June 25, 2012
Still-Life-1_400pxChef Thomas Keller was recently interviewed by the New York Times and portrayed as being unconcerned with sustainable products and sourcing local ingredients.  I wish I could hear the entire conversation rather than the sound bites which fit the reporter’s agenda.  But the article did get me thinking about the topic of sourcing local ingredients and its relation to the sustainability debate.

“Farm to Table” is a big deal.  More than ever before we are seeing menus with local ingredients listed, media supporting the concept (and deriding those who don’t follow its beliefs), the Food Network portraying chefs talking about local ingredients, and so on.  It is a big deal, and it is important.  But is it the end all?  Is it the most important aspect of a chef’s thoughts?  Should it be the most important element of all menus?  Are chefs responsible for promoting and supporting local ingredients, and teaching their staff and cliental about the “proper” way to choose food?

Personally I think that “sustainable” as it relates to seafood is very important and should at the very least be a consideration for every chef as they develop their menus.  But Farm to Table and utilization of local ingredients is a completely different discussion.  Vegetables by nature are sustainable so I don’t see much credence in lumping them into the sustainable issue.  Sure, organic produce can enter the debate as being more sustainable than non-organic.  But if the supermarket or vendor carries organic produce cultivated 1000 miles away and the non-organic produce was raised much closer to home… how much value for the “organic philosophy” is left after paying diesel or airline fuel for its delivery?

Is serving local ingredients more important than quality of product and diversity of menu?  This is the point which I believe Chef Keller was making in the above mentioned article.  Quality product and diversity of menu is more important to most chefs.  And rightly so!  Who cares if it’s locally grown but it is second rate, or worse, just plain dog food?  And while every chef would love to source all their products from down the street, diversity in menu offerings is more important than trying to create a menu strictly from local vendors.

Again it is important to say that supporting local farmers and vendors is important, and menu items should try to source locally whenever possible.  But designing menus based solely upon what is available locally is a recipe of success for less than 10% of restaurants (10% is probably way too high), and is a recipe of failure for the other 90+ percent.  What about ethnic restaurants?  If they have to source only local ingredients they are done… close the doors, no more Thai food for you!

And how about the months when the northern states are blanketed in snow?  Are they to serve only locally canned vegetables?  And what about food stuffs such as coffee, tea, spices, chocolate…?  Serving local ingredients is a goal, but clearly not the end all.  I believe that chefs should source as much local product as possible while still providing a diversity of ingredients, flavors and preparations for their guests.

Once you have decided to source local ingredients, there are some challenges which you need to attend to before implementing a “Farm to Table” or “Grown Locally” program.  Here are some of the considerations which a chef/restaurant needs to attend to before committing specifically local products to the menu:

  • Pricing – local producers sometimes cannot compete on the cost of goods
  • Menu price- because of the (occasional) higher food cost of local products, the menu price needs to be higher which can limit customer traffic (remember that most restaurants operate with a small profit margin of 3% -8%)
  • Quality – many issues can affect the quality of a product… bottom line is that a good chef is going to choose quality product first, regardless of whether or not its local product (who cares if it’s local but the product is garbage?)
  • Quantity – can the vendor produce enough quantity for the restaurant
  • Availability – is the product consistently available
  • Transportation – does the vendor deliver 5 or 6 days a week
  • Reliability – if I order it will I get it when you say I will… a chef’s menu relies upon dependability.  We hate to 86 something, our guests don’t care if the vendor failed to deliver the product… it’s still the chef’s fault that it’s not available if they see it on the menu.
  • Insurance – if your spinach is responsible for an E. coli outbreak do you have the resources to deal with the fallout

One good solution to these concerns for sourcing local ingredients from an array of farmers and vendors is to us a major vendor such as Charlie’s Produce (West Coast).  Many larger vendors now have programs set-up which support local farmers and make it possible to source as much variety as possible from local farmers while being a “one stop shop” for chefs.  This allows a chef to get much of his/her seasonal ingredients close to home, support local farms, and assuage some of the above mentioned concerns.

What are your thoughts about the topic of Farm to Table?  Is it the most important aspect of a chef’s thoughts?  Should it be the most important element of all menus?  Are chefs responsible for promoting and supporting local ingredients, and teaching their staff and cliental about the “proper” way to choose food?  Leave your comment!

 

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