THE GOURMET-FOOD HUNTER MICHAEL VETTER – AN EXCITING JOURNEY
So, have you ever heard of a gourmet-food hunter? Well it’s not the most common job but it’s definitely exciting. Join us for an amazing peek into what Michael Vetter is all about.
As a gourmet-food hunter you are constantly on the search for the food trends of tomorrow. How did you end up in this line of work? What is your background?
In my family there has always been great food on the table. My grandfather was an executive chef on Sylt for many decades and at home we always grew our own vegetables and ate the freshest of foods. The curiosity for new tastes and food experiences was instilled in me since I was in the crib. In school I was usually studying the beautiful things of life such as art, literature and philosophy. For some years I worked in the field of digital communications and artificial intelligence which lead to a management position in a publicly-traded American software company. However, I started to become aware the tangible things fascinated me more than digital ones and zeros. So began my gourmet-food hunt.
Philosophy studies and gourmet-food hunting. Seems like an unlikely pair. Are they exclusive or can they work together? Which information from all your studies still help you out?
Philosophers unfortunately didn’t busy themselves too much in history over enjoyment and even considered it a despicable source of nourishment unfit for pondering. Though, as a philosopher, one has the tools to get inside and down to the foundations of what your working with, in order to describe it and discover all its special properties and peculiarities. That is why I follow as philosopher and gourmet-food hunter my own expanded concept of enjoyment, and it’s constantly developing. This states that enjoyment arises with the intake of nourishment, under the highest possible subjective state of well-being at the same time connected to the fulfillment of objective criteria. To put it more concrete: To enjoy something I need to feel good. So food has to taste good to me, can’t be bad for my health and is not allowed to break any religious criteria. Aside from that, other points of criteria must be fulfilled for complete enjoyment: The product must be ethical, for example, the ecology and sustainability as priorities in its production. So it raises the question: Can I enjoy chocolate when I know it was cultivated by children on the cacao plantage?
If you are in a foreign country, the food culture often changes as well. What kind of experience does someone gain over time as a food scout?
If there is something that all cultures have in common then that would be the cuisine of the countrysides. It’s the lowest common denominator, what you would find in every restaurant, every food stall, every household and of course every market. So people should not shy away from those sources if they want to discover something new. It’s important to keep moving, speak to lots of people and definitely don’t stay in a hotel where you could not be further from discovering something new.
The markets are definitely a great starting point in different countries. How do you start off? A wild “no holds barred” tasting?
Yes, the markets are naturally a good point to get a good overview of the basic repertoire of the regional cuisine. The secret pleasures can’t be found there though. If you are looking for snake or waran, mostly you won’t find those in the weekly markets even in exotic countries. There isn’t really a concrete plan for discovery in these cases. One must stray off the beaten path and search for contacts with the local people.
At the end of the day, it’s also a bit of luck. This year I was in Cameroon. I was sitting in an inconspicuous restaurant in the small city of Bafia where to my surprise, they had hérisson on the menu, hedgehog fresh from the bush. It was so delicious with an intense game flavor. An owner or worker at a place like this can often give great tips where you can find even more wonderful things to eat.
The contracts you work on are sent to you from top chefs. What is involved with that? What sort of requests do they have of you? How special or even not special are these requests?
The whole range is represented: From very general inquiries about ingredients from specific countries or specific themes, to very involved product searches. I think the majority have unspecified inquiries like: Is there an Indian spice that isn’t known over here? Which ingredients can you gather that fit the theme “Forest”?
You come across so many different personalities in gastronomy and the food scene, gaining a lot of insight into the ways of working and culture. Could you recount for us a success story from the client contract, meeting the producer/grower, the tasting, decision and then back to the client?
