In a marketing move best described as “ironic,” a handful of airlines are now offering land-bound folk a taste of the finest of what they serve in the air. The New York Times reports that Air France, Austrian Airlines, Southwest, and Delta are trying to lure potential passengers by tempting them with samples of in-flight meals “from” celebrity-chefs.
The modus operandi are primarily roving food trucks and pop-up restaurants in cities from New York to Denver (there are also some permanent vendor spots at various sports stadiums). In Washington, passerby were offered European coffee and guglhupf, a type of cake. In Manhattan, crowds lined up for a taste of buckwheat crepes with ham, mushrooms, and Mornay sauce, or duck confit.
I get it. Airline food sucks. Time for an image makeover. But isn’t the airline industry so financially strapped that we’re lucky to get a bag of stale pretzels during a cross-country flight? And just because reknown chefs like Joël Robuchon, Tom Colicchio and Michelle Bernstein act as consultants for airlines and design their menus, that doesn’t mean it’s their food you’re eating on the JFK-to-Paris red-eye.
Most ludicrous, however, is the notion that there’s any basis for comparison against fresh ingredients and made-to-order food versus even the best institutionally-prepared airline crap. I’ve had a couple of decent meals designed by well-regarded chefs when I’ve been lucky enough to fly business class, but in the grand scheme of things, they were still made from flash-frozen, sub-par ingredients whose origins I’d rather not ponder. And if food truck crews are merely nuking actual airline food, then how are they any different from the corner deli with a microwave?
I’m not trying to be a food snob. I just find it interesting that airlines are hopping on two of the hottest culinary trends of the new century–ones largely based upon local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. Yet by all accounts (to hear airline reps tell it), the plane campaign has been wildly successful. Of course. Who doesn’t love free food?Raymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, cites social media as the gateway to this type of “experiential marketing.” “As people are bombarded with marketing messages,” he explains, “real-life interaction with products and brands has become increasingly valuable for airlines to get their message across.”
Valid point, and there’s no doubt this is a clever scheme. But truth in advertising is what wins consumers. What a catering company can pull off on-site is a hell of a lot different from what you’ll be ingesting in the friendly skies. If airlines want to use food to entice new passengers, they need to start by sourcing ingredients in a more responsible, sustainable manner, rather than supporting ecologically detrimental produce, meat, and poultry (talk about carbon offsets). I realize that’s not financially feasible at this time, but supposedly, neither are in-flight meals. As for making it taste good? You got me.
Even when I was a finicky kid subsisting on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I was intrigued by offal. No way in hell would I have eaten what are politely known in the food industry as “variety meats,” but they sure looked intriguing.
As with most of my weird habits, I blame my dad for my fascination with animal guts. Growing up the daughter of a large animal vet, I spent most of my formative years raising livestock, assisting with surgeries and necropsies, and working cattle brandings, so I’ve never been squeamish when it comes to animal innards.
Not until I began working in restaurants, however, did I learn that offal, properly prepared, is absolutely delicious. Many of us were forced to eat liver cooked to the consistency of jerky as kids because it was “good for us.” When I ate my first tender, caramelized calf’s liver, however, the interior creamy and surprisingly mild, I actually enjoyed it. Ditto fried pig’s brains, calf testicles, smoked cow’s tongue, grilled chicken hearts…
In most of the world–Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America–offal has always been a dietary staple due to poverty, and the need to utilize as much of the animal as possible. Glands, organs, and other bits and pieces fell out of favor in America in the late 19th century due to cheap meat (muscle cut) prices. Today, offal is gaining popularity in the States, thanks in part to the increasing emphasis on sustainable food production and supply. British chef Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating has done just as much to inspire American chefs to get in on the offal revolution this side of the Atlantic.
Following the jump, my picks for some of the best restaurants in the United States to specialize in or honor offal (having the occasional sweetbreads or tongue on a menu doesn’t count). Read on for where to find these temples of, as one chef put it, “offal love.”
Incanto, and SPQR: San Francisco
It’s hard to turn on the Food Network these days without seeing Incanto chef Chris Cosentino’s mug. The “Iron Chef” contestant also appears on a handful of other shows, but he’s best known for his obsession with offal. At Incanto, you’ll find Italian-rooted local cuisine heavy on variety meats. Lamb fries (testicles) with bacon and capers; kip (veal) heart tartare Puttanesca style; creative endeavors with cockscombs. If you want to discover how good esoteric offal can be, this Noe Valley spot is it.
SPQR–sister restaurant to the wildly popular A16–is a bustling little sweet spot on boutique-and-restaurant heavy Fillmore Street. The name, an acronym for the Latin version of “The People and Senate of Rome,” is a tip-off that rising star chef Matthew Accarrino’s menu is littered with animal parts. Look for delicacies like a delicate fritto misto of offal (liver, tripe, and sweetbreads), and braised pig ears deep-fried, and served with pickled vegetables and chili oil.
