Friday, February 18, 2011

Slow Food...

These are razor clams. According to twitter, they are all the rage.

 Gael Greene 

We had razor clams three nights in a row last week. John Dory, Bar Basque,Dressler. Good but not a match for Esca's. 

 Matt Duckor 

@ Casa Mono's razor clams predate the trend and are excellent.

 Eddie Huang 

@ cantonese razor clams predate the trend by at least a couple dynasties... ...

Gael and Matt know their shit. Not trying to call them out on anything. It's their job to report trends and identify them, they do it well. They didn't determine the way Americans and to a certain extent post-modern foodies around the world dine. This is just how they found it. You may think, Eddie, why would you care if razor clams are a trend or not? Let em eat razor clams! It's not that simple.

From Skate to pork belly to razor clams, there's always something that's priced reasonably, previously ignored, and able to fill a role on a menu. That's where these things start. Your purveyor comes to you with a new product, say, Mangalitsa Pork and asks you to try it. It was almost extinct in Hungary as a lard animal but now they want you to experiment with it. There's an introductory rate. The pig really isn't good for anything but lard, yet, you can charge a premium for the experience and novelty. Call it kobe pork! While the purveyor is showing it to you, he's showing it to 5 other chefs in your neighborhood, boom. We have a trend. 

The Mangalitsa isn't a bad product. It's interesting. I'd like to spend some time with it, slowly integrate it, and figure out how to deliver it at a fair, sustainable price so it isn't here today/gone tomorrow on my menu. Am I selling a trend or selling a good dish? By the time you cycle through those thoughts, Mangalista prices go up for a summer, then they level out. But by the time it levels out, the eating public is bored. They just paid $30+ for a mangalitsa experience that doesn't really out-do your average berkshire. With pork, the problem has never been marbling. With the loin, YES, the Mangalitsa has an advantage there, but in terms of the rest of the animal, especially belly or butt, I doubt the berkshire lacks marbling. On top of that, chefs are coming up with specials and pushing trends before truly understanding the product because they don't have to. The novelty sells itself. 

It's a disservice to the product and the eating public. I'm sure Batali knows exactly what to do with cannolicchi (razor clam) and ditto for April Bloomfield with Mangalitsa, but they aren't the problem. It's the copy cats. They produce cheap knock-off interpretations or worse yet, drop razor clams on some shitty farm-to-table-to-bedford ave restaurant that thinks cooking simply involves buying a new locally sourced ingredient and putting some pink sea salt on it. There's no craft. Just taste the simplicity, the essence, the natural flavor. No asshole, COOK it. 

Razor clams aren't a trend. You've been able to find them all around Chinatown or Italian neighborhoods for decades. Just look at the search results for "razor clams" on yelp, it's a who's who of Chinese, Korean, Italian, and Eater Top 38 restaurants. They are on lowly Chinese diner type menus such as Wo-Hop, but once the P.A.C. (People Above Canal) play it out, the price goes up and you may see it disappear from certain menus never to come back. You have to realize, it may only take New Yorkers 5 months to cycle through a food trend like Mangalitsa or razor clams, but that's just the beginning. For the next year, you'll find it in DC, Philly, Boston, Miami, Seattle, Portland, Austin... God, and at some point dare I say, it'll be in Orlando. Just like "the man" took the black eyed peas from the underground and sold them back to us auto-tuned with a chick that should have been in the WWF, we are going to be buying back razor clams at $20 a pop in chinatown soon. But after a year or two, someone will announce that razor clams are endangered and that it'll take another 20 years to repair the beating they took during the "trend". Which sucks, because those consuming it as a trend couldn't care less that it's gone. But for the rest of us, it isn't a trend, it's a staple. 

It is better for food culture if we are slower to absorb new ingredients into the canon so that they have staying power. I understand that the foodielution in America is only about 15 to 20 years old, but this isn't a trend either. I STILL somehow end up on dates with birds who only eat chicken (canibals) and don't eat bone meat. There's a lot of work to do and we aren't even close. On the flip side are line cooks from 2 or 3 star restaurants who hang out at Baohaus measuring cocks. "Oh, dude, pork belly is so played out!" "Yeah, fuck foie gras, Mugatu is so hot right now." You guys are a bunch of Zoolanders. People "in the scene" (puke) need to dig their heads out of their asses and understand that the rest of the nation still subsists primarily on 80/20 ground beef and chicken breasts. 