One day I received a call from Star chef Carmelo Greco based in Frankfurt. He had memories from childhood of goose barnacles and really wanted to serve these in his restaurant. On a trip to the Galician Atlantic coast I asked some fisherman about them and suddenly found myself on a fishing boat in the early morning mist. There were enormous swells and we were rocking up and down for hours in the surf by the cliffs. It was a good thing I didn’t have breakfast 😉. The fisherman jumped time after time between the waves onto long ropes connecting the boat to the cliffs in order to collect these special barnacles. It was really pure adventure. In the end the client was happy as he had never had so fresh goose barnacles that tasted as wonderful as those did. An amazing experience!
Where does your sense of what is currently in demand come from? Is it a talent, years of experience or a mix?
If I only knew 😉. Well, it seems to be a couple of factors. First off it has a bit to do with insight on how chefs operate, a certain imagination of how foods will fit in and a good portion of pure intuition. Despite years of experience in the field I am still surprised every day by which tastes and textures are in demand and which are not. My own tastes don’t seem like the best measuring stick.
Traveling a lot, trying everything – sounds a lot like paradise. What are some downsides to the daily life of a food hunter?
I think it’s the same for much everybody who has found their “dream job”: We all end up doing things that never even crossed our minds. If I think about all the bureaucratic red tape just to bring in a new product into Europe it could fill a room. Discovering a product is nothing compared to hustle and cost to legally bring it to market. I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s impossible, but lobbyists have pretty much blocked the way for small business to innovate. That casts a very long shadow over our daily business.
Do you have an overview on how many countries you have visited? Also how many delicacies you have discovered?
To be honest: No. I am just the type to keep pushing forward. What yesterday brought is meaningless. Our society is much too passionate about history and I think that brings its own problems. I follow my own principle: To learn from the future!
Which products do you count among your absolute favorite discoveries? What tastes good to you?
Marathi Moggu is for me a discovery that I am especially happy about, a spice in its Indian homeland also relatively unknown. The fruits of the kapok tree are an indispensable element of southern Indian curry mixes. The Greek Trikalinos Bottarga – Dried mullet root in a way handed down by pharaohs – is for me very interesting taste wise because it allows for so many different culinary combinations. If you run food pairings there are few ingredients that can be combined as flexible as Bottarga. Finally kashk: A type of Afghani yoghurt stones. Little bone-dry balls made from fermented goat yoghurt. They are enjoyed crumbled as a side or mixed into warm dishes. The taste is always subjective. Personally, I love all the extreme tastes such as kashk. It seems like what I like the most can not be marketed, because the general tastes of today are pretty much tasteless.
Do you have a fitting recipe for your favorite finds that you could share with us?
Unfortunately no. I leave the cooking to others.
With your online-shipping service Gourmantis you offer gourmets much of your gourmet discoveries. From koshihikari rice from Japan, couverture from Costa Rica and also Belgian beef fat. What should a product have to be included in your sortiment?
It should be exceptional in one facet, of the highest quality or especially rare. Unmatched in taste. There are many ways.
Do you have one or two tips for the hobby food-hunter? What does it mean to be successful? Is there any specific equipment that every gourmet-food hunter should have with them?
Curiosity and fearlessness are undoubtedly two of the things a gourmet-food hunter should carry with them. Otherwise I pretty much have everything on me: Hands, teeth, gums, my nose and eyes… oh yea, a reasonable pocket knife and a spoon are helpful in some situations.
On a trip through Ireland you met Darina Allen. With her cooking school “Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe” is she living the farm-to-table concept? What does that mean for you?
Darina is an amazing woman. She did not just establish the farmers markets in Ireland but set a valuable example with her cooking school. There they were cultivating local and exotic plants, milking and buttering was carried on, slaughtering, maturing and fermenting. Every artisanal technique of processing and growing food are taught and practiced with Darina. The entire project has reached an extent to where it is barely believable if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes. Farm-to-table is the pragmatic approach when fresh and regional is preferred. All the fundamental principles of this idea derive from this: Short transport distances, seasonal offerings, less packaging and so on. For my expanded enjoyment concept farm-to-table is just on aspect among others. Farm-to-table shows sheds light on one way that the extended concept of enjoyment can be put into practice.
Thanks a lot for your awesome insight Michael!
How did you start your career as a chef?
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