As noted philosopher Dionne Warwick once said, a house is not a home. Now a growing legion of persnickety chefs want diners to know that their restaurants aren't either.
Behold "housemade": the artisanal adjective that has yet to appear in -Merriam-Webster but is suddenly materializing on menus across the nation, often where a humble "home-made" used to be. In Brooklyn, restaurants such as the Michelin-starred Dressler rarely deign to serve dishes not described as housemade: housemade gnocchi with morel ragout ($15); cheddar burger with housemade pickles ($13.50); housemade pecan sticky buns ($4); and, lest the liquor feel left out, a cocktail with house-infused orange vodka ($11). According to Menupages.com, 244 New York restaurants now boast housemade (or "house-made") fare, and the eateries of Los Angeles (118), Washing-ton, D.C. (112), Chicago (79), South Florida (62), Boston (57) and Philadelphia (56) don't lag by much. In San Francisco, the term has nearly outpaced homemade (192 to 176).
Food language is almost always revealing. Take the recent tendency to link every entree—grilled Cattail Creek lamb leg, for example—to its point of origin. Few diners know Cattail Creek from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, so its inclusion on the menu is less about providing useful information than creating an aura of authenticity—a potent selling point in this era of bits and bytes. Cattail Creek must be a superior place for a baby sheep to be slaughtered, we think. Otherwise, the menu wouldn't have mentioned it.
Many chefs insist that the shift from homemade to housemade is a mere linguistic correction; one dines "on the house," after all. But cooks aren't copy editors. What they are actually doing is suggesting that their own products are as rich with provenance as Cattail Creek lamb—and for that, homemade will no longer suffice. "The word has lost its meaning," says Brian Bistrong of Manhattan's Braeburn; nowadays, he argues, it sounds either amateurish (Aunt Edna's homemade pie) or hokey (Chevy's homemade ranch dressing). "Housemade has more cachet."
The new terminology can seem a bit desperate for attention; at L.A.'s Umami Burger, even the processed cheese is "housemade." But the underlying trend is encouraging. "They're not only preparing the food, they're also preparing the ingredients that go into it—and that's a good thing," says David Kamp, author of The Food Snob's -Dictionary. "It's not just affectation." Here's hoping, then, that housemade fare soon becomes the rule rather than the exception. That way, chefs can stop telling us how handcrafted their parsnip chips are—and let the food speak for itself.