“[People] are bored,” says Chicago chef Brandon Baltzley, regarding the ever more sophisticated army of foodies he has to satisfy. “They like to do something they can say no one else is doing.” Baltzley — who in response has been working his way through a collection of 4th and 5th Roman recipes for an upcoming special menu at Pensiero, the restaurant he just took over, including potential candidates like veal brains, pig wombs, and dormice — is one of several chefs cited in a piece by the Wall Street Journal about this emerging trend of mining historic cookbooks for inspiration. Grub Street has also noted this trend happening in several other food-obsessed cities, including Philadelphia, where a chef has been making a cake from a series of handwritten notes by Martha Washington; and Los Angeles where chef John Sedlar is reaching all the way back to the 1980s for a recent trip down memory lane — the eighties of course being ancient history in L.A.
Other chefs noted in the Journal piece include Heston Blumenthal, whose newish London restaurant Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental specializes in historic British eats like “Rice and Flesh” (ca. 1390); Grant Achatz, whose opening menu at Next in Chicago was devoted to Paris in 1906; Marco Frattaroli of Portland’s Bastas Trattoria who recently did a Renaissance-era menu; and Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia in Chicago, who just did a Columbus Day special menu based on Renaissance dishes from Italy’s Liguria region.
We’d also point to a recent crop of Barbary Coast-era, tavern-themed menus in San Francisco at places like Comstock Saloon, where chef Carlo Espinas puts a slightly modern spin on turn-of-the-twentieth-century recipes like “Hangtown style” pickled eggs over rye toast and oysters Rockefeller; and Wayfare Tavern, Tyler Florence’s ode to the same era where they serve old standards like steak tartare and popovers, and where the opening menu featured a Hangtown Fry (an old-timey S.F. mainstay involving fried oysters and eggs).
Our big question remains: Should chefs really start catering to diners and food bloggers so jaded that they need to brag about eating pig udders and ancient Roman vermin? How about we just eat some pig ears and call it a day.