Literal Farm To Table: Here's The Dirt On Chefs Cooking With Dirt

Apr 1, 2017
Originally published on April 1, 2017 7:04 am

What's the next big foodie enthusiasm? Robust flavors, earthy scents and lusty textures from the very soil that nourishes life.

It's called Veritable Cuisine du Terroir — literally, Food from the Earth Really — and in their copper-clad kitchen in the Marais district of Paris, chefs Solange and Gael Gregoire run one of the hottest bistros in a city long celebrated for its culinary prowess.

Their restaurant, Le Plat Sal — which translates to The Dirty Plate — prepares four-star signature dishes, like Roche Dans la Croute, a rock from Mont Lachat folded into a pastry crust, and Boue Ragout, a stew simmered from the mud of the Seine River, washed down with a surprisingly delicate vintage of Du Vin d'Egout, a smoky gray wine distilled from Paris sewer water.

"The rich earth, so alive with vitamins and minerals," Chef Solange Gregoire told Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, and "the mud of the earth that caresses our toes, the sand kissed by the sun, and rocks."

She lifted the top of a copper pot and asked, "It smells good, yes?"

"Very," Simon had to admit, despite the unconventional ingredients.

This may sound, like foie gras and escargot, to be a distinctly French cuisine. But Ted Allen, who hosts Chopped on the Food Network, believes that dirt, rocks and mud will soon become common in American gourmet cooking, too.

"Let me put it this way," he asks. "What's left? People are already eating snout-to-tale, leaves-to-roots, stem-to-stern, hand-to-mouth. Chefs are getting people to eat kale and drink rotted juices. Dirt, rocks and mud just follow."

And great American chefs are developing their own classic takes. That includes James Beard winner Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef renowned for his Mexican cuisine. Bayless says that the Tzolkin, or Maya Divine Calendar, that was supposed to predict the end of the world in 2012, was off because "bits of the Tzolkin had been chiseled off to toss into a stew, named after Zipacna, the Maya god of the earth's crust. We make a version in our restaurants, with chunks from Wrigley Field. It's delicious," he adds.

And Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur and author who founded The Shake Shack, is quietly beginning his own new national chain called Rock in Roll.

"We think artisanal rocks, locally sourced and freshly prepared, are the next great American elegant-casual-customized-locavore-hand-made-food enthusiasm," Meyer told Weekend Edition.

Meyer is opening the chain's first two restaurants this fall, near his hometown of St. Louis, with rocks and dirt locally sourced from Laddonia and Cabool, Mo.

"Does dirt from Laddonia have its own distinct flavor?" Simon asked.

"It has its own piquancy," said Meyer, whereas "Cabool dirt is opulent, but silky."

Scott found two English-speaking patrons at Le Plat Sal, and asked how they could eat rocks and dirt and drink wine distilled from sewer water.

Olivier Blanchard, a French economist, said, "You Americans want everything to be so safe, with your seatbelts and No Smoking and speed limits and vegan cupcakes and condoms and money-back guarantees." His wife, Noelle Blanchard, added, "How can you enjoy life when you are so scared?"

Chef Gael Gregoire says "only Americans ask this question." He adds, "What would you rather eat? A French rock or an American Twinkie?"

The Gregoires prepared a dish called Doux Lorraine, a dulcet, mossy-colored stew made of mud from a river drainage basin.

"It's a favorite on our bar mitzvah menus," says Gael, who then lifts the lid on a consommé with a rich, rusty color that's called Ile de Cite, after the island that forms the middle of Paris. Key ingredients, in the city in which so many Parisians sit in cafes with their beloved dogs on their laps, are nuggets of dog ordure — which typically spendthrift Americans just bag and throw away.

"We recognize those droppings for the precious saveur" — literally, flavor — "that they are," says Gael.

And although in the audio of this story, airing on Weekend Edition Saturday on April 1, you can hear Scott Simon cough in alarm when he realizes what he has ingested, Scott reports that now that he's back home, he has learned from the kitchen mastery of the Gregoires. Daisy, the Simon family's French poodle, is now an important contributor to their meals.

"The Gregoires were so right," says Scott. "So much saveur, just going to waste. And now Daisy feels more a part of our family than ever to know what a gift she gives to our culinary enjoyment!"


Paris dans une Assiette

(serves 4)

Saute 2 bulbs of garlic and ½ cup scallions in olive oil, until browned

Stir in 4 bulbs of fennel coarsely chopped with stalks

Add 3 cups water from Le Seine, bring to boil

Add 2 cups gravel, in ½ inch stones, from Paris streets

½ cups dirt from Jardin de Tuileries

Simmer for 20 minutes over medium heat

Pour consomme over two slices, toasted baquette

Sprinkle ½ tablespoon chopped parsley

Sprinkle with ½ tablespoon fennel pollen

Garnish with small twigs fallen from trees along Champs-Elysees

Serve warm

But under no circumstances should anyone eat this dish!

