Taking it slow

Jun 14, 2006 at 12:00 am

I recently attended a gourmet barbecue at Eve — The Restaurant in Ann Arbor. It was held in conjunction with the national tour of heritage foods and the slow food movement, an international movement opposing fast food and promoting dining as a source of pleasure. Their mission is oversimplified by that description. Eve Aronoff, the restaurant’s chef and owner, is dedicated to the French philosophy of cooking, “making everything from scratch, following the seasons, and savoring and caring about the food.”

Metro Times: Within my limited knowledge of slow food as a movement, I would best describe it as the antithesis of fast food. Am I on the right track?

Eve Arnoff: Yes, but it is pretty far-reaching. For me, the parts that are the most meaningful are the hospitality and the conviviality. The food, obviously, is a given. I care so much about it, taking the time to make the foods from scratch, using traditional cooking methods. I want people to enjoy the food and to feel welcome. When I walk through the dining room, I love to see people putting food into their mouths and closing their eyes and really getting into it because they are savoring the food. The slow food movement has broken into smaller groups called “conviviums.” Conviviality is one of the stated values of the movement — not necessarily the one people talk about most, but it is one of the fundamental values. The reaction against fast food, taking the time to make a sauce and tasting it, is important to us. Our servers taste all of the foods and are able to describe them genuinely to the diners. It affects so many people on so many different levels — whether you are growing something or cooking something or eating something. It’s a basic outlook. It’s a philosophy. It’s about handcrafting. It’s about attention to detail.

MT: How do you as a restaurateur, that is as a chef and entrepreneur, justify the use of some of the foods that are being farmed and raised by small producers, who by virtue of their size and methods, must charge more for their products than mass-produced food costs?

Arnoff: Ann Arbor is an affluent community, one that attracts many people who want to experience fine-quality food that’s prepared with the purest ingredients we can find. Slow food is in part about the use of heirloom products that have not been overprocessed or altered with additives to make them grow faster or have a longer shelf-life. It is about beef and pork that come from animals that have been fed a healthy diet, without growth hormones. In relation to the cost, it is similar to the days when organic food first became available. It was relatively more expensive than it is today. Right now some of our suppliers are being super generous with the pricing, knowing that we want to serve the finest, best-tasting food that we can. They know that we care about the taste of the food we serve, so they help us that way to make it more accessible. In the future, as the demand increases, there will likely be lower prices, which will ultimately make the products available to more consumers.

MT: Does that suggest that slow food isn’t available to those who can’t afford it?

Arnoff: Absolutely not. A lot of it is a lifestyle. It does not have to be tenderloin and truffles and foie gras, all of which are amazing, but very expensive. It can be chicken. Just use the best, freshest chicken you can find. Good fresh beans and tomatoes and peaches, soon to be found at local farmers’ markets, are delicious. I’m writing a cookbook that has me thinking of the foods I ate growing up. It didn’t matter if it was a meat loaf or a bowl of spaghetti. It was about the time spent in the kitchen. I can picture the sauce and the bowl it was served in. That’s certainly not about the cost.

MT: I think of soul food and barbecue as slow food. The food is cooked slowly, sometimes smothered and simmered.

Arnoff: Right. Exactly. And then there are all the memories you get of eating that food with your family and of learning to cook.

MT: How do the health issues such as diabetes and obesity relate to the slow food movement, especially as it relates to the schoolchildren? The problem seems to be that schoolkids are not being fed healthy meals and they are not being taught the right way to cook and to eat.

Arnoff: That is a big part of what we are trying to be involved in. There is an agrarian adventure where kids at a young age are learning to build a garden to become familiar with real food and to know the difference. I have always wanted to do cooking workshops with kids, particularly from lower socioeconomic levels, where they could come in with their parents and cook together, cooking and creating and making food to bring home for their families. The food cost becomes somewhat minimal if you are willing to put in the time. While you were there, you would be escaping some of the everyday pressures and spending quality time together, creating memories. No more video games.

Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comment to [email protected]