I'm not saying we should serve burgers and chicken breast, but if we look like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off running from new ingredient to new ingredient and the public can't follow, well, then this whole exercise is just intellectual masturbation cause there is no lasting effect on national eating habits. Maybe that isn't our concern, but again, everything is everything. If we can't affect the rest of America, then all this sustainable talk is for nothing because they're going to eat McDonald's ground beef until it kills us. We may go down with Mangalitsa saddle bags, but we're going down nevertheless. The rate of consumption during these trends is unsustainable for most products. They need to be given time to grow and meet demand slowly. We also have to manage demand so that people don't dismiss our products with only a surface understanding. I am somewhat passionate about this cause I saw it happen to street wear. We thought we were the epicenter in New York, boutiques were busy, and certain brands were selling across the nation, but we were packaged as a "trend". People didn't understand what we were trying to say, they just recognized a common aesthetic between certain designers and stigmas formed. People bought the "look" not the message or the actual soul of what was going on. When that happens, you have no longevity. As soon as the recession hit, every one went down. There was no customer loyalty because they hadn't bought into the culture.

Beyond taking an item out of the price point where ethnic restaurants can deliver consistently, there's a level of disrespect. I've never been a respectful guy myself, but I do believe in a nod to the Gods. Whether it's French, Italian, Chinese, or the clam diggers in Long Beach, Washington, l try to peep the history before I talk about trends or innovations and then proceed to credit the proper Iron Chef. I couldn't find out who was first in razor clams, but from my research it's common all over Italy, the Pacific Northwest, and China. Just looking at Chinese history, razor clams have been harvested for over 500 years in Fujian and Zhejiang, which is why you see them more in Manhattan Chinatown as opposed to Flushing: more Fukienese people. As Chefs, don't we have a responsibility to educate? As writers, is it enough to just identify the trend? Spend the extra 30 minutes and shout-out the OG's. That's all I'm saying, that's all Kool Herc wants, and if Jay-Z can oblige Kool Herc during Home and Home, then we can too.

As consumable art, food lends itself to competition, but why are we in such a rush? Does it really matter if you were first in line? As eaters, it makes sense if you are more concerned with understanding the food, experiencing it, and soaking it in. There is no need to run around town eating, dismissing, and checking things off a list. One of my favorite things is to take a train to a neighborhood I don't know and just collect menus representing a certain style of cuisine, perhaps Eastern European in Brighton Beach or Coney Island. I'll look at them all and try something new, then I'll go back in a month and try something else in the same vein. I keep going back trying the same food item at different places until I develop a foundation and frame of reference. I remember my first piroshky in Seattle (Piroshky Piroshky). I told every one about it, how awesome piroshky was, but I didn't realize how dope that first hit was until I started eating it more. It's really fucking hard to make a good piroshky. Now, imagine the inverse if all I had were horrible Brooklyn Piroshky? I never would have given the one in Seattle a shot. It's for your own good to eat slowly. There's only so much you can glean in one sitting. As my mother always said, chew slowly and eat every grain of rice cause anything you leave will be a freckle on your baby mama's face.

P.S. it didn't fit in the flow of the post, so I didn't mention, but I am guilty of selling a trend as well. people wanted cheeto fried chicken from the blog, a lot of people were mashing up Asian-Down Home American, so I got caught up in a trend and introduced some really shitty items at Xiao Ye. I didn't intentionally sell shitty items, they were just shitty because I didn't take the time. It happens. No one's perfect. Live and learn.


  1. awesome post dude! couldn't agree more. it's going to suck when we can't get it in a chinatown restaurant or flushing hot pot joint.

  2. So should I not partner up in the importation of 'Litsa shoats to the West Coast? I thought I was just helping the cause. Seriously, I'm all shits n giggles on here most of the time but... now I'm feeling like a Zoolander.

    NB: I was just telling the Korean chickie about the rice in bowl vs. pimples on husband thang last night. She never heard of it. Lucky my face isn't F'd up cuz she never finishes her bowl.

  3. Mr. Huang,
    I read your post on Salon and think you raise a lot of good points. Trending ingredients can have a detrimental effect on the sourcing of said ingredients and can compromise the quality of the food (Sea Salt fries at Wendy's anyone?).

