To the victor go the soils
You'd be hard pressed these days to pick up an issue of your favorite food magazine and not find a couple of articles about how this restaurant or that chef is sourcing locally – providing seasonal ingredients and sustainable meat and fish.
This movement has become less of a novelty and more the exemplar of "new" American cuisine. As chefs and restaurants angle to solicit their targeted markets, the industry edict of sustainability has brought with it a pomp and pizzazz that has effectively gilded many restaurant concepts. As a marketing tool, however, it has begun to seem superfluous because, in many places, it has simply become the customer's expectation.
This is a good thing.
The popularity of books and movies that have unearthed the truth behind the food we eat has given the movement a full head of steam. Chefs (myself among them) are moving away from primary vendor relationships to other "mom and pop" distributors that enthusiastically specialize in just a few things and disclose all available information about the food they grow or raise.
Purveyors that have gone out of their way to seek out – and make available – things that are locally produced, even if they are not products that they regularly house, have gotten a leg-up on some of the other broad-line vendors in our area that continue to stand pat with processed non-food.
Websites are being created for chefs that consolidate local crops into easily navigated order guides from which to procure ingredients for their menus and to have delivered to their door step. Dave Swanson's Braise RSA, for example, has made it simple to get locally grown product to your kitchen without having to go search for it.
The future of local food will see chefs and restaurants growing their own vegetables to get even closer to the source. At the Watertown Regional Medical Center, were I serve as executive chef, we have just finished planting a 10,000-square foot garden behind our hospital from which we will source just about everything that grows in the Midwest.
We like to think that we are on the cutting edge, but I suspect that large-scale chef gardens will become more and more prevalent as the demand and reverence for seasonal eating grows.
If you're asking yourself, "When did all this happen?" don't feel embarrassed. I did, too.
I can remember working at a seafood restaurant as a sous chef about eight years ago. Nothing was local and no one really cared or asked – least of all me. In fact, I can recall being tasked to create specials on our slower nights. I'd conceive a dish that was named for some other place in the world in view of our customer's yen for the exotic. I once created an entree with scallops that were stuffed with crab. I called them "Baltimore" scallops.
Whether or not the crab was actually from Baltimore was beside the point. After one busy holiday weekend in particular, I had a bunch of shellfish and some leftover cod. I decided to make a bouillabaisse that I dubbed "Barrier Island" stew. Could the mussels have been fished from the Barrier Reef? Absolutely. Were they? I have no idea.
Dubious? Truth be told, it happens every day in places you wouldn't even believe. And while I forged these suspicious concoctions under the tutelage of a chef that was delighted with my ability to take crap and sell it as four-star "catch of the day," I gave up this practice long ago. Moreover, chefs can't really get away with this anymore because customers know more about food than they ever have.
When we created a dish that was tropical, foreign or locally impossible, it would sell. There was nothing particularly novel about writing "Door County cherries" on a menu back then. That has changed tremendously. Customers' awareness of homegrown options and their – often times – superior quality has all of us in the business zealously competing to have the most local-centric menus in town.
But, as the definition of local becomes increasingly finite, I find myself wondering, "What's next? Where will this movement take us?" Will we one day have soil-bedded dining room tables with carrots, beets and swiss chard growing betwixt a party of two for them to pull and hack off themselves? Will there be pigs and chickens rambling about the dining room?
Like anything, it can be overdone, and likely will be at some point. In order to retain the honesty of it, it may be good to hold a mirror up the local movement and perhaps knock it down a peg or two.
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