Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Farewell to Argentina's Famed Beef?

by Nancy Shute

When I think of Argentina, I think of beef from cows that graze on the endless pampas, tended by watchful gauchos. That grass-fed beef has been the centerpiece of Argentina's most famous dish, a slow-cooked asado on the parilla.

But while in Buenos Aires last week, I discovered that the pampas-raised beef of my reveries is practically a thing of the past. Today, most cattle in Argentina are raised in feedlots, just like in the U.S. That transition has been driven by soaring prices in the global grain markets over the past decade, making it far more profitable to raise soybeans, wheat and corn than herd cattle.

That may be good news for grain farmers, but it's not a welcome change for the chefs of Buenos Aires. "It's politics, not gastronomy," says Javier Urondo, chef and owner of Urondo Bar and Restaurant in the Parque Chacubuco neighborhood.

Urondo would much rather buy grass-fed beef, but says it's impossible because the industry doesn't identify meat by production method. "There's no way of knowing," the affable 54-year-old told me over a late lunch at Bar Seis in the Palermo Soho neighborhood. "Even my butcher doesn't know."

And because the change has been gradual, Urondo says, most customers don't notice the difference. (That thought was seconded in a September report on Argentina's beef production by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.)
  Dan Perlman, an American chef and writer living in Buenos Aires who runs his own "secret" restaurant, Casa SaltShaker, has also noticed the difference. "When I first came to Argentina, I said, 'This is what beef is supposed to taste like!' Now, it's just steak," Perlman says.

 How exactly does grass-fed beef taste difference from grain-fed beef? As NPR's Allison Aubrey has reported, the meat from cows that dine on grass may be chewier and less fatty. She also cites a recent analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists that found that grass-fed steak has about twice as many omega-3s as a typical grain-fed steak.

The flavor used to be a selling point for Argentina, which has a long, proud history as the world's great exporter of beef, starting way back in the 1800s. But in recent years Argentina has ceded that crown to Brazil.

Government policies are also helping shrink the country's beef exports. For years, the price of beef was kept artificially low to encourage domestic consumption.

But that didn't suit the cattlemen too well. "The producers have responded by saying, 'we're going to switch to producing grains'," says Michael Boland, director of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota. He's been following the transformation of Argentine beef closely, both as a researcher and as someone who loves to eat. "The Malbec and the beef," he recalls wistfully. "That, to me, is Argentina."

Read the rest of the story here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Turning Star Chefs into Must-See TV

At a recent meal at Jean Georges restaurant in New York, Charles Pinsky pushed a dish of foie gras on brioche with spiced fig jam toward his dining companion. "You eat mine. It's delicious, but I've had it about 200 times," said Mr. Pinsky, shrugging. Describing dining at El Bulli in Spain shortly before it closed, and attending the restaurant Chez Panisse's 40th-anniversary party, he waved his hand, muttering, "Yeah, yeah. I'm over it."

Being cynical about star chefs and immune to the glamour of haute cuisine may sound like the kiss of death for a producer and director of food television. But being easily bored may be Mr. Pinsky's greatest asset.
Throughout his 20-year-plus career, which has included four James Beard awards and dozens of public television cooking series and specials—with chefs and celebrities like Mario Batali, Jacques P├ępin and Gwyneth Paltrow—Mr. Pinsky, 61, has been on a continual search for the "the next new idea."

Before he takes on a project, Mr. Pinsky said, he asks himself how it will be different from what he has done before. This principle pushed him into a series that he is developing with Phil Rosenthal, a comedy writer and the creator of the television show "Everybody Loves Raymond." The attraction to Mr. Pinsky is figuring out how to combine comedy and food.

 To flesh out an idea, Mr. Pinsky schedules many long conversations with a potential collaborator, often over restaurant meals. In late August, he went on a four-day eating journey through Los Angeles and San Francisco with Mr. Rosenthal, whom Mr. Pinsky describes as "a skinny guy who can out-enthusiasm and out-eat just about anybody." The pair began at Mozza restaurant in Los Angeles, then flew to San Francisco to eat eggs with pork and kimchi at Boulette's Larder. Over the next couple of days, they came up with a series idea in which Mr. Rosenthal will accompany famous chefs as they live out their ultimate food fantasies, while providing comedic, direct-to-camera narration.

 Each series begins with a scouting trip. As he scouts, Mr. Pinsky takes pictures with his BlackBerry of interesting characters or scenes, and writes a two-to-three-line description about who and where they are. Then he emails these mini-portraits, sometimes one or two per day, to a list of about 20 friends, including chefs Mr. Batali and Gary Danko, cookbook authors Mark Bittman and Julia Turshen and Mr. Pinsky's two sisters. There's little science to this method—Mr. Pinsky doesn't count votes—but he said that a big cheer from his list will usually lead him to shoot the story.