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the Marais district of Paris, in a kitchen that clatters with copper cutlery and cooks, Chef Solange Gregoire and her husband, Chef Gael, hover lovingly above a cast-iron pot that bubbles and simmers with an aromatic steam.

SOLANGE GREGOIRE: Why don't you take a taste, huh?

SIMON: Just right from the pot like that?

S. GREGOIRE: Of course.

SIMON: All right, let me see, OK. It tastes - is that, like, rocks and dirt?

S. GREGOIRE: Yes.

GAEL GREGOIRE: You are more sophisticated than you look.

SIMON: The Gregoires are creators of what they call veritable cuisine du terroir, not just food of the land, but food of the land, really. At their Paris restaurant, Le Plat Sal, The Dirty Plate, the Gregoires prepare specialties like Roche Dans la Croute, a rock encased in pastry crust, and Boue Ragout, a stew made of mud from the Seine River.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CLINKING)

NOELLE BLANCHARD: Magnifique.

OLIVIER BLANCHARD: Magnifique.

SIMON: Olivier and Noelle Blanchard dine frequently at Le Plat Sal. And, conveniently, they speak English.

Now a lot of Americans are wondering, I mean, can they really eat rocks?

O.BLANCHARD: You Americans want everything to be so safe with your seat belts, your no smoking, your speed limits, your vegan cupcakes, your condoms, your money-back guarantees.

SIMON: So we asked the Gregoires - is it really safe to eat rocks and dirt?

G. GREGOIRE: (Speaking French) Only Americans ask this question. What would you rather eat, a French rock or an American Twinkie?

SIMON: And American chefs have been inspired to rediscover the roots of their own food culture.

Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef who's won the James Beard and Julia Child awards, says that dirt and rocks have an ancient history in Mexican cuisine.

RICK BAYLESS: You remember the Tzolkin, that divine Maya calendar that they said predicted the end of the world in 2012?

SIMON: Yeah, sort of. Yeah, sure.

BAYLESS: Well, it turned out that bits of the Tzolkin had been chiseled off to toss into a stew named after Zipacna, the Mayan god of the Earth's crust. And we made a version in our restaurant with chunks of Wrigley Field.

TED ALLEN: We're raised to believe that if food is dirty, it's bad.

SIMON: Ted Allen, who hosts "Chopped" on the Food Network, believes that veritable cuisine du terroir will soon be a trend on American dining tables.

ALLEN: Let me put it this way, Sal (ph). What's left? People are already eating snout to tail, leaves to roots, stem to stern, hand to mouth. I mean, chefs are getting people to eat kale and to drink rotten juices. It seems to me that dirt, rocks and mud are just the natural follow through.

SIMON: Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur who founded the Shake Shack chain, figures the future of food may be just below our feet.

DANNY MEYER: We think that artisanal rocks, if they're locally sourced and freshly prepared, can be the next great American - I don't know - elegant and casual, customized, locavore, handmade, foodie enthusiastic cuisine. You know, it's an alternative way to eat.

And we hope to start opening the first restaurants in our new operation this fall and maybe even in my native town of St. Louis. We're going to use dirt and rocks, and we're going to locally source them from Laddonia and Cabool, Mo.

SIMON: Now, does dirt from, say, Laddonia have its own distinct flavor?

MEYER: It's a terroir, for sure. It's got its own piquancy and - I guess that's the way I'd put it. Cabool dirt is opulent but silky and - I don't know. I think people will really dig it.

SIMON: The specialties that Solange and Gael Gregoire create in their Paris kitchen are as varied as the glories of the soil of France. Chef Solange lifts the last lid on a consomme that simmers with a rich, rusty iridescence.

Oh, that steam smells divine. What do you call it exactly - what?

S. GREGOIRE: We call this consomme Ile de la Cite.

SIMON: And that's after the - what? - the island that's in the middle of Paris.

S. GREGOIRE: And let me ask you, Steven (ph), what do you see that's so lovely and special on Paris streets?

SIMON: Oh, everything is lovely about Paris. You know, the people are so stylish. The boulevards are so broad and leafy. People sit outside in cafes. They have their dogs on their lap. They sip espresso. I mean, nobody loves their dogs like Parisians.

S. GREGOIRE: Oh, they do, absolument. So in the U.S., people walk their dogs and pick up the droppings, right?

SIMON: Yes, yes. It's law, as a matter of fact.

S. GREGOIRE: And just throw them away.

SIMON: Yeah.

S. GREGOIRE: What a waste.

G. GREGOIRE: Whereas we recognize those droppings for the precious saveur that they are.

SIMON: Saveur, saveur - what is saveur?

S. GREGOIRE: Flavor.

SIMON: Flavor, flavor - flavor - wait a minute. Did I just eat a...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FRENCH CAFE ENSEMBLE'S "FOLIE FAUBOURG")

SIMON: You can see photos of the Gregoires in their kitchen and read a recipe from Chef Solange on our WEEKEND EDITION website and The Salt on npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FRENCH CAFE ENSEMBLE'S "FOLIE FAUBOURG")

SIMON: It's April 1, 2017, and you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.