“Locavoring” of the Menus of Our Restaurants – Is it Possible?

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What is “locating”? Is it even a real word? Well, it is now. 2007 was the year of the “Locavore”. The Oxford English Dictionary chose it as its word of the year. The “Locavore” movement encourages consumers to shop at farmers’ markets or even grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local produce is more nutritious and tastes better. Locavores also avoid supermarket deals as a green measure, since shipping food long distances often requires more fuel for transportation. Two years earlier, the phrase 100-Mile Diet was coined by James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to describe their year-long local eating experiment. His diet experiment involved eating food produced or grown within 100 miles of his apartment. This included not only local produce, but also ensuring that meat or dairy products came from animals that ate local foods and were packaged locally. We are now in the middle of 2008 and I bet only a handful of you have heard of or somehow live like Locavores or 100 Mile Dieters because committing to this virtuous act is just too difficult right now. !

We have created a food culture in this country that ignores seasons, borders and with it common sense. “We” are all Chefs or restaurant operators in the country. Although many have tried to reinstate the traditions of locally inspired menus, as a group we are still part of the issues driving climate change and poor nutrition in the most abundant food culture on the planet. Like many other voices in the commercial food industry, I have spent the last twenty years demanding easier access to non-local and out-of-season produce. This movement began in earnest with the restaurant and diner explosion that began in California in the early 1980s and spread across the country like wildfire that hasn’t abated or stopped since. Due to the influences of Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters and others, we were all on the hunt for imported cheeses, oils, artisan pastas and canned tomatoes. We needed to have the same exotic fruits and vegetables that we saw on their menus. But California had the advantage of good weather, so much of the unique produce (arugula and radicchio, etc.) and artisanal dairy products (goat cheese and high-fat cream) that were readily available there had to be shipped to hundreds or thousands of miles so the rest of us could keep up. Product importers, mainly from Italy and France, were well established on both coasts, but the rest of us had to get our local distributors up to speed to get these products to us with as little hassle and as little cost as possible.

It got even more complicated when my creative brothers and I also demand out-of-season products throughout the year. We don’t plan on putting fresh raspberry desserts on our menus in February and creating recipes for our permanent menus with fresh vegetables like corn, new potatoes and green beans, regardless of seasonality. We also wanted copious amounts of other products that never existed before. Products such as pre-chopped and selected chicken breasts, fresh boneless fillets of salmon, tuna and sea bass, all kinds of top or premium cuts of beef, plus a huge catalog of prepared or partially prepared foods that we would use to maintain our labor costs under control. Our vendors, their suppliers, brokers and manufacturers were happy to comply with all these “requests” and even upped the ante in some cases with some new (processed of course) foods or of their own creation. Together, the restaurant and food manufacturing industries created market demand where there was none before, and now we are all paying for it dearly.

Another interesting phenomenon was taking place while all this was happening in the dining rooms of restaurants and cafes across the country. The grocery retail market took notice and responded with a flurry of new food products. The restaurant industry had become a leader in food consumption. Supermarkets and retail food manufacturers responded to consumer demand for these new foods. So, without skipping a beat, they fanned the fires of this food explosion by filling their aisles with never-before-seen out-of-season produce and imported foods. Then, to complete this “perfect storm” of consumerism, the American dining table at home began to fade into the shadows and became a place to drop off the mail rather than the evening gathering place for the family. Food manufacturers responded to, or perhaps fueled, this change with hundreds of convenience foods that virtually turned the kitchen from a place to cook real-food meals to a reheating zone of microwaves and toaster ovens.

The culture of abundance that we enjoy in this country has never been seen on this planet before and every day this prosperity costs us more and more in fuel and greenhouse gases. Weaning this culture off pre-made polenta, year-round fresh limes, and a seemingly permanent supply of fresh yellowfin tuna will be next to impossible. However, it must be done if we have any chance of reducing the carbon footprint created by this huge multi-billion dollar industry. According to the latest estimate, almost 1/3 of the greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere were the result of one more aspect of food production in the United States alone. A profound and complicated change of this magnitude, to a market that is deeply rooted in our daily way of life, will unfortunately take time that we do not have and an effort of the entire population that has never been attempted. Now the questions are, how do we make the effort and if we do, will it be enough? Will switching to a cafe menu really alter our ability to sustain life as we would like? Frankly, I don’t know that answer and I’m not sure if anyone really does. But I’d rather do something now and wait until it’s too late. The positive side is much better. Not only will we make an effort to save our environment, but I bet we’ll create some more tasty and interesting menus to start with. As I see it, we (those who move and shake the restaurant industry) have to find a way to make all of the following points happen, if not at the same time, then very close together.

  • Replace old, local-phobic menus with menus that are driven seasonally and as locally as possible.
  • Demand products from local farmers. (Hopefully, this will create a new local farmers market that has so far been struggling to take hold.)
  • Demand grass-fed, free-range meat products. (Feeding corn and other grains is expensive in fuel and greenhouse gases)
  • Lobby the legislature to create laws and funds to support and require these market changes. (Laws and money will be needed for any of this to happen)
  • Lobbying the legislature to stop promoting the use of food for fuel (replacing corn with cellulose products as the primary source of ethanol will prevent a massive worldwide food shortage looming in the not too distant future)

Call this a mandate, a manifesto, or the ravings of a lunatic… I really don’t care. I just hope someone out there listens to it and follows it. There are already hundreds of Chefs and operators in this country who have been leading the way on this front for years. But it’s not enough. That number has to be thousands. In a 2007 NRA (That’s Restaurant, Not Rifle) Latest Chef Trends survey, local produce, organic produce, grass-fed beef, and sustainable seafood were among the top ten . So there is something in the wind. We just have to find a way to speed it up.

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