Foraging, beef tendon snacks part of a new age of austerity in dining

Caviar, foie gras, inch-thick veal chops, baby vegetables as tiny as your pinky finger, first-growth Bordeaux and California cult Cabernets — once these were the hallmarks of fine dining.

But today, even at great restaurants, you’re likely to encounter ingredients that a few years ago might not have been served even for staff lunch. Pork belly and sardines, kale and Brussels sprouts, wines made in garages in regions you couldn’t point to on a map — this is the new face of fine dining.

Forget the old definition of luxury. We are entering the age of fashionable austerity, with the search for flavor going ever lower on the food chain.

“We have begun to realize how much people’s notions of delicious have been based on scarcity, not on what tastes best,” says Anya Fernald of California-based Belcampo Meat Co., which is planning to introduce a snack based on beef tendon.

In many ways, this change represents the last 30 years of food history compressed into a single movement, one that combines economic recession hangover, the desire to eat well while doing good and a willingness (even eagerness) to try foods that before might have earned an “ew” rather than a “wow.”

So far, we’ve seen just the leading edge of this trend at a few notable restaurants, but don’t be surprised if a couple of years from now you too are picking weeds by the side of the road, er, “foraging,” to make salad. Because, well, all the best restaurants will be doing it.

“We’re refocusing our priorities on what we spend money on,” says Jeremy Fox, chef at Rustic Canyon restaurant in Santa Monica. “Instead of luxury, we’re focusing more on what makes the world a better place and what will make you more healthy.”

The movement probably got its start at farmers markets, as chefs discovered that even commonplace vegetables could be delicious if grown properly (and could be sold if you attached the name of a well-known farmer or a specific variety). Spinach might be a snore, but “Bloomsdale spinach from Weiser Family Farms” has cachet.

“I once heard chef Ferran [Adria] say, ‘A peach is just as majestic as foie gras,’ and that really rang true,” says Gary Menes, whose long-awaited new Le Comptoir restaurant is a 12-seat jewel box featuring mostly fruits and vegetables he grows at a Long Beach garden.

“Why should anything in season be less than anything else? When it’s at the peak of its season, everything is at the height of its power.”

That broad-minded approach is spreading to every part of the plate.

In seafood, where both the opportunities and need for eating lower on the food chain are even greater, creative chefs are serving fish that might once have been fed to pets, but now the populations of traditional luxury species have plummeted nearly to the point of disappearing.

“Take oily little fish like sardines and mackerel,” says Michael Cimarusti of Providence restaurant in LA, one of the finest seafood restaurants in the United States. “Not so long ago, they were considered by many to be trash fish, but now they’re among the more rarefied ingredients.

“There’s only so much wild French loup de mer and only so much perfect, beautiful pink salmon in the world. It does behoove us to eat ingredients that may be a little less prestigious but aren’t as scarce.”

This approach is also true with meat. Chefs are discovering the rewards of working lower on the animal — away from the scarcer tender cuts and more toward the tough but delicious heavily worked muscles, which are much more plentiful.

“When you think about what’s absolutely delicious, is a rib-eye really better than top round?” asks Fernald, whose Belcampo is pioneering field-to-fork production of beef and other meats. “You can have preferences for what actually tastes best to you, but I think you have to acknowledge that that’s strictly a personal preference and that the perceived value of those cuts reflects more scarcity than true deliciousness.”

Fernald’s company is experimenting with ways to get customers to try parts of the animal that once may have been shunned. She reports great success with chicken gizzards and hearts in Belcampo’s San Francisco restaurant and predicts the same for its next project: snacks made from braised and deep-fried beef tendon.

Of course, there’s more to restaurants making these changes than simply substituting ingredients. Oily little fish and gristly cuts of meat need to be cooked thoughtfully to get the most flavor.

“It takes more work, it takes a little more know-how and technique,” says Rustic Canyon’s Fox. “Whether it’s curing or braising or confiting rather than just frying, the flavors will be more nuanced and interesting and layered.”

Menes, who has been nicknamed “the vegetable whisperer” for his knack of drawing out the deepest flavors in even the most common ingredients, agrees.

“I think it all comes with awareness,” Menes says. “We’re aware of what we’re eating. We’re aware of better techniques. We’re not going to be fed this garbage that caviar and foie gras and truffles or turbot are the only majestic items. Escoffier believed that, but that was his time, not ours. Today it’s all about trying to find what is really special about where we live. That’s our caviar.”