Scrolling through his BlackBerry, Mr. Pinsky landed on a picture of an elderly Korean woman in traditional dress stooped over a cauldron. She was demonstrating how to make cabbage and pork soup, a combination of ingredients that Mr. Pinsky's star, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, grew up eating in France. Mr. Pinsky said that his email panel loved the image and the idea that a world-famous chef and an old Korean lady had a comfort food in common. These scenes became a high point in a show he produced in Korea about the chef, his Korea-born wife and actors Heather Graham and Hugh Jackman.

Read the rest of the story here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Kitchen Ink: Tattoos A New Part of Culinary Culture

Stephanie Izard looks like the girl next door, all T-shirt and curly pony tail. Until she wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. And then you see it.

The fish tattoo.

“Cooking is an art and tattoos are another form of art,” says the chef-owner of Chicago’s acclaimed Girl and the Goat restaurant, showing off the delicate drawing on the inside of her wrist. Roll up her pants and a pea tendril struggles up her calf, a tiny plant becoming strong. A bright green gecko sits on one hip. A dolphin resides somewhere unshowable. And across her back, the piece de resistance — a blossoming basil plant encircled by cartoonish flying pigs.

“People come into our restaurant and say ‘Do you only hire line chefs with tattoos?’” says Izard, the first and only woman to win Bravo’s “Top Chef.” ‘’No, we just happen to have lot of them covered in them.”

Once considered the province of sailors, bikers, ex-cons and, of course, college hipsters, tattoos have become standard attire in professional kitchens, a symbol of culinary culture as surely as a toque. Whether the drawings are egg beaters, lemon meringue pies or ancient tribal motifs, body art in the kitchen is now so mainstream that everyone from lowly kitchen rats to celebrity chefs proudly display their work on television, magazine covers, high-end catalogues and in the pages of their cookbooks, making culinistas ever more like rock stars.

“It used to be those cockamamie chef hats that denoted an expertise with a spatula,” says Rocky Rakovic, editor of Inked magazine, a publication dedicated to tattoo culture and that has featured several chefs. “But now time in many kitchens is represented by the amount of tattoos one has.”

Meat cutting diagrams — the different cuts of a pig or cow denoted by dotted lines — and kitchen knives done like daggers are popular with chefs, tattoo artists say. Cupcakes, hot dogs, pies, equipment — a stand mixer showing a reflection in the stainless steel bowl receives raves from tattoo connoisseurs — are standard when you’re talking food tattoos. Food Network chef Duff Goldman, also known as The Ace of Cakes, has a whisk.

Hugh Acheson, chef-partner of three acclaimed Georgia restaurants, who has four tattoos himself, including the names of his wife and children, as well as a Mayan god he got during a trip to the Yucatan peninsula when he was 16 (he swears he was sober). His favorite is the radish on the inside of his left forearm, which commemorates the first plant he grew at his house more than a decade ago, and which gets the spotlight in his new cookbook’s food photos.

But lots of chefs make little or no reference to their profession. In those cases, the ink — and the reasons for getting it — are as individual as the chef.

Bryan Voltaggio, the 35-year-old chef-owner of Volt Restaurant in Frederick, Md., and a finalist (along with brother Michael) on season 6 of “Top Chef,” has six tattoos, including a nautical star to guide him. The names of his children and their Chinese zodiac signs celebrate their births. And his lightening bolt — a tattoo he shares with even more heavily tattooed Michael — celebrates their friendship with childhood buddies (who also have the same tattoo).

Marc Forgione’s eight tattoos represent turning points in his life or career: the Navajo art that inspired him to open his own restaurant; the “1621” on both biceps documenting his recreation of the first Thanksgiving, the meal that cinched his 2010 win on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”; the tribal infinity symbol his parents gave him on his 18th birthday.

“I use them almost like a roadmap of my life,” says the 32-year-old chef-owner of Restaurant Marc Forgione. “They all have their own little story. It’s a badge of memory.”

Chefs with tattoos are nothing new, Rakovic says. What is new is their emergence from the bowels of restaurant life onto television and into the spotlight. But industry watchers like Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, say the volume of ink has definitely increased during the past five years or so — and it should be no surprise.

“If you look at a chef with beautiful tatts you might also be looking at a chef that presents very beautifully plated food,” says Cowin, whose July 2009 cover featured the elaborately inscribed arms of chefs Nate Appleman and Vinny Dotolo and drew fire from a few readers who thought it was in poor taste. “So the opposite conclusion can be drawn: not ‘They’re heathens,’ but, ‘They must be appreciators of art.’”

Which is exactly why chefs like them. “Chefs are artistic people who get inspired by things and that has a lot to do with tattoos,” Forgione says. “We’re kind of artistic, rebellious, a little crazy.”

Read the complete story here.