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Ethics and Fine Dining – Chef Christine Keff talks Organic

Flying Fish hhas been in Seattle for almost eleven years now, and seems to be more of an institution than a restaurant. Last year, chef and owner Christine Keff caused a bit of a local sensation in the restaurant scene when she announced that the place was going to an all organic menu.

Seriously – Questions were asked. Meetings were held. Voices were raised.

It was interesting to watch the big names in the Seattle restaurant scene react. It was even more interesting to listen to what these chefs had to say about various food philosophies in the context of running well respected fine dining restaurants.

And then? Then there was silence as the chefs went back to simply running their restaurants. But being the ever curious person that I am, I always wondered in the back of my mind “What would happen to a restaurant after it decided to go organic?”. I sat down with Chef Keff to ask a little about her restaurant and what she has learned.

As way of a general introduction to the folks who don’t know your or your restaurant, Can you give a little background on your career and your restaurant? Sure. I’ve been cooking for 30 years. I never went to cooking school, instead taking a formal apprenticeship at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. I worked in New York for ten years and then moved to Seattle.

I then worked a bunch of places around town, some corporate restaurants, and then eleven years ago I opened Flying Fish. We were in the right place at the right time and have been pretty successful. We have a regular clientèle and loyalty, not just from Seattle-ites, but from people from other cities who frequent Seattle frequently. It’s been a fun ride.

Has anyone been a role model in either the way you cook or the way you approach running your restaurant? The best role model I ever had was the first chef I worked for at the Four Seasons. He had a very naturalistic approach to food, even at a time when a more formal approach was stylish. He always wanted to do, and did do, food that made sense, that had a basis in tradition even if it wasn’t traditional itself.

Do you find that this approach fits well in the Seattle area? It does. It fits particularly well in the genre that we’re in, using ingredients from other cultures to compliment the fish from our waters. We use a lot of Asian ingredients, but we don’t always do “traditional” Asian dishes. It’s not always like what you would have over there, as we use those ingredients but with different techniques.

I’ve traveled rather extensively in that area of the world and I feel that our food may play around a little bit, but we’re still grounded in tradition.

Why did you decide to go organic? I decided to go organic because I feel that what we are doing to the planet is arrogant and wrong.

I understand that “organic” has a long and honorable history as a word and as a concept and has a whole philosophy behind it, but really what drew me to it was the number of things that get killed by the way we farm. If you kill the bugs, then the birds don’t have anything to eat – it just seems terrible hubris to treat the ground and everything that lives off the ground the way that we do. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just got to me, I couldn’t really tell you why.

Do you remember when you started thinking that you had to do something? I do. It was a couple of years ago. It wasn’t entirely “spiritual” but it did starting thinking more about spiritual issues. I’m later in my life and I’ve been thinking a lot about something called creation spirituality that says things like “God is in everything”. If I really believe that, how can I condone doing the things that we do? By buying that stuff, I’m supporting it.

Fortunately Flying Fish is a profitable restaurant and I have a little bit of room to play where I can make decisions like that whereas people who are working a little closer to the bone sometimes can’t.

So I asked “what would happen if I didn’t support that anymore?”

How long did it take from saying “I’m doing this” to telling the crew “This is what we’re going to do”?It took me a couple of months to get to the point where I knew we were going to do it. Then I broached it with the crew and I said “Let’s do this within six months”.

Was there any resistance to this idea? Yup, there was.

From inside or outside the restaurant? In house, not from outside.

It’s harder. Organics, especially in produce, are geared to the grocery stores. Most organic growing and buying is geared for what sells in the grocery stores.

It’s different for restaurants when you need something all year round. Like shallots for example, they don’t appear in the organic section in the grocery store, so it’s very hard to find a consistent supply of them.
But we found them and have them. It was difficult up front, but in the end it means that any restaurant who wants organic shallots over the course of the year can buy them because we’re buying them. Our supplier has learned where to get them and has started stocking them. That’s how it happens.

What were some of the problems that you anticipated in going to an all organic menu? We anticipated price increases and we did see a little bit of that. We anticipated higher food costs, and initially we encountered one, but we managed to get that back down to where it was.

We had a small increase in price, maybe a dollar per plate. But we were still below many of the other fine dining restaurants. It didn’t price us beyond the reach of the customer at all.

Percentage-wise, can you say how much going organic had affected your food costs? It took a two point jump when we first started it. Two percent – which is significant. It was already low by industry standards, so it didn’t hurt us that much. Then we worked on getting it back down, and now it’s back down. Within four months our new chef, Angie Roberts, got it down.

