The Taste of Place: Taking Cuisine Beyond City Limits

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno
March 2011

It’s not just a playground for would-be starlets or well-funded fashionistas. The big city (any city) is also de facto promised land for aspiring chefs—testing ground for ambitious newbies and seasoned empire builders following the “if you can make it there” litmus test of success. And it makes sense. The city means resources and recognition, competition and congratulation—all set to a fabulously frenetic pace and broadcasted with marquee dazzle.

But as anyone who’s recently heard, spoken, or mangled a locavore buzzword knows, a new culinary culture is emerging, a culture in which place influences taste as much as tradition or technique—a culture crowned by El Bulli on the winding road in Roses, Mugaritz up the hills of San Sebastian, Royal Mail in the charming quiet of Dunkeld, and Blue Hill’s locavore purity by way of the Hudson Valley. In this context, where the rules of “location, location, location” have matured to “locale, locale, locale,” the city (any city) seems lacking in character—at least the terroir type. And some chefs are taking note, trading in urban pizzazz for pasture and product.

Outside Bootsie's in Tomball, TX
Outside Bootsie’s in Tomball, TX

The Non-Urban Chef

If Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately,” the modern, non-urban chef goes to the woods to cook deliberately, divesting themselves of typical urban pressures—and resources—for the sake of unmitigated intimacy with product and freedom of vision. And, yes, typically much cheaper rent.

Not all non-urban chefs are actually in the woods. Frederick Andersson, rugged exemplar of the young, back-to-nature wave in New Nordic cuisine, relocated his entire operation from Stockholm to a nearby suburb. “We moved [Mistral] to Enskededalen, about 15 minutes away,” he says, “a more calm and peaceful place.” Bootsie’s Chef Randy Rucker simply went home (to Tomball, Texas). “I never planned on coming back,” says Rucker, who actually just purchased, and has plans to run, the farm supplying Bootsie's. Chefs like John Shields are a little closer to Thoreau’s agrarian isolation. He operates Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia, a town that clocks in at around 1,827 citizens and (slowly) counting. “I wanted to get closer to the land, to realize the possibilities of something a little bit different.”  

The motivations that drive former city slickers to the countryside—or its suburban environs—vary. Some are modern foraging vigilantes, cowboy cooks trolling lonely mountainsides in search of rangy, wild product (think devil-may-care San Francisco Rising Star Thomas McNaughton, crouched in a patch of clover, rifle in hand). Others seem more monkish, reverently tending to shrines of hyper-naturalism—chefs of the Dan Barber-David Kinch ilk. Whatever their chosen pasture or posture, non-urban chefs share one motivation: to cook beyond the influences of the city.

The Joy is in the Journey

For many non-urban restaurants, part of the magic is the journey. Anticipation is built into the value of the final destination; delayed gratification, expectation, and effort combine to tickle the imagination and whet the appetite. From the precipitous final leg of the El Bulli trek to the 30 minute cab ride from Ghent to the rural Belgian hamlet of Kruishoutem, home of Peter Goossen’s modern, naturalistic Hof van Cleve ( one customer remembers being “greeted by a small army of staff”), the trip sets the tone of the experience, every mile driven, hiked, or biked a blissful reminder that you’re most definitely elsewhere

Romantic though a journey can be, it also means non-urban restaurants must have sufficient magnetism to attract diners over the hills and valleys that separate their kitchens from civilization. “Sometimes foreign guests have a harder time finding our location,” says Andersson. “Most plan their dinner in advance, because of the longer trip,” meaning the new Mistral “experience” starts long before the first dish is served. Rucker believes travel is actually a boon to the restaurant. “It helps with our identity,” he says. “It adds a sense of ‘destination.’”

Shields, whose restaurant is five hours from DC, two hours from Knoxville, and three hours from Charlottesville—“we’re really, really rural”—has no choice but to cultivate a sense of  “destination.” “We’d have to be doing very simple Southern food, or we’d have to do the extreme opposite to get people to come here,” he says. “If we were doing something in between, we’d be shut down by now.”

