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‘Out of the potato box’

Idaho chef Jon Mortimer shows off a "purple sage farm greens" salad he was preparing for a dinner for food writers at his Boise restaurant.  The  food writers were in town to sample fine foods produced in Idaho. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho chef Jon Mortimer shows off a "purple sage farm greens" salad he was preparing for a dinner for food writers at his Boise restaurant. The food writers were in town to sample fine foods produced in Idaho. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – The spud may be king among Idaho food products, even featured on the state’s license plates, but it can be a galling stereotype for farmers and ranchers who grow other things. Few have ever escaped a trade show without being asked, “You grow (insert crop) in Idaho? I thought that was the potato state.”

Producers of Idaho’s other culinary offerings are now banking on the hope that there’s strength in numbers, and that by banding together they’ll persuade buyers to also equate the state with buttery beef, nutty trout, sweet onions and fine wine.

It’s all about romanticizing the region and highlighting Idaho’s strengths, said Sherise Jones, director of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee. Jones and other Idaho food industry leaders recently hosted international food writers to showcase the finer side of the state’s food: Beside every baked potato is a cut of Kobe beef or a rainbow trout just waiting to shine.

“Scientifically, there’s something really wonderful about his region – the water, the climate, the volcanic soil,” Jones said. “So many of us producers sell a lot on the East Coast, so it’s natural for us to unite in a marketing effort.”

Sharing the effort means lowered costs for all, said Jay Theiler with the Kobe beef and Kurobuta pork producer Snake River Farms.

“What it does is give the mystique of the whole area. It’s a lot more efficient, and the partnership really goes together just like food and wine goes together,” he said.

It will take some time to see if the four-day junket through Southern Idaho pays off, but the producers are already talking about holding similar events in the future, Jones said.

John Lawn, one of the 13 food editors to attend the tour, said the approach could very well work.

“Did it change my view of Idaho? Yeah, it probably did,” said Lawn, the editor-in-chief of Food Management magazine. “Those folks have a big row to hoe as far as getting national attention, but there’s a lot of interest in these boutique markets now.”

Today’s consumers want to know more about what they’re eating, Lawn said.

“The white-tablecloth chefs like to romance this issue a lot, but the truth is consumers today are more sophisticated. They’re not happy just hearing that it’s a roast beef sandwich, they want to know where the meat, the recipe came from,” he said.

The tour started with a dinner at the Boise restaurant Mortimer’s, prepared by Idaho chef Jon Mortimer. Each carefully constructed “tasting” course highlighted local foods paired with local wines, and the food editors exclaimed over the delicate color of the trout, the tender texture of the beef and the combination of the piercingly sweet ice wine poured over perfectly ripened peaches and raspberries.

Like many chefs, Mortimer has long embraced the concept of buying local over importing foods from far away.

“As an American, I’ve relied on what we do best and that’s serve great food,” he said. “The closer you are to the fields and the ranches the more nutritious, flavorful and fresher the food is.”

That being said, some of his colleagues in other states thought Mortimer was crazy when he left a corporate chef job and moved to Idaho in 1990.

“Jeff Dunham, the chef at The Grove Grill in Memphis, Tennessee, thought I was nuts when I moved here,” Mortimer said. “Now he says I was clairvoyant, the Nostradamus of cooking, because I could see the possibilities here a long time before anybody else.”

Those who attended the tour included representatives from Chef Magazine, Plate Magazine, the American Culinary Federation, Food Arts magazine, and Flavor & the Menu magazine. Besides gourmet meals at Ste. Chappelle winery and the Sun Valley resort, they were offered gift packs that included premium foods and kitchen items. So many items were given to the group that the tour’s sponsors provided boxes and paid to ship it all home.

They were also loaded up with information on the history of each region, the science behind each business and some local lore.

“Even if only 50 percent of the food editors write about us, then we’re doing really good,” Jones said. “I think it will really put the Snake River region on the map.”

Even if the producers don’t get mentioned in their write-ups, they may reap other rewards from the tour, said Patty Johnson with the trout producer Clear Spring Foods.

“That network is very valuable,” Johnson said. “If they’re writing a story about fish and seafood they might think about trout. Hopefully a trout gets the photo opportunity instead of another species.”

Even those at the pinnacle of Idaho’s produce – the Idaho Potato Commission – were sponsors of the tour, lending some marketing power to the lesser-known local products.

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. When it comes to food, it’s hard to get out of the potato box,” Jones said. “They have a great foothold on the industry, and we’ve built a great relationship with them. At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter who’s on top if we all get the benefit.”


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