From: Joan Brunskill, Associated Press
Published August 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Chefs: Cook Organically for Taste, Principle

NEW YORK — When it comes to taste, does organic make a difference?


That an ingredient is organic seems to be a major consideration for many chefs, but is not always the deciding factor.


If chefs opt for organic it can be on the grounds of principle as much as for taste. Or maybe they are more concerned with freshness of the ingredient, and their relationships with small farmers and local suppliers -- this local provenance seems increasingly preferred, season permitting.


What some of America's chefs say about cooking with organics:


Monica Pope, chef-owner of t'afia restaurant, Houston, Texas, member of Chefs Collaborative.


"I tend to believe locally grown food is so totally superior to anything else," Pope said. "I try to specify organic when I can, and especially for things like potatoes and corn to avoid genetic modification.


"I just believe locally is nutritionally far better and the taste is mind-bendingly different. The fresh, local baby eggplants and tomatoes are so good we just slice them and serve them -- my customers are impressed that they find themselves liking raw squash or eggplant!


"Everybody's co-opting the term organic: For me the big factor is sustainable production. For my customers, I have to hit them where their taste buds are," and that means fresh and local.


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Bruce Sherman, chef-owner of North Pond restaurant, Chicago.


"As a cook, it's all about taste, and nine times out of ten it's going to taste better because of the way it's been grown. With organic, it's not been produced at the cost of damaging the earth or the soil.


"I want to avoid environmental damage for my daughters and my daughters' daughters. We chefs are not good on long-term things. Our outlook tends to be short-term gratification, the immediacy, the spontaneity of the profession. We need to be more award of the long-term implications, to think a generation or two down the line.


"I work with small farmers, there's a movement toward that, being more sensitive to the environment."


He points out that some farmers practice organic farming but haven't necessarily made it official. "Some of these farms are so small they can't afford certification that costs thousands of dollars and takes three years."


Sherman is also a member of Chefs Collaborative.


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Michel Nischan, chef, cookbook author and advocate of good, healthy food is teaming up with actor Paul Newman to establish the Dressing Room restaurant, in Westport, Conn., scheduled to open late September, Nischan says.


It will serve updated traditional dishes, based on the great regional foods this country used to have before the industrial revolution, he says. "We want to revive heirloom recipes and we had to start with the agriculture because it all goes back to the ingredients," he says. The ingredients will include organic and local produce and -- what he referred to as the gold standard -- food produced on biodynamic farms.


"Basically, biodynamic means that everything you generate comes from your land: animals, trees, plants, water -- you're in complete control, with complete stewardship of the land."


Organic standards are very important, he says, dealing directly with toxic inputs into the farming environment. But economics plays a role: Farmers have gone organic because of the support they've received. They go organic when they know the market is there, and that gives them the financial means to get certified.


"The USDA certification is a double-edged sword," Nischan says. "It's amazing to have the standard but it's difficult for the small guys. The support of a cluster of local restaurants can make all the difference."


Nischan says artisan cultivation practices, including organic, help determine how produce tastes, whether it's more or less salty or sweet. "You can definitely taste the difference." He compares farmers with chefs in the way farmers work with the soil to get the best results for each vegetable.


Cultivating the organic way isn't easy, he says, speaking from experience. "I have a 9,000-square-foot organic garden in my backyard and it's hard work." He grows different varieties of lettuces, cabbages, soft and hard squash, eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, okra and beans, a bounty that feeds his family, with plenty still left to can, and to give to chef friends.


For the regular family buying produce at the supermarkets, he suggests switching to organic step by step: "Make a start with just one organic choice -- apples, say. Everyone eats apples!"


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Chef Eve Felder, associate dean of culinary arts, Culinary Institute of America, said that the institute does not have an official stand on organic food, although it's included among issues and choices which they teach students to consider.


"The way we approach education is that our students need to be aware of all aspects of the food industry -- from farm, land and ocean to table."


Students attend seminars that include visits to small farms, and "we expose students to a plethora of information" -- including on organic products and locally grown foods of Hudson Valley farmers.


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In her book, "Chez Panisse Fruit" (Harper Collins, 2002) Alice Waters, restaurateur, teacher and advocate of sustainable farming and farmers markets, writes:


"As we do at Chez Panisse, you must seek out and encourage the artisanal producers of organically grown food who are daring to carry on this noble work despite the encroaching values of a fast-food nation."


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A feature in the August, 2006, issue of Food & Wine magazine asks "What does eating well really mean?" This includes comments on genetic engineering from food scientist Harold McGhee, author of the acclaimed "On Food and Cooking" (Scribner, revised 2004).


He's lucky enough to be able to go to the farmers market every week, he says. But what works for many people in this country does not necessarily work for the world as a whole. The world's top four food crops -- corn, rice, soybeans and wheat -- feed billions of people and take up millions and millions of acres, he writes.


"If you can tweak their genetic makeup so they're a few percent more efficient or require a few percent fewer acres, that translates to huge plots of land. ... Given where we are, if genetic engineering is properly and thoughtfully applied, it might actually help limit the further encroachment of human activities on the environment by making food production more efficient."


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Great Performances, New York City-based catering company, is celebrating the first tomato crop from the company's new organic farming operation upstate by offering a month of "tomato-centric" menus at six of its restaurants.


Growing their own tomatoes locally works well for the company, for quality and for the principles of organic growing as well as cost-wise, says Katy Sparks, chef and cookbook author, culinary vice president.


"We're not an all-organic company, but here we do have an opportunity to raise food locally. Our minimum standard is naturally raised. I'm really upset by chemicals." They only advertise organic when they can get it on a consistent basis, she says.


Organic is now mainstream "and I don't see a downside to that," she says. "But agribusiness has jumped on the bandwagon and super-serious people have moved beyond labels. For me it's a question of trust. As a chef I have relationships directly with the vendors -- so that's why it's so fantastic to grow our own and then we know where it's come from."


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Bill Buford in his best-selling book, "Heat" (Knopf, 2006), writes about making pasta with eggs:


"... I saw that an egg was modern pasta's most important ingredient, provided it was a very good egg, which was evident (or not) the moment you cracked it open. If the white was runny, you knew the egg had come from a battery-farmed animal, cooped up in a cage, and the pasta you made from it would be sticky and difficult to work with. ... The yolk was also illuminating. The nasty store's were pale yellow, like those most of us have been scrambling for our urban lives. But a proper yolk is a different color and, in Italian, is still called il rosso, the red bit, arising from a time when you ate eggs in spring and summer, the egg season, and they came from grain-fed, half-wild, not just free-ranging but virtually proprietorial chickens that produced a yolk more red than yellow, a bright primary intensity that you can see today if you are lucky enough to get your eggs not from a supermarket but a local mercato or small farm."


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John Silver of D&G Organic Farm, Yaphank, N.Y., offered an opinion on the chemical-free organic produce being sold at the farm stand where he was working in New York City's Union Square Greenmarket: "Chemicals interact with food and that takes away taste. Also, we leave our tomatoes to be vine-ripened -- that way the natural enzymes of ripe tomatoes give them a better taste."


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Source: Associated Press


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