Are chefs who exalt seasonal ingredients showing dedication or a lack of imagination? One restaurant-goer plots a mini revolt.
For a couple of weeks last winter, I went on a kale-eating spree. I didn’t do this on purpose, exactly. I was making my way through a list of newish New York restaurants I wanted to try, or to revisit because fall had surrendered to winter and I knew their menus would have changed. Most of these places had Dickensian names, names broken by ampersands, or names that sounded like old Vermont family farms. Many had menus freshly jotted on chalkboards, the provenance of the main ingredient in each dish noted. And every last one of them was serving a kale salad. Not long into my dining tour, right around the time I confronted a version with apple and dry Jack at a restaurant a block away from where I’d just had a version with apple and cheddar, I began to regard kale salad the way, as a kid, I viewed my mom’s second flounder dinner in the same week: with resentment.
My spree came to an end at a perfectly lovely, smart young Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. It’s not that I was looking forward to carciofi—I knew not to expect out-of-season artichokes at a place known for its market-driven menu. But I didn’t expect to be offered a kale salad. I felt betrayed, sitting there on my stool clutching a season-befitting quince cocktail. I felt like a road warrior so disoriented by sameness, I didn’t know what hotel I was in anymore, never mind what city.
What followed my kale bender, as often does benders, was a mild depression. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Of all the things to complain about, I was criticizing chefs for systematically removing stringy asparagus from my winter plate and replacing it with the sweetest, tastiest, most environmentally beneficent produce around. The proliferation of seasonally driven menus, albeit a trend mostly still confined to a certain kind of restaurant in a certain kind of town, promised better dining experiences and a smaller culinary carbon footprint for America—a win-win. Come spring, I could count on more chefs than ever to rain morels, fiddleheads and ramps down on me. And I was dreading it.
“I came back from Rome in the spring of 2004 to a rampapalooza,” recalls journalist Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic for the New York Times, reflecting on the early days of seasonal fever. “I remember thinking it was great that chefs were exalting the seasons, but also: Do I need to eat this many ramps?”
I remember those days, too. I was practically braiding ramps into headbands, reveling in Mario Batali’s embrace of spring produce, in Dan Barber’s more priestly devotion to seasonal ingredients, and in the way powerful tastemakers like these chefs were beginning to alter menus all over New York City. Ramp season—and rhubarb, asparagus and strawberry season—was like Christmas. But then Christmas started coming every day. And even more distressingly, seasonally driven menus began to feel less like a genuine celebration of good ingredients and more like some kind of manifesto. “Ramps speak to a lot of different restaurant vanities right now,” Bruni says. “They have become more of an ideological, moral statement than a gustatory one.”
To be fair to ramps, they didn’t start this trend. The 21st-century seasonal-food movement began four decades ago, when Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She established the hallmarks of seasonal cooking: locally grown ingredients, simply prepared. These days, the “simply prepared” part is what many critics of slavishly seasonal menus lament. It’s not the zeal for seasonal produce that’s the problem, they say; it’s the lack of imagination that chefs bring to the task of cooking it. Illustration © Shout.
But the point isn’t that a dish has to be complicated to be worthwhile, or that a gratifying restaurant experience requires culinary acrobatics that a home cook could never perform. I’ve had enough plates of first-of-the-season asparagus kissed with grill heat and olive oil to know that the simplest dishes can have the power of a thunderclap. My problem with seasonal menus is homogeny. It’s not knowing where I am and whose food I’m eating. It’s feeling like the chef cares more about being in sync with the season—and if I’m being paranoid, the culinary zeitgeist—than he or she cares about creating an original dish, or for that matter, pleasing me.
It’s still a question worth asking: Is damnably simple food the problem with all this seasonal cooking? The answer, even on the other side of a kale spree, is no. “It’s our job to seek out the best ingredients,” says Jason Fox, the chef at Commonwealth in San Francisco. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back for that and then not take considered steps to turn those ingredients into something magical.” When Fox gets his hands on spring’s first ramps, he might whip them into a chilled soup garnished with tempura-ed ramp tops, baby fava beans and a dollop of aioli spiked with Meyer lemon. Seasonal, yes. But also totally inspired.
Feeling less like a fool and an ingrate, I began to look at the bright side again—and it proved, of course, to be a big, beautiful bright side. At Chez Panisse, the chefs continue to unfurl hyper-seasonal menus daily. But fried rabbit with sweet-and-sour onions, currants and broccoli? That doesn’t make me tired; that makes me hungry. Even if too many chefs let “seasonal” stand in for “good,” there are restaurants in every corner of the country doing ingenious work with the best of what’s grown around them: Commis in Oakland, California; Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon; Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to name only a few. The chef at the restaurant I work for in Brooklyn changes his menu regularly, without fanfare. You’re not expected to applaud him for noticing that celeriac is in its prime—you are expected to applaud him for thinking to marry it with mascarpone, scallions and Piave.
Fingers crossed, we’re in the midst of a significant but finite period in the evolution (or perhaps, more accurately, devolution) of American cuisine, moving back to an era before factory farming and before anytime-anywhere produce was the norm. If so, I expect only more seasonal food to come. I also expect, or at least hope for, a rebalancing. Let a reliance on seasonal produce become a given. Let fearless, pioneering restaurants that apply original ideas and techniques to seasonal produce prosper. And equally important, let stellar restaurants without a seasonal flag fluttering out front continue to thrive. We need them to remind us what going to a restaurant is supposed to be about in the first place: pleasure.
When Sara Jenkins opened her second New York City restaurant, Porsena, last winter, she created a minor stir by declaring that the menu wouldn’t be especially seasonal. “I buy not-local asparagus in February,” Jenkins told me. “Even in ancient times, food was shipped left, right and center. We get so obsessive about things that we tend to make eating a chore. It’s one thing we’ve never really picked up from Europe—how to take great pleasure in eating.”
In that spirit, I resolve to stop thinking of eating a cherry tomato in January as the equivalent of smoking a cigarette inside or telling a politically incorrect joke. And the next time I see a grim-faced soul ingesting what’s clearly not his first kale salad of the season, I’ll quietly slip him the following recommendation: any month but August, the sliced tomato salad at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn (or any steak house, really). And a bowl of seasonally agnostic spaghetti with clams at Porsena, which is no slave to the farmers’ market—only to excellent cooking.
Katherine Wheelock is a writer and editor who also works for the restaurant Roberta’s in Brooklyn, New York.