Critic's Notebook

Does Restaurant Produce Have to Be Perfect?

A restaurant critic may be changing her mind.

By Kathryn Robinson December 5, 2016

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Another iteration of that pork, this time with perfect peaches, at Butcher's Table.

It was the last sweet moments of peach season in the Northwest, so on my first visit to Butcher’s Table  I eagerly ordered the pork-with-smoky grits dish which featured them. It was a solid preparation elevated considerably by the lush fruit, which was served at the height of its ripeness, bursting with juice.

And most of the slices were bruised.

The question arose: Was I supposed to care? Obviously, visual presentation is one traditional point on a restaurant critic’s rubric. But seeing as how my companion and I jousted forks for the last slice, the peaches more than scored on what I consider the more critical standards of flavor and texture.  

It got me wondering if visual perfection should still hold the significance it once did before we became aware of the global food waste crisis and before we came to understand organics. Most food-savvy consumers know that organic produce is very often the highest quality produce, grown without pesticides and thus often sweeter and more nutritious—and more blemished and scarred—than produce grown with them. Making use of all fruit, not just pretty fruit, represents a more sustainable stewardship of the earth's resources. Does all this invest ugly produce with more cachet?

I called Butcher’s Table owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier—a restaurateur known for his dedication to freshness and seasonality. “I’d say my base style is pretty rustic,” he said. “I don’t peel carrots; they have a delicious bitterness. I love using stems, like chard or pickled fennel stems. I think that traditional higher-end cuisine filters out stuff that’s really flavorful and nutritious. We don’t have any directive not to discard bruised peaches, but it’s certainly not something I’m embarrassed about.”

Certain Seattle chefs have made a brand of the stems-and-all ethos; I’m thinking of Matt Dillon, who creates dishes like a roasted chicken on yogurt I savored at Upper Bar Ferdinand, which was pocked with turnips whose stems and ragged greens rose up off the plate the way they might have looked growing in a garden.

Bruises, the prolific restaurateur Tom Douglas reminded me, reveal fruit that’s ripe. And though he says he’d have probably turned a bruised peach into a sambal or a vinaigrette—“We do eat with our eyes,” he said—he applauds the popular drift away from “beautiful, shiny, waxed-up” display fruit in favor of fruit that tastes like fruit's supposed to taste.

Restaurant criticism is not a static enterprise; it can and should evolve with an evolving culture. And so the question: Should critical standards around visual presentation change as "ugly food" becomes more culturally central?

Comment please; I'm interested in your opinions.  

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