Rock Center   |  June 07, 2013

Artisanal Nation: Latest food trend exposed

Like a lot of movements that sweep the country, it’s hard to know where it started, or in this case, who to blame for the first time “artisanal” appeared on a menu. But starting with that first time, it was off and running. The word just exudes hand-crafted goodness even if it’s just marketing greatness. NBC’s Willie Geist reports.

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>>> of movements that sweep the country, it's hard to know where this one started or, in this case, who to blame for the first time the word " artisanal " appeared on a menu. but starting with that first time, it was just off and running. the word just exudes handcrafted goodness even if it is just marketing greatness. tonight willie geist takes on all things artisanal .

>> we can't even agree on how to say the word. i'm saying artisanal , you're saying artisanal .

>> i say.

>> reporter: artisanal .

>> reporter: let's find out what it means. the dictionary tells us it comes from the word "artisan" one that produces something in limited quantitieses often using traditional methods. if that make us think of hand crafts and small local farms hourks did this happen? these days artisanal is everywhere. check your local market. products have artisanal on the label. a billion dollar business. how do you know the real thing when you see it? let's trace this cultural craze all the way back to where it began, with cheese.

>> artisanal cheese making has been going on in this country for hundreds of years.

>> reporter: m.i.t. anthropology professor heather paxon has studied the american revival of hand made cheese that began in the early '80s. her scholarly book "the life of cheese" examines the importance of the milk to what the animals eat.

>> it will affect the flavor and the color of the milk. that's an important consideration.

>> reporter: i never think about any of this when i'm eating my kraft singles . we met her at murray's cheese on new york's bleecker street , a place you might call artisanal cheese headquarters. when you scrub in and suit up for a tour of the cheese caves below murrays, it's clear there's nothing mass manufactured about what owner rob kaufeldf is selling here.

>> some are made from real craftsmen, small farms. it is an artisan movement.

>> reporter: once you see this, you start to wonder what the word "artisan" is doing on this, a plastic bag of shredded cheese?

>> it's being used as if it's a synonym for quality or gourmet.

>> but the cheese is patiently handcrafted in small batches.

>> reporter: sargento says it uses artisan-made cheese and blends it with the company's other cheese. others told us it's a term that means quality and authentic ingredients. but for afictioned aos, something doesn't smell right.

>> an inaccurate use of the term.

>> reporter: is it offensive?

>> i don't know if it's offensive, but a little bit distre distressing.

>> reporter: and that artisanal cheese will need an artisanal cracker. do you think nabisco crackers ought to be able to use the term

>> it's worrisome for the real artisans out there who have to explain sometimes why their foods are more expensive than supermarket foods.

>> reporter: what do you think when you turn on the tv and you see a domino 's artisanal pizza ?

>> i just sort of shake my head and smile.

>> domino 's now has artisan quality pizzas.

>> reporter: in 2011 , domino 's took the same amount of dough it used for its small pizza and rolled out a $7.99 artisan pizza . and even though the ad campaign was tongue in cheek, it was still the precise moment, some say, when the term 1"artisan" jumped the shark. if domino 's is making artisan food, that's the death of the term "artisan." russell weiner is the marketing adviser. he said the quality ingredients set it apart from other pies.

>> not just marketing puffery. we had to retrain our whole system on how to make this pizza . it's very different.

>> reporter: do you have people in your kitchens that are dedicated to the artisan pizza ?

>> no, the same people who make our regular pizzas make this pizza , but it's completely separate training materials and all that on how to make it. this is where the artisan process begins.

>> we've got jerry here making the artisan pizza .

>> reporter: the artisan. how much longer on average does it take you than the other? or does it not?

>> it's a little bit longer, more time consuming. i would say about a minute.

>> reporter: that's it.

>> for domino 's a minute is like an hour.

>> reporter: can you see why some people have trouble recognizing that a pizza in 30 minutes or less with old world craftsmanship?

>> absolutely. we have to show people we're doing this pizza the way domino 's would do this pizza , good value, still great taste and not so hoity-toity over the top .

>> reporter: fair to say that artisanship has been good to domino 's?

>> very good to us.

>> we have an artisan wine shop, bakery.

>> reporter: in beacon, new york, artisanship has been just as good for david rees . he's an artisanal pencil sharpener . yes, that is a thing.

>> to me, artisan is the word you use if you're getting paid to do something that your grandmother did for free her whole life without ever thinking about it.

>> reporter: rees has taken it to the extreme with its pencil sharpening business. his customers pay $35 for a hand-sharpened pencil specially packaged with a side of shavings and a certificate. so 35 bucks per pencil.

>> some people complain, $35 is a lot of money to spend on somebody to sharpen a pencil for me. but if you think of this pencil as a one of a kind object that was hand made for you by the person who signed the documentation, boom, now it's like a sculpture. $35 is a great price for a sculpture. i'm sorry. especially one of a kind sculpture.

>> reporter: it's a ten cent pencil though.

>> michelangelo was working with a 100 t$100 block of marble.

>> reporter: now having sharpened more than 1500 pencils and gone on to write a how-to manual, rees has a profitable business.

>> a friend of mine said, what you should do is start charging a hundred dollars because then people like kanye west will do it just to be able to say, i'm just a player, i paid a dude a hundred dollars to sharpen a pencil. you're out of the absurdity price point and you're into like the luxury.

>> reporter: the kanye west price point.

>> i want to keep it accessible for people, but i want to make a ton of money. these are the type of conflicts that i deal with in my business.

>> reporter: i really? no way. just like the artisans of old -- is this the apprentice apron?

>> you can call it that. you just want to barely be scraping away.

>> reporter: this modern-day craftsman obsesses about the details. what could i get for this on the open market ?

>> honestly?

>> reporter: wow. that never goes to market. still hurts.

>> for everyone with a sense of humor, there are some really annoying people making annoying things in the artisanal market.

>> but he gets the joke.

>> he gets the joke. do you get the feeling it's waning a little bit?

>> it's waning because of these big companies co-opting the turn. when domino 's puts out a pizza , frito lay with chips.

>> love dunkin' donuts.

>> god bless them. but it loses a bit. a true artisan, we're still down here making locally sifted flour, we're still grinding away at this thing despite what's happening at top levels of corporate america .

>> what did you bring me?

>> i bet you've never seen a $35 pencil.

>> i never have.

>> here are your shavings. and mr. rees would tell you this is simple market economics . if he can find somebody to pay 35 bucks for a sharpened pencil, he'll do it. if you go to office depot 's website, a 12-pack. pretty nice markup.

>> try sharpening them. that's a lot of manual labor .

>> i did. look what happened.

>> willie geist , always a pleasure. seldom more than this week with our report on all thins artisanal .