To get the costs back down, we found it was simply a matter of manipulating the menu. Instead of saying “This case of broccoli costs half as much this other case”, we instead looked at paring higher cost items with lower ones. We can put higher cost broccoli with lower cost fish, and the costs even out over the course of the entire menu.

You’ve been organic for almost a year now. Where their any problems over the course of this time that caught you entirely off guard? What I didn’t anticipate was the staff resistance. I actually lost a chef over this. I was really surprised by that.

He was one of the people who thought that going organic means going “granola”, for lack of a better word. I had not anticipated that at all, because, for me, I wasn’t thinking about organic meaning “hippies” and “communes” and all that kind of stuff. For me it was something very specific. I was really floored by that. Eventually he just didn’t want to do it, and he left.

When I sat down with Tom Douglas, he said that he makes his food choices based on locality, sustainability and the organic. How much thought did you put into both locality and sustainability? I’ve heard other chefs say “It’s all about local. Organic doesn’t matter.” I think that’s kind of the other end of the spectrum and you don’t want to be there either. They both matter.

I’ve decided to draw the line in the sand with organic and not use fresh ingredients that aren’t organic, and I don’t specify if they’re local or not. It’s a first step and it takes the chemicals out of the equation.
We try to buy local as much as we can. But local here means a very short produce season. What do we do the rest of the year? Do we just go back
to buying industrial non-organic stuff? I won’t let people diminish the importance of organic just because they’re focused on local.

Organic is a sustainable practice. There’s no separation between sustainable and organic.

I think a lot of chefs have some sort of “heebee jeebee” about organic – “It’s always expensive”, “I can’t afford it”, “It’s granola and Birkenstock’s”, “It means we can’t have the great ingredients that we want”, when it doesn’t mean any of that at all. You can get fresh organic turmeric from Hawaii for example, and most people don’t even look for organic turmeric.

I think a lot of chefs put organic way at the other end of the spectrum because they don’t know what’s possible. They think that if they have an “organic” restaurant, it will mean having a “granola” restaurant.

What have been the more difficult items to get organic? Lemon grass was hard. Bean sprouts were hard, oddly enough. Evidentially it was the mung beans themselves that are sprayed with something to keep them from rotting.

There have been times when items simply weren’t available. This was the case with turmeric where all the fresh turmeric was gone, and all that was left was stuff that was rotting. So we’ve learned to keep certain items frozen.

What’s been the best part of the last year? Well, our lives are not a lot different than they were before. We just know that we’re doing this and it feels good. It feels good to make some products readily available to those who want to make those choices.

How have been the customers’ reactions? All good. They’ve appreciated it. We’ve given them added value and we haven’t put them through the ringer. What’s not to like?

Technorati Tags: Christine Keff, Restaurants, Organic Food, Fine Dining

Dirty Sugar Cookies – The Interview with Ayun Halliday

I first came across Ayun’s work with her book No Touch Monkey! I was then surprised when I discovered that she had her own food blog.

For those of you not familiar with Ayun Halliday, let me say this – Ayun is the type of person to which a person gladly gives gives up a floor/ spotlight/ microphone, because her stories are that much more entertaining than everyone elses. When I think of her writing, I picture her telling her these anecdotes over an entree at the local Thai restaurant, or perhaps over drinks at one of those pubs that have a maximum occupancy of 18 people.

Which is why it seems so right that she has written her own food memoirs called Dirty Sugar Cookies, along the lines of Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. No…scratch that. This book is the antithesis of Ruth Reichl, where Ayun discusses both the joys of Pop Tarts and the post-coital breakfast….with recipes.

I had a chance to interview over e-mail Ayun as she does her first “Blog Publicity Tour”. It was an opportunity I was glad to take, and I hope you get to know her better as well.

What was the inspiration to write a book about food?

I like to hitch my autobiographical wagons to universal, evergreen subjects (ie. early parenthood, travel, crummy jobs). Like, I’d love to write a book about my favorite scenes in obscure movies, the most memorable moments I’ve witnessed in live theater, but I don’t think there’d be much of a market, so instead I bore my friends with constant references to this Japanese production of MacBeth where the king’s attendants used fans to fill the air with swirling cherry blossoms as he’s murdered. Food is more accessible. We all eat and many of us spend a lot of time thinking about food in a very pleasurable way.

The early part of your book deals with many of the pop-culture foods that many of us remember. What is it about Pop-Tarts and Count Chocula’s that bring back such nostalgia?

