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“Farm to Table” Is False Advertising

Question: How does a trend, like the recent craze for pork belly, begin and spread?

Wylie Dufresne:
I mean, that’s a funny question or interesting question because it’s not as if suddenly 10 years ago pigs started having bellies and prior to that they didn’t have bellies and nobody ate them because you know we’ve been enjoying pigs and all of is parts for a long time.  I mean bacon is not a new idea.  And bacon has been beloved for as long as I can remember bacon.  

But I think that, you know, trends come and go and we’re not gonna... we’re dealing with more or less a finite number of ingredients.  We aren’t creating really with any sort of regularity, new foods to work with.  And I think that as chefs, we kind of work our way around an animal and how and why suddenly you see pork belly on everyone’s menu, I can’t exactly explain other than it tastes good.  But... or why it might be lamb spareribs the next month, or it might be duck tongues after that.  And then we go back to veal sweetbreads or something.  I think that a curious cook or a thoughtful cook is always sort of moving around and as economics become an issue, we look for cheaper, more affordable cuts that still offer a lot of flavor.  And I think that there are also people... you know, there’s a trickle-down.  There’s people looking for the—I don’t want to say the "new cut" because again, the animal has had that muscular structure for its whole life, but if we can sort of... with the help of our butchers look at the animal and think of a different way to form it or a different way to carve that bit out and use it, you will see that trickle down.  I mean, you know TGI Friday’s now does, you know, flat iron beef.  And that’s not something that you would have seen at TGI Friday’s if you know, chefs like myself hadn’t started using it as a delicious, cheap cut from the shoulder, you know, five, six, seven, years ago, but now it’s on TGI Friday’s menu. That’s part of the trickle down and that’s how it finds its way all over the place. 

But I think again, that thoughtful cooks are looking at exploring the whole animal and so we move around and you use a cut for a while and you get tired of it, so you move to another cut.  Why pork belly was so hot?  You know, that’s a fair question I can’t answer, but I was probably as guilty as anyone else of cooking a lot of pork belly, you know, five, six years ago because I thought it was delicious.  And for me, it was about how can we cook it in a different way that it hasn’t been cooked prior, or what techniques, modern techniques can we apply to it.  

You know, we might get excited in a restaurant about an ingredient that’s new, but it’s new insofar as it’s new to us.  It’s not a new ingredient; it didn’t just drop out of the sky.  But it’s new to us so we get excited about it and so we work with it and try to put it through its paces and learn about it and understand it and then use it.  And sometimes it does... another chef might get wind of it and—boom, boom, boom, boom—and there it goes.  

Or we might... or I might hear from a friend, “Oh, check out the crab tails.  These are pretty cool.”  And you say, “Well what the hell’s a crab tail?  I’ve never seen a crab tail?”  And it’s not really the tail, but it’s this piece of meat that’s really interesting.  And you know, unfortunately that was not something that found widespread appeal, but it was a really delicious piece of meat. 

Question: Are there any food trends that you find uninspiring?

Wylie Dufresne: You know, I think "uninspiring" is a little harsh.  I don’t, I don’t take maybe as negative a stance as that.  But I think things like like “farm to table” are misleading.  I think sometimes that becomes a pedestal or a soap box to get people into your restaurant, but is not... it’s almost empty in a way.  I mean, my food comes from a farm and I serve it on a table.  

You know, it’s not as if, what they’re trying to say is that not much is being done to it.  But it’s not, it’s not to say... I think to use “farm to table” to imply that there’s something, that that equals quality is misleading because I think that if you need... there’s something wrong with needing to say, “Hey, we use good ingredients.”  Because any chef—it should be understood that when you go to a restaurant of a certain caliber, it should be expected that chef X is using good ingredients.  It should be a sounding board.  “Hey, come here, we use good ingredients.”  Well, that’s crazy.  That’s crazy.  “Come here, we use mediocre ingredients, but it’s cheaper.”  Like that’s nuts!  

I think you have a right as a diner to expect when you come to my restaurant that I’m using good ingredients, responsibly sourced.  If you want to ask me about them, I’m happy to tell you, but the notion that “farm to table” somehow signifies I’m shopping well, or "responsibly," I think is unfair.  Is almost... it’s like smoke and mirrors for the diner.  It’s like false advertising because I’m at the green market every week buying things.  And I have been, but I don’t stand up on it and say “Hey, come see really good vegetables at wd-50 because you should assume that we are using really good vegetables.  So I think sometimes that notion is a little bit of a misnomer.

Recorded August 6, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

There’s something amiss if restaurants have to announce that they use good quality ingredients; that should be a given, says Dufresne.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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