Remember the “Portlandia” sketch where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein ask the most patient server on earth about the provenance of Colin the chicken? (Was he raised locally, organically, happily?) Now there’s a comprehensive guide for diners who want to tick those boxes long before they get to the table.
“Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery,” published by New Zealand’s Blackwell & Ruth, is an ambitious project: Four simultaneous guides (covering Australia, United Kingdom, United States and the world), enlisting the assistance of 57 top food writers and restaurant critics from more than 45 countries. Said experts weighed in with their recommendations on places to dine that — along with passing the taste test — source ingredients locally and sustainably, consider the impacts of their business on the environment, treat workers fairly and ethically, and engage in civic activities in their communities.
The American edition features an introduction by — who else? — the grand dame of the sustainable food movement, Alice Waters. New York-based associate editor Gabriella Gershenson gathered 14 prominent food writers covering all 50 states for the project. Armed with a mission statement and a self-reporting survey, each contributor was tasked to find restaurants and food experiences that embody the guide’s ethos of serving good food with care. The survey informed the review process for auditing each restaurant’s practices and its suitability for inclusion in the guide. Every entry includes a nod to signature dishes, and many include third-party capsule reviews.
Sustainable restaurant stalwarts — think Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state — are in the mix, along with less-well-known restaurants outside major markets. We see you, Little Star Diner in Montana, with your closed-loop system of restaurant compost going back to your farm. We see you, Pirogue Grille in Bismarck, N.D., with your housemade venison sausage and homegrown chokecherries. And we see you, Garage Bar in Louisville, highlighting local nonprofit groups on the menu to spread awareness and raise money while diners chow down on blistered wood-fired pizzas.
I interviewed co-publisher Ruth Hobday for the backstory behind the book. Edited excerpts from our email exchange follow:
Why publish a guide like “Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery”?
A few years ago we were asked to make a book for a local food security charity in New Zealand. We asked New Zealand’s most celebrated chefs and cooks to allow us to film them creating a meal that they would make for somebody they love. “The Great New Zealand Cookbook” became a bestseller (over 100,000 copies sold, which is huge for New Zealand). It not only raised a substantial amount for the charity, it introduced us to around 80 chefs and restaurants around the country and exposed us to some of the most inspiring people and businesses we had ever encountered. What inspired us most was the countless examples of unseen care they exhibited, whether it was the passionate way they talked about their suppliers and the source of their produce, the way they treated their staff, or the things they were doing in their community. We wanted to make a project on these heroes and sheroes and help people find them.
Who is your audience for this book?
One of the project’s guiding principles is that, first and foremost, this must be a guide to delicious food — that has to be a given — so the primary audience is anyone who is interested in good food. But we hope and suspect a secondary and growing audience who is focused on the ethics of eating, provenance and community, particularly among those age 18 to 35. Diners are becoming more aware of not only where their food comes from, but the way in which it is raised, and the environment it is raised in.
How did the team verify the accuracy of the self-audit, a process that founding editor Jill Dupleix describes as 80 percent due diligence and 20 percent leap of faith?
As well as creating an individual profile from the surveys, each editor was asked to provide a “what we say” comment on each restaurant, and they were all aware of the restaurants in their local food scenes. In most cases, they personally knew the proprietors or chefs. We then followed up with online background checks.
Was the #MeToo movement a factor in the vetting of these restaurants?
There were definitely a few #MeToo (and other) moments! There were a few casualties that we had to take the decision to drop literally as we were going to press, and of course it’s something both we and our editors constantly review and monitor.
What about Pizzaiolo? My understanding is that Charlie Hallowell, who has been accused of sexually harassing more than 30 employees, has stepped away from the day-to-day operations of this Oakland, Calif., restaurant but is still the owner. There’s no mention of that in the guide.
Yes, that was an interesting one. We learned of it during the final stages, but after further investigation ultimately resolved that as he was no longer involved in the running of the business, and he wasn’t named — the head chef is — that we could, in all good conscience, include them. Every case that arose we considered on merit.
Can you give an example of feedback on the guide from the industry side?
One restaurant owner, the proprietor of Fresh Sourdough Express in Alaska, cried when we contacted her — we were the first people to publicly recognize what she has been trying to do for over 20 years.
Inevitably, restaurants close: In Northern California both Camino and the Shed, included in the guide, shut in December. How will you keep the list current?
We plan to publish updated editions each year. Online updates can be made immediately, via the TL&CC website, where we include some of the truly heartwarming stories contained in the survey answers that aren’t in the books.
How will you measure success?
We hope that by applauding and sharing the efforts of these generous, caring and hard-working restaurateurs, we can build a caring, like-minded community. Ultimately success for us means being able to sustain the community so that we can all feel good about eating out: Restaurants can feel appreciated for the effort they and their suppliers go to, and diners can feel good about where they spend their dining dollars, as well as experiencing amazing food and service.
Are there plans for any other guides in this series?
We’d like to publish country guides in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Croatia and regional guides such as Asia, Central and South America.
We’re about to start production in 2019 of a 24-episode web television series focused on the stories, food and inspiration of Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery restaurants, and a recipe book is slated for publication in 2020.
And we’ve continued our objective of supporting food security organizations: We are donating 5 percent of our revenue to Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project in the United States, the Sustainable Restaurant Association in the United Kingdom, the National Indigenous Culinary Institute in Australia and Action Against Hunger.
Henry is the author of “Farmsteads of the California Coast” and the co-author of “The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook.”