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Moving from mainstream to gourmet means special products prepared in special ways

Beneath it all, “gourmet” means a food, beverage and/or presentation that is unique, highly flavorful and typically more expensive than commodity items.

Whip up a holiday appetizer like Chef Sally Hursts’ (chefsallyjane.com) roasted fingerling potatoes with caviar and smoked salmon, which she did for the Today Show’s online cooking class last December, and you’d be pretty hard-pressed to call it anything short of gourmet.

DSCF3602Mouthwatering heirloom tomatoes. (Photo by Christina DiMartino)This extreme side includes ways that chefs are using fresh produce items that are in season and readily available. Besides giving them an edge over competing eating establishments, they can gain personal acclaim for their techniques.

Take David Bouley for example, founder of Bouley and Brushstroke Restaurants in New York City. His chef staff whips up luncheon tasting menus that read like a gourmet dictionary: jumbo French white asparagus and roasted green asparagus with pencil asparagus, basil dressing in a comté cloud carpaccio of kampachi, big eye tuna and triped amberjack prepared in a Mediterranean manner, salad of Boston Bibb, red watercress, fresh Hawaiian hearts of palm, julienne of royal trumpet mushrooms.

It also seems that the foodservice industry is getting a boost from the Baby Boomer sect.

According to Martha C. White, an NBC News contributor, in her July 17 article titled “Restaurants rethink menus to woo baby boomers,” White said that after years of chasing the young and the hip, restaurants are realizing that young people aren’t the ones keeping the industry afloat — their parents are.

Pre-recession, young adults were the restaurant regulars. According to market research firm NPD Group, adults under the age of 48 visited a restaurant, on average, 240 times in 2008. Today’s young adults struggle to move out of the house, let alone eat out nearly five times a week.

White’s article quotes Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group. Riggs said, “It’s the economy. They’ve learned to do without; they’re cooking at home.”

In response to this generational change in dining out habits, White said that restaurants are giving their menus Boomer-friendly makeovers. They've turned to ethnic ingredients and spices to deliver novelty, along with a jolt to their taste buds.

That, the article suggests, is why specialty items like chili peppers are getting a market boost these days. But she also suggests that other bold Latin American and pan-Asian flavors are creeping onto mainstream American menus.

To support — and certainly also to whet — the gourmet appetite, gourmet retail stores have surfaced across the country in recent decades. Stores like TownGourmet Fruit & Vegetables in Hewlett, NY, Exofruits, a fine food store in Côte-des-Neiges Montreal, Virginia Gourmet, in Williamsburg, VA, Eataly, only one of over a dozen “top” New York City gourmet stores named by the Huffington Post, and you start to realize that there’s probably few cities and towns across North America where you cannot find a reliable store to buy gourmet fruits and vegetables today to satiate the “foodie” appetite.

Chefs and consumers alike are taking full advantage of the locally grown trend to help fulfill their demand for gourmet specialty foods. Some say there are few things that are as gourmet as those first out of the field New Jersey tomatoes. Even so, American consumers have spent the past more than five decades getting used to having what they want and when they want it. And if that means they want gourmet blueberries in December, they’re getting them from offshore. We simply aren’t ready to give up our now over-developed gourmet palates regardless of the time of year. And, we’re strongly drawn to media venues that portrait indulgence.

Who could forget that fabulous meal in the movie, “Babette's Feast?” According to Epicurious.com, almost a quarter-century after the film’s release, the culminating scene of this quietly urgent Danish drama still stands as the most beautifully rendered depiction of a lavish meal ever committed to celluloid. But it's not just spectacle for spectacle's sake, the triumphant banquet sequence also communicates volumes about the movie's central theme: the eternal tug-of-war between self-denial and sensual gratification.

Or “Like Water for Chocolate,” an enchanting magical realist drama about the power of food and how it makes every guest at a wedding act out bizarre behaviors.

And then there was “Eat Drink Man Woman,” a story about an emotionally repressed Taipei family whose only real means of communicating between the head of the household and his three headstrong daughters is via the elaborate Sunday dinner he cooks for them every week.

There is, apparently, little that we would not do to satiate our demand for “gourmet.”