I have it on my Bucket List to eat a prix fixe dinner menu, and after I read about Restaurant Gwendolyn in the San Antonio Critic’s Choice Award, I looked into eating there. More than anything else, I love the concept behind their food. It is organic and sustainable food, but then again, it seems like a lot of restaurants are doing that nowadays. It is hard to believe and trust that everything they are doing is correct and environmentally friendly, and not just “meeting the letter of the law” organic. Restaurant Gwendolyn is different. Everything I have read about them says so, and I have something even more trustworthy–my friend Luke ate there with his family.
The ethos behind Restaurant Gwendolyn is sustainability, but through a very peculiar route. In the chef’s words, “The concept of the restaurant is everything old school, using what they had and doing as they did before the break of the industrial revolution: approximately 1850. This was the last time that food was honest.”
Part of the reason I love the idea of going old school so much is that I often describe how I would eat, ideally, as something like the 1880’s. I was just telling Gabi the other night the inherent integrity that comes with imitating the eating habits of people in that era. In the nineteenth century, you could only eat what you farmed, picked, plucked, found, shot, butchered, or traded for, and not a lot of trading went on. People were isolated by their environment and their geographic limitations. If you lived in the Texas Panhandle, you grew and ate only what the environment allowed you to. Every baked item you had to make yourself, every cut of meat you had to butcher and cure yourself, every vegetable you picked from your own garden, and water came from a well.
It is idealistic to say I wish we all ate like that now, because people don’t have the time or resources to live like that anymore. Nor would people enjoy having limitations imposed on what they’re eating. Eating whatever you want, whenever you want, is the food-version of the American Dream; if you have the money, you can eat anything that has ever grown on this Earth (except dodo and dinosaur).
In order to be authentic to his “old school theme,” the chef Michael Sohocki implemented some austere but effective self-limitations. In his words “There are no blenders, mixers, choppers, ice cream machines, deep fryers, burr sticks, nor anything else with a motor–nothing with a plug. Food machines with motors made possible an imbalance of diet that had never occurred before: we could suddenly fry enough food to make ourselves sick, we could preserve food longer than its last dangling vitamin. Refusing food-enabling machines is another way to keep the food honest, and in reasonable balance. There is not even a freezer. No perishable ingredient may travel further than a good, strong horse. The menu will move absolutely in lockstep with the seasons, as okra and eggplant taper off and leafy greens move in, we must change ourselves to suit the product–not the other way around. What is outside is inside.”
Sohocki plans on making his food organic by making it local, a brilliant concept that I have espoused. He utilizes ingredients within 150 miles or less, except for items that were imported even in the 1850’s, like coffee. On the menu for the evening, he lists the farmer or rancher who provided the ingredients he used. The idea is that if you cook and eat only what is local, you cut down on food miles that your food has to travel to get to your plate. You are also eating things growing near you, so you don’t have to truck them in from another state/country, you appreciate your surroundings and the season more because of how they limit you, and if it’s organicly grown then you reduce water and soil pollution. Sohocki’s step of not using any mechanized cooking tools is not the wide-spread answer to our problems, but it is an elegant and effective solution. In addition to using ingredients like we lived in 1850, why not cook completely like we lived in 1850?
Naturally after reading about this and hearing Luke sing its praises, I wanted to eat at Restaurant Gwendolyn very badly. The Stenberg’s don’t typically eat prix fixe meals though, and this one runs $50 a head. While not expensive compared to other set menus, and it is dirt cheap considering how much work goes into each dish (Luke said hours of labor), the price is not unfair, it’s just pricier than typical Stenberg fair. All this boils down to: we’re not just going to pop in Friday night and check it out.
So, I asked to go there as a birthday gift. One part of having a birthday as a Stenberg is that you get to request what you want for dinner as one of your gifts. I asked to go to Restaurant Gwendolyn and my dad made reservations. This Saturday at seven in the evening I will be the happiest camper in the world, indulging my palate without offending my conscience. I will no doubt tell you how it goes, but I will warn you, I’m eating the meat. It is supposedly local and sustainable, which is my caveat to absolute-vegetarianism; and, in my defense, I have gone longer without eating meat that ever before, I think all the way back to Easter at this point.
I will try and take pictures of the food if I’m allowed to, I don’t know if they had camera phones in the 1850’s.