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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Richard Blais' Knife's Edge: Addicted to spring

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Spring, of course, is the time of year looked forward to by all. As the temperatures climb, fever ensues. It's a time to hit refresh, clean up and celebrate life. As a chef, the bounty that it provides comes with the joy of great seasonal produce.

Morels, ramps, rhubarb, and spring lamb are at their peak quality in the spring.  But the price, for the average restaurant chef, comes at a premium. In dollars, and perhaps even job security.

As I started to type this piece, I did a quick summary of the chef positions that I have left … and ones that I was asked politely to leave. And guess what? I've always seemed to move on in late spring, summer.

Why?

Because, as a chef, I have an addiction. Kind of like Tiger Woods, I feel I deserve to have what I want, when I want it. I'm entitled to using only the best ingredients. And super seasonal items in spring are an intoxicating calling. It's shear sex appeal. How can I say no to a few weeks of morels after a long, droll winter of shiitakes? Pass up on ramps or green garlic? Their bulby flavor and long, slender stalks are a haunting seduction. And these are only the gateway drugs into a seedy world of specialized dealers and secret handshakes. You find yourself begging vendors to postdate invoices just so you can have more.  These are items only available this time of year. I can't say no. Yes, I’ll take all of them! That's right, all 120 pounds!

But like any other drug, after the high, reality comes rushing back in.

It's common during the height of spring to see one whole salmon cost $400. A few pounds of morels and ramps cost the same. The simplest dish of Copper River salmon with morels and ramps could easily cost me $17, not including labor or fixed expense. Standard restaurant formula would have me charge $51 for that. In a city like Atlanta, that's bad business. So I'll knock the formula around and eat some cost, all for the glory of spring. I'll charge $36 maybe and bury my food cost. It’s only for a couple of weeks! It's celebratory. I can stop whenever I want!

As a sidebar, I'm not really sure I actually like morels. I LOVE their physical look and aesthetic. I LOVE that they represent wild food. I LOVE that they're perceived as fancy. I even love that they're in the logo for Charlie Trotters. But I'm not sure I LOVE their flavor. Especially the blonde ones.

Another side note: Want to see a very sad, expensive display? Go head down to the Whole Foods mushroom display. In Atlanta, they actually procure an excellent variety. Expensive as they are to me, they are even more so at retail. And really expensive after they go through the natural dehydration process as they sit on the shelves, unpurchased for a week or so. There’s a sadness there akin to a puppy mill.  Go adopt some blue foots and chanterelles, you'll feel better for giving them a nice home.

Anyway, back at the restaurant, the invoices start to pile up. Guests are happy, sure. And they should be! They're getting the best ingredients for a great value. But in the end, when all that's left is a phone call in late July asking for payment from May for a few thousand dollars for a variety of mushrooms ... well, let’s just say it makes for some tension-filled management meetings.

Spring fever can easily land chefs in hot water.

Or better yet, make their blood boil as they have to defend their craft to those who don't know better. Or worse, to the ex-chef, investor/restaurateur that should know better. Great chefs have to buy great stuff. It's really that simple. And what I’m talking about is why there aren't many great restaurants. And why haute cuisine, at least for now, is in a long, lingering hibernation.

Even at home this can be an issue. I know that the Saturday trips our family takes to the Morningside Farmers Market make for great, healthy eating. I know they also make for a higher family food cost. Luckily, my family CEO, my wife, understands the value. And even more luckily, my kid digs vegetables. My job there is secure at least.

I've joked around with a chef buddy of mine over the years that I can specifically blame one particular vendor for my departure from at least three restaurants. I won't out the vendor here, but more to the point I can specifically blame morels, ramps and wild salmon for those exits.

They've been the whiskey, cocaine and prostitutes of my addiction to spring.

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