The French painter Paul Cezanne once wrote that, “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”
His pronouncement has proved prescient, if not necessarily in the way he predicted. The first shots of the food revolution in the United States were, arguably, fired by Alice Waters at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, who raised the banner on behalf of local, organic and sustainable cuisine. The political implications of mixed seasonal greens with local goat cheese have become clear over the decades. She, joined by other chefs and food critics, has educated diners about the health risks of pesticides, the environmental costs of factory farms and the carbon footprints of grapes imported from Chile in the middle of our winter.
The solution proposed by countless politically-minded chefs has been to support small-scale farms close to home. And while the cause has been advanced by both humble food co-ops and celebrity chefs, in 2010 we saw one of New York’s – and America’s – most important culinary figures embrace it as well. Simply put, a man synonymous with fine dining today has gone green.
This is not to say that before the opening of ABC Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten was serving inorganic or unsustainable dishes, but one of the trademarks of his cuisine has been the exotic touches that can be traced back to his stint at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. Vongerichten’s dishes have long been scented by chilis, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves at his flagship Jean-Georges and his Spice Market restaurants. At Prime, his other restaurant, the grass-fed and organic steaks that dominate the menu are delicious but not especially sustainable. At ABC Kitchen, on the other hand, the menu is inspired more by the Hudson Valley than Southeast Asia, and while it isn’t vegetarian by any means, meat serves more as an accent rather than as slabs of steak. Here, Vongerichten explores the possibilities of local and sustainable cuisine: whole wheat pizzas are topped with Jersey tomatoes, the potatoes served with his classic blackened sea bass come from upstate.
The décor of the restaurant also reflects the sustainable ethos: The menus are printed on recycled paper, tables are made from reclaimed wood and the vintage dessert plates and flatware reflect a commitment to reusing and recycling. The waitstaff is outfitted in studied casual outfits of Converse sneakers and flannel shirts. If it all feels a little familiar – sometimes it feels like the entire borough of Brooklyn has been redecorated in a similar country farmhouse look – why does ABC Kitchen deserve to be crowned as Greenest Fine Dining? It is a latecomer to the trend, jumping in years after other chefs from Portland, Maine to Portland, Ore. discovered that local, seasonal food is not only better for the world but also tastes good.
While admittedly not the first of their kind, Vongerichten and his executive chef, Dan Kluger, have brought their own particular take on this craze. The free-range fried chicken arrives light as tempura, in a beer batter crust, and while I’m not sure what is local or sustainable about the caramel sundae, it would get my nod for dessert of the year. Other authorities were similarly impressed: The New York Times awarded ABC Kitchen two (of three) stars and the eatery also won the James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant” of the year. Vongerichten’s rebirth as a locavore is, we hope, not a sign that a chameleon chef has found the latest gimmick to attract diners, and instead that when it comes to what and how we eat, ABC Kitchen is a sign that conscious and not conspicuous consumption is here to stay.