I was a hopelessly picky eater & only child, and my situation was compounded by the fact that my mother really loved to cook, not just spaghetti and burgers and standard 70′s family fare, but these elaborate, involved meals. Junk food wasn’t forbidden, per say, we just didn’t have too much of it on hand. I was too shy and powerless to request more than one such item per shopping trip. That probably explains why I cleaved extra hard to the pop-culture-ish food my mother did stock, mostly things she herself liked, like Oreos, Doo Dads and these puffed cheese curls we referred to as “cornies”, though it’s debatable whether that was the actual brand name.

Fortunately, one thing she never insisted on was a hot breakfast, so I was able to participate in the zeitgeist via the cereals I saw advertised on Saturday morning cartoons. I believed that somewhere there was really this wonderful clubhouse of autonomous, grooved-out Honeycomb Kids who never had to deal with their mothers’s Beef Stroganoff. Unfortunately, I never located this Xanadu, but I do have many fond memories of sneaking downstairs on Saturday mornings, turning on the TV, grabbing a spoon and helping myself to half a box of unreconstituted Nestles Quik.

In thirty years, do you think that the kids of today will look upon any of the foods available today with the same fondness our generation has with say, Peanut Butter Crunch or McDonald’s?

Most definitely. There are plenty of old timers in my neighborhood who wax nostalgic for Fox’s U-Bet Syrup and Ebinger’s Black Out Cake, items which are as regional as they are obsolete. I hope regionalism doesn’t die out entirely. Actually, I guess these childhood food memories are always regional, even if they involve a national brand. It’s not just Dairy Queen, it’s a particular Dairy Queen, and wearing your bathing suit under your shorts, and the fireflies out back, and the fact that your grandfather always ordered Dilly Bars while your mother always ordered hot fudge sundaes…

Have any of your childhood food phobias carried over into adulthood?

I’m almost completely reformed, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to handle banana pudding. (I don’t want to give away why, because it’s one of my favorite parts of the book.)

I’ve come to appreciate my mother’s culinary gifts, but she has this one soup that puts me in a really bitchy mood, I hate it so much and of course, that’s the one that’s her precious baby. Every time she says its name â?? oxtail warmer – she unconsciously switches to this simpering Shirley Temple voice and gives her shoulders a little shimmy, as if to indicate how delicious it is. Drives me absolutely bat shit.

As a seasoned traveler, you’ve dealt with confronting different cultures and their approaches to food. Is there a moment that even you had to go “Okay, this is too odd up even for me, where’s the local Long John Silvers?”

No, that would be my former traveling companions / ex-boyfriends, though your Long John’s reference reminds me of how fun it used to be to wander around Indianapolis with my high school friends, wearing those cardboard pirate hats they give away free to little kids. That was about as punk rock as it got.

But back to traveling, no, I’ve never hit that tantrum point where I require air conditioning, molded plastic seats and pre-fabricated Western food. Though, I do remember treating ourselves to this restaurant in Calcutta that was a dead ringer for a Jo Jo’s, the Hoosier equivalent of a Denny’s or a Friendly’s. It had the laminated menu with pictures of ice cream sundaes, the doofy uniforms, everything. After two months in India, that place was delightful in the way no Jo Jo’s, Friendly’s or Denny’s could ever be for me on American soil. It was such a novelty to partake of individually wrapped butter pats, fountain sodas and a salad bar. The other great thing about it was that it was clearly a hot gathering spot for young Calcutta professionals on the move.

Do you think Americans generally avoid taking food risks when traveling?

Oh, hell yes! I think most Americans avoid taking food risks at Taste of Chicago! I have at times paid the price for risky culinary behavior abroad (I shan’t go into detail regarding the currency with which I settled those bills) but I stand by the spirit in which those mistakes were made.

Having worked in lots of American restaurants, I’m doubly bummed by the timidity with which so many of my countrymen and women approach foreign cuisine in foreign lands. Perhaps those folks should take a backstage tour of their favorite restaurant before leaving home, find out how their beloved food is really stored and handled. I suspect it would lessen their fear of eating at a street stall (either that or they’d never eat outside their homes again).

At the same time, we Americans tend to make some pretty freaky foods, some of which you mention when you talk about “Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook”. Do you think any current food fads parallel Meatloaf A la Mode, or Seven-Up Salad?

It seems like we’ve moved away from that for the time being, though I trust magazines like Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal to see to it that the dream doesn’t die entirely.

I’ve got zero desire to eat in fast food chains, and our t.v. reception is so crappy that I’m not privy to their commercials, but that’s another arena where regrettable food can continue to flourish. There’s always something new to be wrapped in bacon, encased in dough, deep fried, dunked in sauce and given a funny name.

