Weather, politics and species endangerment increase prices

Operators not very merry over fine foods’ fortunes: weather, politics and species endangerment increase prices

Milford Prewitt

Shortages and rising price points for a few of the most precious food delicacies will force some tough menu decisions for upscale operators in this season of festive holiday dining.

Although nothing makes the season brighter for some connoisseurs than the aphrodisiacal allure of caviar, white truffles and foie gras consumed in luxurious restaurants, the price, image or availability of each of those foods is being affected by some issue relating to weather, politics or species endangerment.

Inflation in luxury prices is coming on top of the 10-year highs in the cost of domestic beef, which currently is 24 percent higher than it was a year ago. Although some experts see prices moderating, others forecast that beef prices are bound to inflate even more because of chronic drought in the West, dwindling herd sizes, the popularity of high-protein diets and global demand for U.S. beef because of import restrictions on Canadian beef.

Yet some chefs said they are totally immune to the supply and pricing problems. Several specialty-food vendors to upscale restaurants in New York, Denver and Atlanta and those who represent them said their clients so far have stayed stocked and competitively priced through all the commodity tumult.

But as fortunate as those operators are, many chefs say eating high on the hog in the coming weeks is going to require a king’s ransom to stock precious food, a price they will have to pass on to patrons.

Rick Tramonto, chef and co-owner of the multi-award-winning Tru in Chicago, where check averages exceed $125, said he is finding white truffles on the market for as much as $2,200 a pound wholesale. But he refuses to take the pricey fungus–the creme de la creme of which grow underground in Italian and French forests–off his menu.

Tramonto said he had learned from his suppliers that the deadly European heat wave this past summer that killed 15,000 people in France alone had obliterated the truffle crop and led to prices three to four times higher than they were a year ago.

“This past summer just killed the harvest,” he said. “One vendor I tried to buy from told me he put in an order for 60 pounds and could only get his hands on 10.”

Despite such hurdles Tramonto said he still intends to serve through the season his truffle soup and a lobster dish featuring white-truffle risotto.

John Edward Smith, who heads L’Esposizione Gastronomica e Vinicola, a Miami-based Italian gourmet food appreciation society, said he had to cancel his group’s annual truffle food festival at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Given the price of truffles, which Smith said he is finding at $2,400 a pound wholesale, it was impossible to come up with a ticket price that would create enough profit to benefit what would have been the evening’s charity recipient, the 9/11 relief fund Windows of Hope.

“The ticket would have had to have been $300 or more,” Smith said. “I just don’t think people are going to pony up that kind of money for what is essentially a stand-around event.”

He noted, however, that the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla., recently had a full-service truffle meal in which guests paid $375 a ticket, and the event sold out.

“I don’t think the truffle market has been this bad in 50 years,” he said.

Caviar, especially the prized black fish eggs harvested from Caspian Sea sturgeon on the border of Russia and Iran, also is becoming hard to find and increasingly expensive to purchase on the wholesale market. Michael Maddox, chef of the venerated Le Titi De Paris in Arlington, Ill., said he is paying about $10 more an ounce this season for Caspian Sea caviar. However, the price of caviar rises every year around this time, he added.

SeaWeb, an environmental group that draws attention to endangered ocean species, has said that given current harvesting techniques, pollution and poaching activities, the price of caviar is bound to soar in the coming years. SeaWeb has launched a campaign called Caviar Emptor, Let the Connoisseur Beware, calling for a ban on Caspian Sea sturgeon, from which the most-prized caviar is sourced.

Given the growing demand for caviar in the United States, Ellen Pikitch, a SeaWeb marine biologist, told a gathering of journalists recently that time is running out for Caspian Sea sturgeon. She said the group is marshaling its efforts to encourage the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to declare Caspian Sea sturgeon endangered –a decision that might happen as early as January, which would make the importation of Caspian Sea caviar illegal.

Some chefs are turning to American caviar as an alternative.

Rick Moonen, chef-owner of the new rm seafood restaurant in midtown Manhattan, is one of many chefs using American-grown roe and caviar. He said he decided to switch to alternatives a few years ago when, at a tasting sponsored by a vendor with Caspian Sea caviar, he and his staff were appalled at how unpalatable the product tasted.

“It was amazing,” he recalled. “One of my guys said it looked like and tasted like mush. ‘Bluh’ was his exact word.”

Rod Mitchell of Brown Trading, a Maine-based specialty foods importer and distributor that specializes in Caspian Sea caviar, said the plight of sturgeon is not so bad as SeaWeb suggests. He explained that an underground mountain range splits the Caspian Sea into two nearly distinct fisheries, allowing the Iranian side of the sea to produce a more plentiful harvest while the Russian side is under pressure from authorities clamping down on poaching.

As for American caviar, Mitchell predicted it would be some time before the product enjoys widespread acceptance among gourmets.

Georgette Farkas, a spokeswoman for noted New York chef Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel, said the restaurant had tried and disliked American caviar. Noting that Boulud cans a private label of caviar for the home gourmet, Farkas said Caspian Sea caviar is an essential menu item that plays a role in Restaurant Daniel’s renown.

“Daniel simply does not consider American caviar to be of the same quality as the Caspian variety,” she maintained. “We are not in a position to lower standards in the face of rising costs. If anything, we must do everything to maintain and improve standards That’s all our reputation rides on.”

Nonetheless, such famed chef-restaurateurs as Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Charlie Palmer, Marcus Samuelsson and Wolfgang Puck are quoted in marketing materials from a sturgeon-farming company in California, Tsar Nicoulai, as heaping lavish praise on its California Estate Osetra caviar. The aquacultured product, from the same people who were commissioned by the Chinese government to help develop its caviar market, also is featured at Tsar Nicoulai’s own Caviar Cafe in San Francisco’s landmark Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street. The producer boasts of its sustainable, “earth-friendly” techniques for using waters from its own natural aquifers and reducing the threat to declining wild stocks.

Meanwhile, the founder of Newark, N.J.-based luxury foods vendor D’Artagnan, Ariane Daguin, said her company, though best known for its foie gras, struck a deal two months ago to begin distributing caviar produced from farm-raised sturgeon in Southern France.

Before signing the deal, Daguin said, clients of hers–including some of the most recognized and admired chefs in fine dining–sampled the farm-raised caviar from France and “were flabbergasted by the quality.”

“I don’t think it is right for people to derive pleasure from an endangered species, like Caspian Sea sturgeon,” she asserted.

Ducks and geese also are considered endangered, at least by opponents of foie-gras production methods. Although animal rights activists continue to complain about the force feeding of the birds that enlarges their livers to yield foie gras, most chefs know the animals are not maltreated, Daguin said.

Defending the product that made D’Artagnan a household name in some upscale kitchens, Daguin noted that the price of foie gras actually is going down, from $42 a pound when she started her company 19 years ago to about $29 today.

“What happened to foie gras is also going to happen to caviar,” she predicted. “As more producers learn to make a quality product to keep up with demand, the price is going to go down.”

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