I work in a recently opened fine dining establishment that prioritizes locally and ethically procured food in a somewhat busy, high volume, tourism affected area. The costs are going to be high from the start, from the rent, the taxes, the ingredients, the staff to make it work etc. This isn’t unusual though. Restaurants deal with the juggle of a million costs as a way of life. It’s a whole lot to consider when local and sustainable is thrown into the mix too. Sourcing from the community means snubbing a considerably cheaper big-time food distributor that sells everything from hydroponically grown cherry tomatoes to frozen sea bass to punch-in time clocks. Would you buy vegetables, eggs, fish etc from the same place you buy floor cleaner and mop heads? Probably not. Why would you offer your patronage, your hard-earned money, to a restaurant that does?
These questions and underlying concepts are super sensical to me, sure, but the equation and price tag is shocking to many. French fries are a really good example here. Ours hit above the five dollar mark. A common reaction: “But it’s just potatoes..!” It totally isn’t. Yes, the potatoes themselves cost money, but filling an industry kitchen-sized fryer will run you about $75 or more for oil. Someone (with food and safety training) has to be paid for the hours they spend cleaning, cutting, frying, seasoning and plating those potatoes (in a rather quaint paper cone, all tossed with minced thyme for your enjoyment I’ll add). Oh, and the server that handles your order and takes care of you for the evening factors in there. The table where your fork lays. The chair you’ve perched yourself on. The lighting in the room, water, linens (rather than cheaper throwaway paper napkins), you get the idea. There’s a lot to consider.
So when I saw that a blogger visiting the restaurant tweeted about the experience and cried “Overpriced!,” I was annoyed. I kind of stepped back and considered that a large portion of the population may feel this way about dining out though, especially within establishments that prioritize the community and minimal environmental impact. It takes a whole lot of principle to stick to your guns on that front, it isn’t always cheap to do on a large scale. It is well documented how hard it is to make money in the restaurant business anyway, without all of the measures to ensure that guaranteed fairness on all sides. Fifty dollars for a simple shirt made out of cheaply grown cotton with minimal labour? Sure. Thirteen hundred for a 60 inch flat screen made in Taiwan? Absolutely. I don’t want to convey that the production of these items is simple, but rather ask why there is so much pause and criticism when food is at stake, something that nourishes all aspects of our being, brings community to the table and ensures a part of our very survival. There’s a huge lack of regard for the power that it brings, from production to plate.
It’s a lack of education certainly and a conditioning of cheap food (which means crappy ingredients and underpaid employees in shitty working conditions) over such a long period of time. The times have changed though. Any information is constantly available for the taking thanks to the internet. Those who have access to good food and the opportunity to dine out should know better. The outrage and blind criticism has no place if you have an internet connection and 15 minutes to spare prior to your reservation, like none. Assuming that you’ve read this blog before, you probably care at least a little bit already (is that a big assumption?) and that certainly means a lot. I think a slow and gentle tide of understanding is beginning to turn and a greater sense of gratitude is coming to the table, but it does take time and a few grumbles along the way.
None of this ties into the recipe du jour per se. Given my constant stream of busy-ness and frustration over this sort of thing in the past few weeks, a super sticky, spicy, sweet, messy, mega satisfying sandwich with tempeh, sprouts, avocado and other goodies was looking pretty, pretty good. This combination is largely inspired by one that I enjoyed at Candle Cafe last time we were in NY. I’m a big fan of sweetness in barbecue sauce, but I also enjoy a bit of convenience at times. When fixing up the sauce, I reach for an all-natural ketchup that has all of the ingredients I would be using in a homemade sauce anyway (tomato paste, vinegar, evaporated cane juice, spices, salt) and cut down on simmering time pretty greatly. A prefab convenience that probably costs more than the sum of its parts, yes, but totally worth it when messy, barbecue sandwiches are at stake. Pretty high value for the cost in the grand equation. And I’m all about that grand equation lately.
bbq tempeh and sweet potato sandwiches + barbecue sauce recipe
sauce adapted from Everyday Food, Issue 44, July/August 2007
serves: 2 (with extra sauce woohoo)
notes: I always simmer/steam tempeh for a bit before I apply a final cooking treatment just to guarantee some quality toothsomeness. I don’t think it’s totally necessary though if you’re in a pinch for time. Oh, and tofu would also apply beautifully here if tempeh is unavailable.
tempeh, sweet potatoes + sauce:
1/2 block tempeh (4 ounces), cut into 4 triangles or rectangles (depending on your bread surface shape)
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 tsp grapeseed oil
1/4 onion, grated
1 small clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup natural ketchup (Trader Joe’s and Annie’s are fantastic)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp sriracha (or other hot sauce)
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce (Annie’s brand to the rescue again!)
2 lightly toasted rolls of your choosing (I went the crusty multigrain route)
1/2 an avocado, peeled and sliced
big handful of sprouts
thin red onion slices
etc etc, go wild!
Make the sauce: heat the grapeseed oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the grated onion and garlic and saute until very fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ketchup, vinegar, sriracha, maple syrup and worcestershire sauce to the pot and stir to combine. Bring mixture to a light boil, stirring here and there. Simmer until mixture thickens slightly, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside (leftover sauce will keep for one week in the fridge in a sealed, non-reactive container).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place the tempeh pieces and sliced sweet potatoes in a medium-large saucepan. Cover with water by about an inch and simmer until sweet potatoes are soft, about 7-8 minutes. Carefully remove tempeh and sweet potatoes to a plate. Pat dry with a kitchen towel. Place tempeh and sweet potatoes on lined baking sheet.
Heat your barbecue to medium-high or set your oven to broil. Brush tempeh and sweet potatoes with barebecue sauce. Place under the broiler or onto the barbecue. Flip and baste with sauce every minute or so, until coated to your liking and there’s a bit of char on the outside.
Place warm tempeh and sweet potatoes on to bread of your choice with desired toppings. Enjoy!