Chef Todd Fisher Talks Meat In America And His Biggest Take-Away From United States of Food
Chef Todd Fisher of The Kitchen in Sand City, California is the host of Destination America’s upcoming mini-series United States of Food, premiering this Sunday, July 8th. On it, Todd will embark upon a cross-country culinary tour in a three-parter entitled “United States of Bacon,” “United States of Burgers,” and “United States of Steak,” respectively.
We couldn’t help but grill Todd on choosing to celebrate the meat-obsessed culture of America, so often viewed as unhealthy, and economically and environmentally irresponsible. But, he rose to the challenge and stood by paying homage to the great American tradition of insane meat consumption. And he somehow also managed to flatter fine dining establishments who move towards less protein on the plate for the sake of saving diners’ wallets. He also flattered the tree bark-eating hippies (his words, not ours) who denied him his precious foie gras in his home state of California. Basically, Todd Fisher is really awesome at making everyone look good, a skill we often struggle with. He’s sort of like the Ellen DeGeneres of the culinary world. And we mean that in the most flattering way possible. (See? Again, with the struggling.)
The Braiser: We see and hear a lot of chefs talking about the trend of meat reductionism in American fine dining and New American cuisine, or, at the very least, a trend in beef reductionism, for all the economic, environmental, and health reasons at play. So what drew you to Destination America and United States of Food, and documenting the nation in this very protein-centric series? Especially in a time when culinary trends suggest a move away from that and even spin a move away from it as a more “enlightened” way of eating?
Todd Fisher: I’ve always lived in a protein-forward family, so that’s always been — when I was a child we ate a lot of meat, although my father was in the wholesale produce business, so we ate a lot of vegetables as well. I was the kid with broccoli rabe in my sandwich at school, and some of that awkward stuff. But, at the same time, we ate a lot of meat. I would say there’s a white-tablecloth trend that’s doing a protein reduction, and I think there’s economics behind that to reduce the high-cost items. But I don’t think that America as a whole has embraced that entirely.
I think meat is still the driving force for most diners, and their choice of what dinner’s going to be is protein-based and they build around that. I think there’s definitely a meat craze that’s still going on, at least in my world and in the world of Destination America, so we’re pretty confident in the direction we’ve chosen as far as celebrating some of those great American foods.
Like bacon, for instance. The bacon craze is still intense…There is that movement, and I totally understand it, especially in an economic environment for the white tablecloth, we can only charge so much before it starts to hurt our business. So, I think there is that movement but not across all of America.
So do you feel like you’re pandering to Middle America a little bit?
Certainly we were getting a cross section of Middle America. I’m a chef and have done white tablecloths, so I have definitely appealed to all demographics out there. But when it comes to this show, it’s about a road trip that you could certainly take, and hit these places, and have the same experience. It’s about showing America to those that don’t have the opportunity to travel right now, celebrating the people that are working hard, and putting these delicious proteins on a plate and doing what they’ve done for — one place has been there for a century and a half and another has been there for decades. I think it’s a celebration of America and what we’ve done past, present and future.
What restaurant on the tour served up your favorite meal?
Oh, gosh. There was a lot of great stuff. Some of them were great because they were such tremendous classics. Probably my most unique bacon experience happened in Austin, Texas at a restaurant called Bacon. They did a bacon Reuben, and it was corned pork belly instead of corned beef, and it was just tremendous — the pickled sensation that the meat received and the sauerkraut and the Russian dressing and the rye bread. It was not necessarily bacon in its purest, most traditional form, but it was bacon-licious. It was fantastic.
As far as the best steak I had, it was a little tiny place in Greenville, Mississippi called Doe’s Eat Place and it was the best steak I have had in my life, and it was tons of fun.
You call doing the show crossing an item off your bucket list. What would you say was the most important thing you took away from the tour?
It was meeting the people, for sure. The food was fabulous, and seeing America was fun — I hadn’t seen it in that way — but meeting the people behind the scenes that do this every day. As a chef, I really appreciate their craft and it was just neat to see them doing what they did. In one case, a hundred and fifty years they’ve been serving the same hamburger, and it’s not spectacular, it isn’t cutting edge at all. It’s on white toast with a smear of canned cheese, but there are just magnificent people that they have behind the counter and the relationships they have with the customers. It’s just fun in that sense. I guess I just really love the people behind [the restaurants], and appreciate their craft so much.
Who’s your culinary icon?
Oh, gosh. A lot of my culinary icons are some of my past employers or mentors, not necessarily the biggest names out there. However, Julia Child has always resonated with me as well as Jacques Pepin. Both of whom I’ve had the opportunity to meet, through my career. Paul Bocuse is kind of an idol who I never got meet, unfortunately. My wife’s reminding me that Patrick Clark from the old Tavern on the Green was a dear friend and a mentor many years ago when I was really young in the culinary industry. Great man. He also had five kids, so I’ve matched him on kids as well.
If you could have any chef in the world cook for you, who would it be?
Wow, that’s such a broad question, such a big brush you have there! But, I have yet to experience Alain Ducasse. I’d love to spend an afternoon with Alain Ducasse.
And if you could cook your best meal for anyone in the world, who would it be?
I’m going to take the easy one [out] on that and say my family. If it’s going to be the best meal I’ve ever cooked, it would be for my family.
To what extent do you attribute your celebrity chef status, if you do, in fact, think of yourself as one?
More than anything, I attribute it just to my personal connection with my guests and with my “fans,” if you will. By no means am I ever going to claim to be the best chef on the planet. I’m good at what I do, I love what I do, I do it with tremendous passion and zeal, but I think my greatest strength is my connection with my guests, and my experiential dining opportunity. I get out and talk to my customers, and I feel, and I think they feel, that even though we’ve just met that we’re old friends. I think that’s my greatest strength: my personability.
What aspect of being a chef is most gratifying for you?
That immediate satisfaction on someone’s face or in their body language when you see them take that first bite and they melt into their seat with joy. A very, very close second for me would be the family that you create in your kitchen or in your restaurants with your staff, and the relationship that’s there. Getting through those tough, challenging evening together, or those long, hard days. Sometimes, you wonder why we do what we do, and it’s the relationship built in.
Is there a food or a restaurant trend that you’re undoubtedly, absolutely over?
I personally have for a while been over the sous vide concept. I understand it and I utilize it occasionally, but I think it’s over-utilized by a lot of people, personally. I have just experimented with it so much. Again, I do use it for certain things, but I personally am not a fan of my steak sous vide and then finished. I don’t like the texture.
Finally, we wanted to give you a chance to weigh in on this as a California chef. Do you have any frustrations that you’d like to vent at this time about the foie gras ban in the final days, before it goes into effect?
I’m not going to vent in a big way, but I think it’s ridiculous. Even my personal doctor only suggests what I should or shouldn’t eat. Nobody dictates what America should or shouldn’t eat. I love where I live, and I’m frustrated by my adversaries who think foie gras should be banned. Personal preference is personal preference, and nobody tells you that you can’t eat your tree bark and your tofurkey, whatever it is that you think is the right answer. Definitely a frustration and I’m heavily disappointed that it’s happening. I keep telling everybody: Chicago brought it back; we just have to work a little harder. Since we’ve got more Greenpeace, tree-loving hippies out here, we’ll just have to work a little harder at it.
You can catch Todd on United States of Food beginning Sunday, July 8th on Destination America.