What is your approach to your daughter Inky’s finicky eating habits?

I’ve run out of approaches. Hurry up and wait, I guess. Try to keep Bitchmother at bay.

Is there hope for her palate yet?

I cling to the fact that I was a picky eater once myself. Of course, my mother refrained from saying so in her published oeuvre. If Inky stays finicky, it’s probably a case of karmic retribution.

If you could get her to eat just one food, what would it be?

Dim sum.

Is your preference to cook at home, or go out to eat?

Go out to eat, then come home and crack into the leftovers from last night’s home cooked meal while watching Arrested Development.

What would you consider the perfect meal?
You mean like, if I was bound for the electric chair the next day? Uh… A banh mi from a cart in Saigon (and given the circumstances, don’t hold the meat), several mangosteens, a couple of eel avocado rolls, half a six pack of India pale ale, chocolate pear gelato from Fairway and a ladyfinger containing the key to my cell.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to expand their food knowledge?

Travel to another country vastly different than your own, go to the market, eat in the street stalls, eat every fruit you can’t get at home, point at what the toothless old man in the corner is eating so that the waiter will bring you that. If this is financially impossible, get yourself to Chinatown. (If you were born and bred in Chinatown, head to the nearest Bob Evans.)

Technorati Tags: Food, Interviews, Dirty Sugar Cookies, Ayun Halliday

An Interview with Tom Douglas

Yes, we’re trying something new here at the Hedonist. I alluded to it in a previous post, but I wanted to make sure I was able to set something up before tellin’ y’all about it.

Tom Douglas, for those of you not from the Seattle area, can be said to be an institution here in the Emerald City. He runs several restaurants, including the Palace Kitchen, The Dahlia Lounge, and Lola. He’s been nominated for the James Beard Award back in 1996. He has two book out on the market: Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen and Tom’s Big Dinners : Big-Time Home Cooking for Family and Friends. He’s also been recently invited to participate in Iron Chef America (which airs this Sunday).

And most importantly, he makes a kickin’ Coconut Cream Pie.

He and his staff were kind enough to arrange a sit down with me, and answer a few questions (some of which were provided by some of you readers out there).

You moved to Seattle in the late 70′s and have been working in the food industry since that time. How has the food scene changed in the area between then and now?

Well, there are more restaurants now, with more people living downtown. The variety of restaurants have increased tremendously.

“Chinese” food, which used to be concentrated in Chinatown, is more readily available. Thai food and Vietnamese have come along. That and the depth of ethnicity has really changed, Restaurants like that have now gone upscale. Wild Ginger and Monsoon, places that have taken a pan-asian approach, can now concentrate on their specialty, whether it’s barbecue or seafood. I think that’s great.

I don’t think that how the infrastructure of how restaurants “are” has changed. But they’ve certainly changed for people. People eat out more for sustenance now, and not necessarily for special occasions. People eat out for dinner more than they used to. Lunch used to be an equal player with dinner, but now dinner is way out there. People don’t take the time to deal with lunch like they used to. The two martini lunch is pretty much gone. That has pretty much changed everywhere in the country.

That’s too bad, because there was a charm to that, a civility to doing business over a meal and a cocktail.

What do you like most about working in Seattle?

The people. It’s a great town here. My staff is wonderful. It’s nice to have the depth of great employees out there. We could always use more, but there’s a great amount of restaurant professionals out there to choose from, something that’s more difficult when you get to other places.

Jeffrey Steingarten has suggested in one of his columns that the Pacific Northwest has wonderful raw materials, but no cuisine based on them. Do you think that’s so?

I don’t look upon restaurants as having cuisines, I look at them as restaurants. There’s a “style” of restaurants.

The cliche of Manhattan restaurants is the snooty Maitre D’ who will maybe or maybe not let you in for dinner, depending on how you’re dressed, do you have a reservation, who you’re with, blah, blah, blah. New York suffered from that for years and hurt their business for a long time. When Danny Meyer took his trip along the West Coast in 1984-85, and the opened Union Square Cafe in New York, I think that he brought some of that West Coast and Seattle culture back to the East Coast. He got rid of the snotty maitre d’. Servers became your servant and not your big brother. He brought them professionalism.

I think that’s what’s part of Northwest Cuisine. Northwest cuisine is how you’re treated on the telephone. When you call for a reservation, it’s not “I’ll see if I can get you in”, it’s “We’d love to have you come in”. It’s the Northwest approachability and style that you didn’t used to see everywhere.