer is Cambodia, followed by Hong Kong and Taiwan with the U.S. fourth. (Much of Cambodia’s imports are believed to be re-exported to China, which still bans Japanese beef.)
Most chefs and butchers fudge on the term “wagyu” (which means merely “cattle” in Japanese) to mean anything from a lesser quality Japanese beef to that grown more or less from a similar steer, usually a hybrid with another breed. The fact is the Japanese breed is not allowed to be exported (some live cattle did come through briefly before 1997). Most British, American, and Australian wagyu are only 50% purebred; true wagyu calves can cost 40 times the price of U.S. cattle, and it is estimated there are less than 30,000 head of pure wagyu in the U.S. —that’s about 0.029% of all American beef cattle — and tacking on the name “Kobe,” which is the Japanese city where much wagyu is raised, means nothing at all. So any restaurant selling you a $25 wagyu or Kobe hamburger is really just selling you a bill of goods. That said, it is a rare thing today to find an American high-end restaurant, especially steakhouses, that does not put some facsimile of the wagyu name on its menu.
“Wild game” is often seen on menus, yet in the U.S. by law no wild game, including freshwater fish, can be sold or served, because the fish in even the most pristine stream in Alaska may carry dangerous bacteria. The exception is wild game from places like Scotland where the animal must be professionally examined before it is approved as safe to eat. Wild salmon is hard to find, whether from the Atlantic or Pacific, and then it is usually either flash frozen or Cryovac-ed for sale, so that even the most expensive restaurants use farmed-raised salmon in lieu of the wild version. Many are labeled on the menu as from Faroe Island, but that is not a wild sanctuary; it, too, is a fish farm. Recently a gourmet friend insisted to me that he was told that wild salmon was caught, gutted, packed trucked to an airport in Seattle for a plane leaving for Las Vegas that afternoon, which seems more than impossible to achieve day after day, especially if the salmon aren’t biting within their seasonal spawning.
So, too, it is nearly impossible to find wild branzino out of the Mediterranean. “Dover sole” is not a separate species of sole, but only indicates a fatter, finer quality sole that may or may not come from British or Scandinavian waters. There are three stocks of Dover sole in the United States on the Pacific coast, in the Gulf of Alaska, and in the Bering Sea.
Any time you see truffles on a menu before or after the fall season, you are not getting the famous black truffles from France’s Périgord region (dug up by pigs) or the astoundingly expensive white truffles from around Alba in Italy (sniffed out by hounds). Agriculturists have been trying for decades to produce truffles via inoculation but results have been modest at best. Other countries do harvest truffles (those from New Zealand are pretty good) and “summer truffles” are just that, but it is rare their flavor approaches that of autumn’s gems.
The same might be said for any number of foods, from those raspberries Joël Robuchon picked out so carefully to white asparagus, whose finest examples only appear in certain European countries like Belgium in spring. Eating any fruit or vegetable out of season is not going to provide the best of them, even if the northern and southern hemispheres have opposite seasons and some places, like California, can eke out two or more. Really wonderful raspberries, strawberries and blueberries simply cannot be offered on a menu year-round. Asparagus have their peak period, bay scallops are unique to New England waters in season, the shad do not run all year and the Chinese stone crabs bear little comparison to the sweet ones from Florida waters, available only October 15 through May 1.
There is no doubt that agriculture and animal husbandry has provided much more, and often better, products on a regular basis. (Let’s face it, you once had to be lucky to buy delicious summer’s corn at a farm stand, whereas as now, even supermarket corn is dependably sweet.) But unless you can frequent a local farm whose crops are small and carefully tended, will you ever get a tomato of any real taste later than mid-September? Wild mushrooms like porcini are almost never found fresh in U.S. markets.
I do know that in Europe chefs with a feverish commitment to quality and seasonality may still be able to buy lamb and chickens raised in their community along lettuce and herbs, while the forests may be rich with wild mushrooms and the fish markets teem with the morning’s catch.
The very best costs a great deal of money, and a menu claiming to serve the finest should reflect that. There are no bargains in wagyu, white truffles or caviar, but far too often, whether it’s in a princely hotel in Dubai, a Las Vegas high rollers steakhouse or a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, you really have to ask, “What’s in a name?” before you pay for what you get.