Animal: Los Angeles
As you will see, this round-up is unwittingly a tribute to Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, past and present. But a great chef is a great chef, and it just so happens that 2009 F & W winners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo love them some animal parts. At their first restaurant, Animal, the down-to-earth duo–former culinary school classmates and longtime co-workers–serve up fancified down-home, finger-slurpingly good treats like pig tails, “Buffalo-style,” with celery and Ranch; pig ear, chili, lime, and fried egg, and veal brains, vadouvan (a spice mixtures), apple sauce, and carrot.
Clyde Common, Porland (Oregon)
The menu isn’t always bursting with offal, but this lovely communal dining spot in downtown’s Ace Hotel knows its way with variety meats–it’s where I first fell in love with tongue. Savor Euro tavern-style treats like chef Chris DiMinno’s chicken-fried chicken livers with cress, cucumber, and lemon aioli; pig trotters, or hearty charcuterie boards with excellent (heavy on the bourbon, gin, and rye) house cocktails.
Amis, and Osteria: Philadelphia
Arguably one of the nation’s most talented chefs, Marc Vetri trained in Italy, and now runs a three-restaurant (and growing) empire with his partners in Philadelphia. The award-winning chef’s restaurants Amis, and Osteria, are heavy on the offal, in two very divergent ways. At Amis, chef/co-owner Brad Spence turns out earthy, Roman trattoria specialties, including a menu section called “il quinto quarto.” In ancient Rome, this “fifth quarter” refers to the four quarters of an animal that were butchered and split up amongst the noblemen, clergy, and soldiers. Peasants got the fifth quarter (also known as “what falls out of the animal). Expect hearty fare like trippa alla Romana, Roman tripe stew.
Jeff Michaud, chef/co-owner of the industrial-farmhouse-styled Osteria, turns out intensely rich dishes like Genovese ravioli stuffed with veal brain, capon, and liver, served with a braised capon leg sauce; crispy sweetbreads with Parmigiano fonduta and charred treviso, and grilled pork tongue spiedini with fava beans and pancetta.
The Greenhouse Tavern, and Lolita: Cleveland
Chef/owner Jonathon Sawyer of downtown’s The Greenhouse Tavern is more than just a 2010 F & W Best New Chef. He’s a man who isn’t afraid to make “Roasted Ohio pig face” one of his signature dishes. Granted, this is a hog gussied up with Sawyer’s signature Frenchified gastropub style: cola gastrique, petit crudite, and lime. But Sawyer, who lived briefly in Rome, also pays tribute to the eternal city of love by serving a daily-changing il quinto quarto “with tasty bits.”
the Publican: Chicago
Spicy pork rinds; blood sausage; headcheese; neck bone gravy with spaghetti and Parmesan; sweetbreads with pear-celery root remoulade. the Publican executive chef/co-owner/award-winning chef Paul Kahan is innovative with more than just offal. He uses scraps, blood, and bones to create charcuterie, as well as elegant, “beer-focused farmhouse fare (his father owned a deli and smokehouse; no wonder).” Chef de cuisine Brian Huston leads the show, carrying on the tradition.
The Spotted Pig, New York
Having just received its fifth Michelin star means this Greenwich Village hot spot will continue to be nearly impossible to get into. But it’s worth the wait for chef/co-owner April Bloomfield’s (yet anotherF & W Best New Chef alum) soulful gastropub cuisine. In the never-too-much-of-a-good-thing category: Calf’s liver with crispy pancetta and house-made bacon.
I’ve only tapped the surface of what talented, creative chefs are doing with offal in the United States. Have a favorite restaurant doing something noteworthy with bits and pieces? I’d love to hear about it!
Paris may be one of the global epicenters of fashion, but next week, the city will be more sow’s ear than silk purse (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The TheNew York Times reports that the 48th annual Salon de l’Agriculture will run Feb. 19th to the 27th at the Porte de Versailles. The festival is a showcase for France’s finest livestock (over 3,500 animals will be in attendance) and farm-related events and activities. The featured line-up includes rare cow breeds; sheep-herding competitions; gardening workshops, traditional music, produce stands, farm machinery displays, a children’s area, and panel discussions.
The Salon’s theme for this year is “Farming and Food: The French Model,” inspired by UNESCO, which last November added the French gastronomic meal to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (whew). Food samples and farmstead products will also be available from the winners of the Concours Général Agricole, an annual competition of France’s signature food and drink products. And keep an eye out for Nicolas Sarkozy; the French president traditionally makes an appearance at the festival.
P.S. The twelve euro entry fee may just be the best deal in Paris. Try getting a good cheese for that.
At a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, the UNESCO committee named several cultural practices as important for world heritage and in need of preservation, including Spanish flamenco and a dance called the huaconada performed by the Mito people in the Peruvian Andes.
The BBC report is only preliminary and there’s no news yet about whether the Spanish practice of making human towers that we reported on Monday has made it on the list.
So now you can tuck in to baguettes and burritos with the knowledge that you are preserving important world heritage. As we’ve reported, eating French cuisine the way the French do can keep you thin, and if Mexican food is more your style, check out the best Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles.
[Image courtesy user Styggiti via Gadling’s flickr pool]