Small farm and organic: in the food business, those magic words open every door. A chef who couldn't use them would be in the same position as a puppy store that couldn't say adorable or a men's magazine that wasn't allowed to use hot. They're universal signifiers, culinary shibboleths that automatically and universally suggest quality to consumers. And generally, that's a fair impression. But sometimes Goliath in the form of plain, proletariat, grocery-store food can win. There are numerous cases infrequent, indeed, but still worth mentioning in which the supermarket or at least the nonorganic version is better than the one brought to you via 1989 Nissan pickup driven by that Wavy Gravy look-alike from Rutabaga County. To see for ourselves, we asked eight food experts to try two versions of a standard product in their field of special knowledge. While the organic or small-farm product won more often than not, there were a few surprises.
Our blue-ribbon panel of New York chefs consisted of Joey Campanaro of the celebrated seasonal-American restaurant The Little Owl; Anne Saxelby, owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers, a leading artisanal-cheese shop; Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, co-chefs of the three-star steak house Minetta Tavern; April Bloomfield, whose pork-centric cooking at The Spotted Pig earned her a Michelin star; George Weld, chef-owner of the small, farm-centric restaurant Egg, in Brooklyn; Floyd Cardoz, chef at Tabla, an acclaimed Indian-fusion restaurant; Marco Canora, who helped pioneer the good-food movement as a chef at Gramercy Tavern, Craft and Hearth; and Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy, one of the country's top vegetarian restaurants.