Mr. Bour

Food & Beverage

The Challege for the New Professional Chef: Incredibly Fresh Ingredients

And Keeping the Plates Incredibly Simple

By Nicolas Bour, Executive Chef, Ocean House

When I began my journey to becoming a chef twenty-five years ago I could have never envisioned a world that would be literally travelling at light speed, with my guests as critics that carry the weight of a seasoned food writer, and a culture of "Foodies" that would turn my entire industry on its head.

It seems like just yesterday the produce "dude" at my local grocer gave me a blank stare when I asked him if he had any baby French beans in the back cooler because I didn't see any on display. It was as if I had requested a rare species of Amazonian cactus. His eyes seemed to almost pleadingly guide me to the canned vegetable isle a stone's throw away, where I could find some tasteless, mushy version of the common legume used in the preparation of my beloved "Salade Niçoise". As a chef I was spoiled by the ability to pretty much order whatever I needed at any time to produce a myriad of dishes, often using ingredients that my customers "hadn't enjoyed since their trip to the south of France last year" and the veritable reason they were in my restaurant to begin with, they wanted access to that very dish and were willing to pay dearly for it.

That very same trip to the very same produce department a decade later, which by the way has grown to take over half of the store's real estate, has become a mosaic of fruits and vegetables, a tribute to a dozen local farms, ripe tomatoes in the dead of winter, cape gooseberries for the hell of it, and grape flavored apples that god knows who would purchase, let alone eat. The very same question asked a decade before is now posed to the "Director of sustainable produce procurement," who proceeds to offer me a dozen different heirloom beans, from as many local farms, a choice of baby potatoes that would make Idaho blush, as well as all the rest of the ingredients that I need, right down to the sushi grade yellow fin tuna line caught yesterday by his brother's cousin, and some salted capers from Spain to boot.

With the advent of technology, Food Network, Facebook, Instagram, and many other resources for the home cook (chef; everyone is a chef now, or an elite food critic) the demand for ingredients has risen to a fever pitch among the masses. Not to mention the expectation of everything to have a traceable pedigree for its "heirloomness", artisanal, handmade, small batched, hidden secreted source from some tiny valley apparently in a land not unlike Narnia, which had to be produced by a man wearing a lumberjack outfit and a well oiled beard and new old fashioned horned rim glasses.

What does this all mean for the "new professional chef" or better yet grizzled veterans like me and many of my colleagues? To me it means do not panic. What was once overly easy (impressing the masses) now becomes the true challenge. Can we make something they can't in the comfort of their own home kitchen, which these days are often better equipped than our "professional" ones. It means buying incredibly fresh, and keeping it incredibly simple, not throwing dried Peruvian tree bark you found at Acme Gourmet Market on the plate just because you want to have a hundred exotic ingredients on one composition. Stay with what you know and let the ingredients speak for themselves.

Chefs need to both stick to our guns and stick together. One of the best things about this shift is the facilitated connection we are experiencing, both with each other as professionals as well as the farmers, cheese makers, cattle ranchers, fisherman and a long list of boutique producers that show up at every street fair and community farmers market. In my opinion chefs have bonded together in a way that seemed rarified in my early days. A time when several of my more intensely competitive mentors would pale at the idea of sitting down with their competition for a chat, let alone getting together to cook a dinner for their shared customers. Those were times of envy, jealousy and secrecy in some cases.

A very famous French chef that I was fortunate enough to work for in the 90s would hide in his walk in cooler and lock it from the inside while he made his paté and foie gras terrines for fear that anyone might duplicate them! Now you can find a dozen or more how to videos on YouTube with detailed demonstrations of the same recipes, techniques and of course ingredients that once had to be flown in from as far away as Provence.

Social media has a tremendous amount to do with this phenomenon. Chefs are able to observe their peers from a safe distance and approve, or in some cases disapprove, of their efforts with the simple click of a mouse or a brief comment, instead of physically setting foot inside a restaurant to see or taste. Trends that took years to fully develop have spread like wildfire by both chef and patron alike, not only locally or nationally but internationally as chefs and young cooks emulate dishes and cooking techniques from around the globe. On the flip side, home cooks are jumping into the fray with vacuum sealers and immersion circulators in order to post their successes and many times failures. What we chefs call "food fails," the true Schadenfreude of any food service professional, and a hell of a good laugh!

The use of what were once considered undesirable cuts of meat, such as cheeks, necks, bellies, hooves, brains, tongues, and just about every other animal part has also become vital for chefs to stand out in the fray of foodies. Home cooks often fear these cuts and would be afraid to prepare them for family and friends. One has to be able to think very far outside the box, but now whole animal butchery has made a serious comeback, as well as hundreds of grass roots farmers and artisans producing a seemingly infinite number of cheeses, honeys, spice blends, flavored salts and far too many more items to mention. The need to import items from Europe has become literally unnecessary, which in my opinion bodes well for our economy. On the produce front, "micro seasonality" has become an important part of doing business as we capture some of the items. Stonington Red Shrimp, who have a three-week harvest cycle, could be easily missed by even the most dedicated foragers. Or the elusive wild chanterelles that grow in secret places and are removed as quickly as they appear. Those of us who still want to remain relevant face a tremendous push by our customers to offer "something different", which has a serious effect on our beauty sleep, but urges us to continue the dragon chase of professional cooking.

One thing I can personally guarantee is that no matter what the ingredients are, it remains the execution of the dish that is the true key to a successful meal. This cannot be bought, it is learned through years of both success and failure, not tweezers and twenty-three microscopically arranged items you bought on a whim and wanted to arrange on a bed of stones you sourced from the environs of lake Titicaca (AKA Amazon.com). In essence the new wave of foodie fanaticism has been great for chefs, as people finally appreciate that hand harvested scallop, which they might be able to buy at a big box store, is handled by professionals and not cooked to rubber on a $10,000 Viking range at home. At the end of the day, we are still here doing what we do and that is not something you can pick up from the celebrity chefs on Instagram or watching the apparently epic cupcake battles on cable television. Life is indeed still good and professional chefs aren't going anywhere soon. Even the most dedicated home cooks need to get out of the house once in a while.

At the end of the day, what was once old is new again. As in every part of our lives we are constantly searching for that fresh experience to pique our senses and satisfy both curiosity and soul. The so-called artisan of today is in all honesty the farmer of yesterday that has finally gotten the respect they have deserved forever. Thanks to the apparent evolution of the common cook we are all better off, and this trend shows no sign of relenting. As chefs we need to stay the course and evolve with our customer base. The fortunate few have now become the everyday consumer and business has never been better for all facets of the industry. The more big box grocers that carry purple tipped asparagus and fiddleheads the better. As our customers become more educated, they are more willing to accept what we are putting on the plate.

Nicolas Bour is the Executive Chef of Ocean House a of Rhode Island luxury resort. Chef Bour, oversees all culinary operations, including the Forbes Five Star fine-dining restaurant Seasons, a casual Bistro, four outdoor dining venues and all banquets operations. Chef Bour joins Ocean House from Humphreys in San Diego, CA. He was Executive Chef at Loews Coronado Bay in San Diego, where he was instrumental in restructuring the food and beverage program and opened two new dining outlets. Before joining Loews Coronado Bay, Chef Bour founded AVANT Restaurant at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, which was awarded Best Restaurant in 2013 by San Diego Magazine. Mr. Bour can be contacted at 401-584-7000 or nbour@oceanhouseri.com Please visit http://www.oceanhouseri.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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