The 1961 edition of the go to encyclopedia of food for serious cooks, Larousse Gastronomique, included a recipe for squirrel and it was considered pretty normal. Maybe not yawnworthy, but normal. Imagine the disbelief of those chefs and food vamps if they could be transported into our high tech 24-7 world of insta television food media. The housewives of the depression era roasted rodent for a Sunday dinner and yet we consider it normal to see chefs on television boasting of everything from bread courses and duck eggs to deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with flavored salts. It’s not so hard to see that it’s all relative.
Food as a whole is a relative thing. Much of it matters not whether it’s rodent salad or truffle ice cream, only whether it’s pleasing to the person eating it. Every time I think about this subject or I am asked what food I like to cook, I come to the same conclusion; it’s the food dummy. It’s all about ingredients. From Beijing to Los Angeles, it just doesn’t matter. We can go on and even argue about what cuisine we prefer or what comfort food makes us feel good when we’re under the weather, but without the enjoyment of the person eating it, it’s all Lutefisk.
As I travel around the world sampling everything from home cooked meals to upscale restaurants to wedding parties, I notice that same thing. A chicken fried steak in Wichita Kansas, fish and chips in Dublin Ireland, or organic vegetables in Boulder, Colorado are all the same in one fundamental way; It tastes good. Restaurants live and breathe to serve the customer. Whether that’s by making the customers happy, earning a profit or the owners and staff simply loving what they do (hopefully it’s all of the above but frequently it’s not), it is ultimately to please the customer. Any restaurant that doesn’t meet this criteria has low customer standards or hasn’t got long to live. O.K., maybe the owner has LOTS of money to just keep the place open for egotistical reasons and that happens too. Restaurant owners and chefs can be a can be an egotistical nightmare. But on a whole, people leaving the front door have to be happy for a restaurant to stay open. Even housewives cooking for dinner guests will get a polite “no, thank you” if something is not worth returning for.
This all brings me to my main point; A good meal can be found anywhere. It can be prepared by anyone. I’ve worked and eaten in more than a few restaurants, hotels, and friends and relatives dining rooms, and with the above named exception, it’s been true every time. I am however surprised often enough at what the local area considers good food since often my personal favorites aren’t on the menu. It’s a pesky thing to see a dining room full of people and dirty tables with elephant sized portions. But I can usually sit down and be objective. I may personally never like why the corporate billion dollar food chains sustain the customer base they do with all our growing knowledge of food and nutrition, but as a businessman and professional taster I understand how it works.
A chef at Spago once told me something I have always remembered and it explains some of the fast food nation status we enjoy (or loathe depending on your point of view). He explained that we go to fast food restaurants (I won’t mention names) because it’s reliable. When we go get that value meal burger and fries, we know the next time we order the exact same thing from the same restaurant that it will be exactly like the last. When we enjoy that salty crunch of a french fry or that juicy cheeseburger we know that the next time it will be just like we remembered it. Corporations have engineered it that way and thrive on it. It’s why we go back again and again. Burger King to the French Laundry it’s the same; we go because it tastes good.
As a chef and food writer among other things, I know that you have to understand where you are to judge anything. Good is good and bad is bad. Ruth Reichl wouldn’t go to Mogadishu and expect New York fare, much less write a column bad mouthing a restaurant because it wasn’t a swanky restaurant. It absolutely matters where you are and you have to remove this filter of “everything here is bad because I’m from *insert your big city name here*” if you have one and see everything with an eye to understanding that idea of “good is good”. I admit I was once a snooty chef as my friends liked to call me. I only understood that great cooking was one thing – the absolute best ingredients you could possibly get prepared by someone who had a far-beyond-superior knowledge of the cuisine. The end. But now I see it for what it is and although truffle risotto is still a comfort food for me, I see now that whether it’s squirrels or 24 hour a day reality food media world, it’s all really the same.
We don’t have to live in Los Angeles or Paris to enjoy good food. Sure, Paris has some great butter and cheeses, (and well, a lot of other foods actually) but you can find good, well prepared food anywhere and small towns are no different. You can always bet that the local establishments cater to their market. It’s how they stay in business. I will never expect to dine at a great vegan restaurant in Shreveport or expect Daniel Boulud to open a bistro in Jerome. But there are great meals to be enjoyed anywhere you live. If you expect foie gras with spiced blackberries and quince everywhere you go, you will be disappointed. But if you understand the idea of anything being possible and give it a chance, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Sure, the portion size may change greatly, the food may be healthier (hey who doesn’t love a good Tommy’s chili cheese burger, right?), and the kitchen might be messier but it doesn’t matter (I’ll get to the health inspectors in another article, I promise). When you put that first bite into your mouth and it tickles your taste buds and it makes you smile inside, that’s what matters. From a Hershey’s chocolate bar that reminds you of the first time you bought one with your hard earned allowance on a summer day to a crunchy medium rare duck breast with oranges that takes you back to a cool evening in Singapore when you fell in love with your wife, you know one thing.
They got it right.