You sit down. You order. A warm baguette or freshly baked rolls arrive. That used to be how it worked. Then restaurants with creative bakers and a hunger for tongue-teasing flavors started branching out to artisanal breads: honey and hazelnut miche, rosemary and olive focaccia, or potato buns with sour cream, dill and aged cheddar. But now trendsetting restaurants are pushing bread out of the pre-meal spotlight altogether by offering artisanal crackers and flatbreads as a more surprising start to the meal.
In San Francisco, upscale restaurant, Benu, arranges their homemade nori lavash in custom-made black walnut holders, so that the crackers “can be pulled out like tissues from a box,” says box designer, Jungbae E. The avant-garde Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab in Bellevue, Washington is on the bread-free bandwagon, too. As part of their multi-course tasting menus they dehydrate ground flax and other seeds for their “bread and butter” service of crackers with centrifuged pea butter.
“My intention is to create an experience for people that is both delicious and healthy, and change how people eat,” says former head chef, Maxime Bilet. And at innovative Ursa restaurant in Toronto, chef Jacob Sharkey Pearce eschews the breadbasket for both creative and health reasons, making artisanal crackers with a raw-vegan bent. He dehydrates a daily flax and vegetable combination to crispy perfection—carrot and flax on the day I visited. “A formal tasting menu with us would be structured such that you have your prebiotics, then your probiotics, then something raw,” Pearce explains. By probiotics he means the house-made cultured butter, crème fraiche, and lacto-fermented vegetables that contain healthy digestion-aiding enzymes. Prebiotics, however, are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth of the gut’s own digestion-aiding bacteria. At Ursa that means the ground flaxseed, psyllium fibre husks and okara (the non-soluble fibre that’s a by-product of the restaurant’s house-made soymilk) in the crackers.
“A baguette would bloat your stomach, give you a little of a sense of a full feeling and disturb your enjoyment of what’s to follow,” he explains. “But prebiotic fibre is good to eat before eating anything else because it helps clear the way for what we do later on.”
And what comes later is worth clearing the way for: hamachi with hazelnut, apple, daikon and burdock; tender Georgian Bay Whitefish with whey, kohlrabi and pickled turnip; and elk tartare with charqui, bitter orange, local sumac, pine bark and “elk velvet,” all garnished with leaves, shoots and edible flowers from the restaurant’s rooftop garden.
What’s so unhealthy about a warm, soft, yeasty loaf?
“I don’t know if it’s cultural because we weren’t taught to have a disciplined approach to our diet,” says Pearce. “You get to explore whatever you want, whenever you want it. And actually you’re only supposed to eat very specific things for your body type, your metabolism, your environment, for where you’re currently living.” For most people, he says, that doesn’t include wheat gluten. Pearce knows how great bread can be. The former professional baker is a self-declared naturally leavened loaf addict. “I baked with a lot of really incredible bakers for a number of years and dough was….I loved it. I do still love it,” he admits. “I would eat a whole loaf coming out of Mark Thuet’s oven at six in the morning with half a pound of butter, while being lactose intolerant and allergic to gluten and yeast.”
But for Pearce eating gluten usually isn’t worth the side effects. His personal reaction ranges from extreme mood swings to sensitivity to light within minutes of ingesting the troublesome food. “Within minutes I’m full-blown—really upset, cranky, distended, with an unhappy internal digestive system, and lashing out at people. I’m not an angry person…. Genetically we haven’t caught up to the amount of refined ingredients we use in things—corn, soy, and wheat gluten for sure.” As a chef it’s hard to avoid gluten, he admits, but learning to maintain his personal discipline has been revolutionary for him. He now also avoids most dairy and refined sugars.
“I have identified what genetically or physiologically I respond well to in my diet, and a lot of it falls in line with vegan-raw.” Despite his conviction that avoiding gluten and incorporating more probiotics, prebiotics and raw foods will make most people healthier, he’s not into preaching. And he has nothing against other people eating gluten: “If you don’t have an active allergy to wheat—which I think most people do, and it’s just not full blown yet—dig in!”
A raw food trend invades fine dining
The move away from gluten—a trend already popular in vegan and raw restaurants—still isn’t commonplace in fine dining restaurants. But chefs are dealing more and more with special dietary restrictions, from nuts and soy to lactose and gluten. And the number of 100% raw restaurants internationally is growing, and not just in big cities. Upscale Pure in Manhattan and casual Raw Aura in Mississauga, Ontario are doing well thanks to the growing interest in sandwiches, crepes, tortillas and pita made with dehydrated seed and nuts, similar to Pearce’s crackers. If the point were only to break away from the breadbasket, a restaurant could simply bake its own crackers. Baking at high heat is much easier and less time consuming than dehydrating. But Pearce would never bake his crackers. Because the temperature never goes above 115°F, the “raw” crackers retain more absorbable nutrients from the nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. He’d also never mix in other flours. “It defeats the purpose because the majority of flours—save amaranth and quinoa—aren’t prebiotic.”
Unlike raw and vegan restaurants that wear their health-consciousness on their sleeves, Ursa isn’t marketing itself to vegetarians and customers with food intolerances. It attracts foodies of all kinds who know nothing of Pearce’s food philosophy. And it still happens to be one of the best restaurants in Toronto.
“I’m not trying to drive politics down people’s throats. If I did I probably wouldn’t have a business,” Says Pearce. That’s why you wouldn’t know that he uses raw, single origin, unroasted chocolate in the mousse, or that the crackers are probiotics and not just delicious unless you ask. MAD, Momofuku and Miso With chef David Chang fermenting nuts into misos at Momofuku in New York, Scott Jones fermenting artichokes at No. 9 Park in Boston, and fermentation guru, Sandor Katz, presenting at this year’s MAD culinary symposium in Copenhagen, more chefs are becoming interested in healthy bacteria and probiotics. But Pearce is skeptical about whether these practices are intended for both wellness and flavour, or just flavour. But with, the message is spreading. “People are trying to do the right thing. But there’s a huge disconnect between knowing what to do, and being a young entrepreneur or the people coming up who are actually going to make the changes happen on the ground.
How to you juggle that, operating a business?
How do I serve somebody something they don’t want to eat, that they’re not ready to eat, that they should be eating—that they’ll have to be eating ten or 15 years from now—and still maintain balance? It’s not easy.” To chefs like Pearce, crackers are a way of bridging the worlds of healthy cuisine and fine dining. They’re tasty and different, and a restaurant can offer them without breaking too much from tradition. Best, they can do so without scaring away customers for whom a meal isn’t complete without bread. They can still have their breadbasket—or at least their handcrafted, custom-made, black walnut box.