    My question is what is the alternative? At least for the moment people expect a great deal of restaurants to be fluid; changing menus, different sources as a means of comparison, new/"exotic" items prepared in ways that make them less intimidating. I think that is cowardly eating but I think its common.

    It seems as though your problem is with an increased price as a result of demand and then the way an item gets treated as passe once its no longer on hot menus. Would there be as much of an issue if the item was seasonally popular so the dynastic purveyors of razor clams could foresee price jumps and react accordingly?

    Restaurants are going to have trends, out west goat is getting jocked hard and now my taquerias are paying loads for meat for birria, but I don't think demand for birria is going anywhere after farm to tablers get tired of braising for 12 hours.

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  5. Honestly Eddie,

    This was brilliant. I am a food maniac, it's how I was raised in an Italian family and it's how I grew as a person living in NYC. I have an incredible passion for food, chefs, and the building blocks of a restaurant. This post was informative, and gangster all at the same time. I applaud your writing and support your cause.

    In regards to razor clams, it brought back memories of when I was a kid and we would vacation in Cape Cod. We would go clamming every day and I remember my Uncle John used to sit in a beach chair with lemon,hot sauce, and a clam knife and just shove them down his throat as we dug them out of the ground. People definitely need to be more aware of the history behind what they are eating because like the Blue Fin Tuna one day it'll all be gone. Thanks again, highly enjoyable read.


  6. Eddie you are my hero. Thank you for identifying something that needed to be said, and saying it eloquently.

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  9. sino, mangalitsa is a perfectly fine product i just used it as an example of something that benefits from being "trendy" and it isn't accessible at the price nor does it actually offer something that's needed. i mean, i rarely hear people complain that pork isn't sufficiently marbled besides the loin...

  10. Hey Matt

    I think fluid menus are great. We have one at baohaus with the TV Dinner specials. The issue for me is copy cats. If you see the same ingredient on 3 other high profile menus in the city serving a similar demographic, maybe find something else? A couple restaurants serving a new item isn't going to break the farm, but if every one jumps on the bandwagon, we have a trend.

    It's inevitable. I guess I would just encourage originality for these three reasons: innovation, sustainability, and market pricing. You want the culture to stay innovative, you want the usage to be sustainable, and you want the pricing to be reasonable. Perhaps it's too much to ask....


  11. Eddie,

    Awesome post coming from an awesome point of view. Keep up the great work of educating the masses (i.e. us)!

  12. Thanks Eddie, you really increased my understanding about the restaurant and food trend world. I've been letting it make me go crazy lately, and I'm going to really try to chew slowly, literally and figuratively.

  13. new to your blog but you've totally made me a fan. well said.

  14. well said.

    but who's to blame, really? i don't blame the public. i don't think it's fair to put the onus on joe eater to know the ins and outs of the industry and its "food chain". i do blame, as you mentioned, the copycat restaurants/chefs, but i also blame the blogosphere and twitter.

    to be clear, i'm not blaming the Batalis of the blogosphere, but the copycats. and all the self-absorbed insider wannabes who couldn't care less about what they're eating (or posting about) but only the fact that they're posting something new [to them]. so you have your friends (and their friends, ad infinitum) posting (and re-posting), checking-in, tweeting, texting, "like"-ing, and group couponing/social commercing (which shows up on your facebook wall along with ten other amazing deal offers every day) the new-ish restaurant in town and the smartphone pic they took of the razor clam special they only took one bite of and how can you have slow, sustainable trends? these days, everything is everywhere and on everyone's lips.

    and speaking of trends, your anecdote about the piroshky really hit home because to a lot of people unaccustomed to Korean food, the Korean taco is that piroshky. whether Kogi and Calbi are awesome, some of the n-th derivative wave of trucks will be bad, and far from Korean. so what happens when people get used to this stuff or this is their first intro to Korean food? one can only hope that entrepreneurs will operate with integrity and with reverence for the cultures they are representing as well as the impressionable palates of their diners. taste buds can be like the emotions of angstful teens: highs and lows are extreme and disappointment, betrayal are long-lasting and difficult to undo. so cook with care.

    here's hoping someone affiliated with the Shophouse concept is listening.

  15. Deleting comments with the same words you use in your posts because you're worried about scaring off the link-backers from Salon? I guess it is all about keeping your name in the paper, hunh?

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