It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.
His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.
“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.
Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.
“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”
It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.
“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”
Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.
He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.
“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”
Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.
Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.
What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.
Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.
The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.
Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.
It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.