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Francis: A New Kind of Locavorism

Francis Lam "was thrilled to hear this week’s challenge was about representing L.A. on a menu."

By Francis Lam

One of the most exciting things in American cooking right now is a new kind of locavorism. Instead of just making sure your tomatoes come from within x-number of miles of your restaurant, chefs are looking at their cities and asking, “What’s the food of my town?”

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In New York, the “Italian American” Torrisi serves food that looks and feels Italian, but shows influence from different cultures from all over New York City: Cavatelli flavored like Jamaican beef patties; cucumber salads made with Jewish pickles; spaghetti sauced like Cantonese lobster. In Houston, the chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly doesn’t do stages at fancy three-star restaurants; he does them at his favorite Korean lunch counter or Vietnamese grocery, and cooks food he learned there. Since the idea of his restaurant is to show people the “underbelly” of Houston’s culinary cultures, he also tells guests who inspired each of his dishes, and asks them to go and eat at those places themselves.

So, I was thrilled to hear this week’s challenge was about representing L.A. on a menu.

I thought Jen’s cauliflower and tahini soup was a smart way to make a rich, creamy dish that vegans could enjoy: this is a super health-conscious town. Some of the other critics didn’t care for it, but I actually loved the way the flavors rolled around in your mouth: first cauliflower, then sesame, then back to vegetal sweetness.

I also appreciated that Neal was basically saying the opposite, that for all its beach-bod-slash-fad-diet reputation, L.A. has been a serious steakhouse town forever. I did wish at the time that he might’ve put a more personal spin on his dish of strip steak, twice-baked potato, and red wine sauce, but in retrospect, I think he could have won me over too if it went all the way and delivered the charred crunch and funky tang of dry aged steakhouse beef. (That’s one of the problems with turning that kind of food into a refined plate: genteel, fine-dining portions of beef will probably overcook in the time it takes to sear a wicked crust onto the meat.)

Bryan also dipped into old school L.A. for inspiration: the Cobb salad (The Brown Derby, circa 1929). Being Bryan, of course, he transformed it into something entirely his own. His dish—silky medium rare salmon sauced with lettuce juices and served with bacon crumbles and egg yolk—was just brilliant; one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten all year. In his cooking, there are so many details that you enjoy in the moment, but then really understand later. In this case, it was the creamy horseradish snow. Despite how delicious the dish was, it would have lacked one of the great pleasures of a good Cobb salad: the crisp, refreshing crunch of cold lettuce. But then you realize you didn’t really miss it, because that snow was there to keep you fresh and chilly.

And then Sang rocked, I mean rocked his beef-n-broccoli. Ruth said it: back in the '90s, when Jean-Georges Vongerichten was blowing people away introducing Asian flavors in his classically French cooking, he noted that soy sauce with butter was the best sauce in the world. But Sang’s fermented black bean, chile, and browned butter sauce is totally today, totally L.A.—we’re embracing deeper, funkier flavors from immigrant traditions, and L.A. is, of course, one of the most diverse cities on earth.

Just taking a look at this tiny sample of the kind of inspiration L.A. provides, you know it’s a hell of a food town.

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