8/03/2012 02:41:00 PM

Fine-Food Supplier Brett Ottolenghi on $5,000 Ingredients, Why He's Really Not Into Shark Fin, and More

Vegas fine-food supplier Brett Ottolenghi (who you may have seen in a recent Google commercial) supplies restaurants like Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Jean-Georges Steak House, and is one of the country's foremost experts on the world of high-end specialty ingredients. We recently chatted with the savvy 26-year old and got the lowdown on products like wagyu beef, why all truffle oil is fake, why he's really not into shark fin and more. Check out our chat with him below.

Tell me about some of your most recent travels?
I travel as much as I can but probably not as much as people think. I was just in Spain and France in March that was my last kind of big trip so that was a lot of fun. I was in Barcelona first and I got to eat at 41 Grados, a small restaurant by Albert AdriĆ . There was a big food convention called Alimentaria in Barcelona but I spent most of that trip traveling through France and seeing small producers which is what I really like to do - it's the fun part of the job. Generally what I'll do is if I know I'm going to be an area, I'll try to find out traditional foods from tat region and then I will try to try to find the best producers of those foods. I try to find the most authentic and passionate people.

What would you say is the most expensive ingredient in the world right now?
I tasted one just last week and, as far as I know, it might be the most expensive food - cordyceps. They're unlike any other food. Basically this is a high-end Chinese ingredient that's believed to have all sorts of health benefits, I can't say that any of it is very firmly grounded in science. Basically cordyceps are a  caterpillar which has been fed a seed inoculated with a mushroom spawn, so the caterpillar will eat the mushroom for a few weeks and eventually the mushroom mycelium will actually kill the worm and grow a mushroom out of the worm. So they then take the mushroom growing out of it whole and dry them, still connected, and so I got to try this. I've only had it maybe twice in my life. So this eight-ounce package on a wholesale level was $5,000.

Wow, how did it taste?
You make it into a tea or a broth and it just tastes very earthy - in wine terms, you might call it "forest floor." Yah it's like kind of like peet moss when it's wet, that's the taste.

Are high-end Chinese products something you're getting into?
Yes and here's why. Shark fin is something that really bothers me. In the last 50 years we have hunted sharks and the shark population is now down to 25% of what it was 50 years ago. That's just staggering so that's in large part, it might not be all, but in large part it's been to make/sell shark fin soup. In China they attribute all sorts of health benefits to it, and yet if you really look at it, it's devoid of any real value. It offers no flavor, no health benefits or nutrition. You can actually replicate shark fin soup for example using tilapia tails that have been rolled flat and sliced. So you can replicate shark fins in man,y many ways and it will be indistinguishable to the person eating it. But these faux shark fin products, they have trouble catching on as certain consumers want to be eating something that is a predator, they want to be conquering the largest animal of the sea essentially and take its power. This is a big big industry. A lot of the high-end hotels throughout Asian have decided not to sell it anymore.

So even though America makes the biggest fuss about shark fin, we have some of the weakest laws to regulate capturing sharks. The high rollers want to be having the shark fin soup while they're gambling so I've been trying to find a way to replace the high-end component that the customers want with something that isn't harmful to the shark population. First I tried finding a shark farm; there are no shark farms. So now I'm trying to find other high-end Chinese ingredients that will take the place of shark fin. So if we put something on the menu that they haven't seen and will excite them they'll choose that over the shark fin. And if we want the restaurants on board, we can't take away this profitable item for them, we have to give them something back to them to replace it.

What's the most obscure ingredient you've ever supplied to a client?
Duck tongues, edible clay (that's one which I really like). The odd requests they can be fun, but we're not making any changes unless we're selling a lot of something. So I like to find foods which we can make an impact with by replacing what is common by what is best. 

What's the hottest ingredient right now?
Certainly foie gras right now is on everybody's mind especially for those of us who can still legally eat it, we're kind of appreciating that right now. So foie gras sales are probably around double what they were last year. The farms can't really keep up because we've lost one farm in Sonoma, so it's putting a lot of pressure on the remaining farms.

Also this is the biggest year I've seen for Australian truffles because they've always in the past been very expensive. Right now they're actually about the same price as the European truffles are when they are in season. Because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, they're able to able to produce the black winter truffles during our summer.

Why do you think they've been so big this year? 
There's been a greater supply, so maybe also the economy took away some of their markets they had in the past but mostly it's more supply. A lot of truffle farms have been increasing production, and the good news is it's a great product, the only downside is that the same tricks which are used during the normal truffle season, are now happening during the summer, a lot of companies that mix the Australian truffles with the summer truffles from Europe. So in the winter what you see happening is you see the European truffles being mixed with the Chinese truffles. If they can replace just one truffle with a different species and get it by the chef, they can therefore offer their product much cheaper than someone who sold all 12.

Other than their scarcity, why do you think truffles have been so consistently popular over the years?
One reason you see that truffles are remaining popular and growing in popularity is because of products like truffle oil and butter, these are synthetic products and in a way I usually discourage those but what's nice is that it's made truffles cheap enough that it's introduced them to many more people and those same gourmets go on to try them when they can get the real thing in the fancier restaurants.

So are there any "real" truffle oils? There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there.
All truffle oil is fake and every year another company comes out with a product and say, 'oh we've finally done it,' and every year I get the product and notice right away after smelling it that it's not real truffle. The reason that there's no 'real' truffle oil out there is because a real truffle oil has a very short shelf life, we're talking only a few weeks and it's also very mild in flavor, not nearly as strong as what the synthetics are. If somebody really tasted what a real truffle oil was they would never choose it over the fake one, they want the fake one every time. We do sell truffle oil because it's an important part of the business - it's very profitable. We try to do it the best way we can, we use naturally derived flavorings, one of them is a wood bark,  one of them is a mushroom alcohol, we're using several different natural chemicals to flavor the oil, whereas most companies use a single synthetic flavoring.

I feel like there's also a lot of misinformation out there about wagyu beef. 
Yes,  I just did a very in-depth study on wagyu beef recently. There was a big article in Forbes saying "all wagyu in the US is fake." Some of it was accurate, and there were also some inaccuracies. I wanted to clarify all that, I spent through like three days and going through a massive amount of info and verifying all kinds of sources. It's kind of my attempt to demystify wagyu.  If restaurants use the word "Kobe they're taking the easy way out they're assuming the guest is dumb and they're not trying to educate them. There is not Kobe currently in the U.S. because we're not able to buy Japanese beef currently. There's always rumors that that embargo will be lifted. Kobe is literally a trademark brand name, it's like Washington State Apples, it's a brand and everyone who uses that name "Kobe" pays dues to the Kobe marketing organization which helps build their brand.

The reason is that it's the most famous is because they've done the best job marketing, but it's because originally Kobe is one of the main ports in Japan because it is the city in which westerners first got introduced to wagyu. So that's why Kobe is so well-known but there's no reason to think that Kobe is necessarily better than wagyu being produced by other producers in other areas.

Was there every a request you couldn't fulfill for a client?
If often comes down to the product not being allowed in our country. For example, at Guy Savoy they have this amazing dish, which was on a TV show called The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and basically I believe they roast a chicken inside of a pork bladder, so they bring it to the table and they pop this balloon and the steam comes out it's this spectacular presentation. So they start getting tons of requests for this, everybody that goes there asks for this dish. After about three or four days, they get a knock on the door, from the USDA and they say 'hey where are you getting these pork bladders, there's no legal way to have pork bladders in the U.S.' And so they asked me to try and find these legal pork bladders, and unfortunately, there's just not USDA-approved facilities that save the pork bladders, they can't be used for human consumption. 


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