Fortunately we don’t get too many negative letters at Craigie Street Bistrot, but every once in a while we get one that is excruciatingly painful. I received one recently from a patron who felt that our quality had become uneven. After dining with us over 30 times, she was having second thoughts.
This is the letter every chef dreads—calmly written, from an articulate and loyal customer. Though I know that I/we pour our heart and soul into every plate that leaves our kitchen, our staff had to talk me down from the ledge. After all, consistency is key for a chef and restaurant. Just because I follow my principles and work with small growers, a guest’s meal should not be affected. It is my job to make sure the food on the plate is as intended — no excuses. Period.
However, some of our ingredients are different from conventional ones, and while we absolutely are open to feedback, I can’t change my deeply felt philosophy. At the risk of sounding self-serving, I do have a hunch as to why this concerned guest may have come to her conclusion: In the past few years, with endless hours of research and tasting, we have broadened our list of suppliers so that now virtually every drop of food we serve is organic, sustainably-raised, locally-grown and/or seasonal. As I said, this is what I believe in and it won’t change. But I know there are some tradeoffs.
1. By definition, variability is the very nature of organic and locally grown food. All cows, lambs, pigs, and heads of lettuce are not the same. Having different parents, surroundings and diets, some have more/less flavor, chew, fat, and volume than others. Of course, there’s a way to guarantee more standardization: it’s called non-organic, industrial-scale farming. That’s a tradeoff I’m personally not willing to make. I am gratified that our society is definitely becoming more aware, and opting for the sustainable choices.
2. Organic food is more expensive and, yes, our prices have increased to take this into account.
3. The letter-writing patron came into CSB in March. I am a passionate believer in locavorism but have to admit that March taxes every New England chef’s ability to dazzle. I myself am getting pretty sick of frisee and root vegetables, and am yearning for a nice tomato or asparagus. There’s a solution to that too: it’s called importing from Chile in a container. This is another tradeoff I’m personally not willing to make. This is a seasonal struggle I address every day.
4. Our menu changes almost daily so we can select and serve what’s best in the market that very day. By definition, it might not be the same as something you had on a previous visit that you loved. It really does change every day. At the risk of repetition, this is the third tradeoff I’m not willing to make.
The variations brought on by Mother Nature definitely make things interesting. Does this mean that I think we serve food that tastes different from day to day? Yes, it can happen. Sometimes that’s a joy, and sometimes it’s not. Of course I want to stand by my dishes even in the dark days of March. And, if food from one organic supplier isn’t as consistent as that from some others, it’s completely my responsibility to find the best one. But one person’s definition of “non-identical” is sometimes my definition of “interesting”. This is the exact reason we serve old-world wines – they are full of terroir, character, and variety and that doesn’t appeal to everyone either.
I will do everything I can to learn from what is obviously a sincere letter from a long standing patron. I am open to the possibility that I might learn something that is completely unrelated to the issues I have outlined above. And if I do, you can bet that we’ll do everything in our power to correct it. I may learn something that will lead me to think I have to go back to the drawing boards on some suppliers. But if it relates to our commitment to locally grown, organic food, I’m going to stick to my principles and hope most of our patrons agree I’ve made the right tradeoff. If not, I know I’ll hear from you.