Outside Bootsie's in Tomball, TX
Chilled Vegetable Minestrone at Town House

Taste of Place

However they’re reached, restaurants beyond city limits pivot on a precious and delicate commodity: regional identity. What differentiates small (or smaller) town food from the patchwork variety of urban cuisine is added personal value—“the emotional connection we have with both our food and our environment,” says Rucker. A diner at Bootsie’s isn’t only getting a sense of place, but a sense of the chef’s discovery of that place. Rucker’s next project emphasizes this quite literally: Restaurant Connate—a term Rucker uses to demonstrate a “natural connection to place”—will “completely celebrate the natural bounties and resources” of Tomball.

Outside Bootsie's in Tomball, TX
Homage to Michel Bras at Mistral

Half way across the world, Mistral espouses the same philosophy: “We’re seeking out the local in the genuine”—and one could almost say vice versa. Andersson, whose current menu features rustically elegant preparations of duck tartare, wild boar, and celeriac ice cream, believes it’s “easier to connect to nature in nature.” Classed among a group of Nordic chefs that prioritizes honesty, sustainability, and beauty, Andersson actually sees himself more as a medium for the expression of place than as a trendsetter. “We try to express the complexity and beauty that exists within everything.”

Product and Practicalities

“People always ask me how we get good product out here,” says Shields. “Where do you think the product comes from?” It’s a trade-off, of course. In lieu of slick urban resources like the well-oiled PR machine, or the endless parade of foot traffic itching to unburden itself of disposable income, Shields has “wild asparagus that grows everywhere around here,” or “fresh pine shoots and quince,” which he’ll use in a quince curd with pine ice cream and pine needle garnish. “A lot of chefs can get sassafras,” he says. “I have a guy chiseling away at a tree, bringing me fresh roots out of the ground a couple miles down the road.”

Indeed, the idiosyncrasies and specificities of local product are what attract chefs beyond city limits in the first place. For everything on the elegantly hyper-seasonal Mistral menu, Andersson “works with three farms exclusively”: Uppmalbyfarm, Skillerbygarden, and Skillebyholm Garden. “They provide us with vegetables and fruits that are in season,” as well as “duck, chicken, and lamb” to supplement all other Mistral proteins (local game, like the wild boar on its winter menu). But it’s no surprise that so much of the joy of Andersson’s work is hands-on. “We pick mushrooms, herbs, shoots, and flowers ourselves.”

Outside Bootsie's in Tomball, TX
Preserved Green Lichen at Bootsie’s

Regional expression of the Texan variety is what drives Tomball’s prodigal son Rucker, an avid forager, whose “Third Coast” dinners showcase local specialties like lichen and curled dock. “Being in Tomball allows us to get involved with our food sources on a daily basis,” he says. “Our farm is less than five miles away; we’re surrounded with hardwood forests; and the coast is an hour away, so naturally we become more intimate with the food source.”

The Cost of Isolation

The question is—how intimate is too intimate? Most of the drawbacks to the non-urban culinary existence seem obvious: less foot traffic, less incoming talent to stock a kitchen, and a lower profile (while Shields says Town House has been “written up like 40 times last could be a flash in the pan”). But what about the possibility of creative isolation—an unmitigated perspective becoming inflexible?  (i.e., “It’s me and my terroir against the world.”)

“Creativity is the result we get from having a connection with our food source,” counters Rucker, who believes Bootsie’s, in its essence, could not exist outside of Tomball. And his sentiments are echoed across the board. “[Our approach] is personal and guided by nature,” says Andersson (nature seems to be guiding Mistral to global recognition). Shields (whose new baby ups the count to 1,828 Chilhowie residents), agrees: “It’s natural out here. It just makes sense for us to be the same.” This, and not some urban malaise, rent crisis, or El Bulli envy, is what drives chefs of beyond city limits—the one-on-one, all-(locally sourced)-eggs-in-one-basket, up close and personal reunion with the first muse of creativity: nature.