Eat locally grown foods. Michael Pollan and Michelle Obama say you should. There’s no shortage of CSAs, farmers markets, and gardening stores to help you get started at home. Plus there’s Annalisa Hultberg, coordinator of the Heartland Food Network — a group of Minnesota restaurants, chefs, and caterers committed to sourcing locally grown foods. She wants to make it easy for you to eat local when you dine out too.
Using USDA and Minnesota Department of Agriculture funding, Hultberg hosted a panel and luncheon on Mar. 22 to educate chefs, restaurant owners, school officials, caterers, and farmers on the ins and outs of building a local menu. Hultberg hopes this is the first of many events linking eating establishments directly to farms. “Our goal is to put good, whole foods in your mouth, and to keep Minnesota farmers profitable,” she says.
The sold-out event took place at the Craftsman. Chef Mike Phillips and staff served a hearty lunch of pork lasagna and greens (using local ingredients, of course). A three-and-a-half-hour conversation ensued. The following are five observations:
1. Restaurants don’t need to go big or go home
“It’s better to use some than none.” – Joe Hatch-Surisook, Owner, Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai
“People come to Corner Table, Craftsman, Lucia’s, and Heartland for seasonality. In January they expect to see a menu full of root vegetables,” says Chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table. “I don’t want to fresh tomatoes in February. I love celebrating the seasons.” Chefs at these restaurants – known for focusing on local foods — have the flexibility to build their menus around what’s available to harvest and what farmers need to move. “The statement ‘I’ll support local farmers when available and when possible’ means something is not available and that it’s not always possible. I don’t know if that statement has any validity in Minneapolis. There’s a lot of product.”
Other chefs and owners — especially those who are new to sourcing locally or maintain a standard year-round menu — simply can’t use all local all the time. Pizza Luce is one example. Right now they are gathering cost proposals for 10 local ingredients, but when you’re using tomatoes en masse, all year, consistency is a concern. Pampuch points out there are ways to work around this challenge. Greenhouses extend the growing season, freezing is always an option, and there are ingredients chefs can rely on year-round. “We have meat, milk, eggs, flour, and butter all the time,” he says. Other suggestions for chefs: Start slowly by working with one farmer, buying a share of one or two CSAs, or getting product from the farmers market.
2. The cost issue is all relative
“You can’t put a price on the flavor of local.” — Lori Valenziano, Chef and Buyer, Lucia’s Restaurant
Buying local and buying organic means chefs and owners need to spend more on product; spending more on product means they need to charge customers more; charging more might turn customers away. This domino effect is perhaps the most frequent excuse for not sourcing locally. They simply can’t afford the risk. However, many chefs in attendance agreed that a carrot grown locally and one shipped from out of state are not one and the same. “Buying local food costs money,” says Pampuch. “But compared to what?”
Some chefs don’t see a choice. “It’s hard because it costs more, but I don’t care, personally,” says Phillips. “Food shouldn’t be cheap. Buying local is right and in my heart I know I have to do it.” What chefs pay for local food depends on their needs, like a small cucumber versus a large one. “One third of the price is labor,” says Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm. If a chef is planning a dish around small cucumbers they’ll cost more, because they take longer to pick. “But if chefs are willing to pay for something, we’ll grow it,” he says.
Factor in the time restaurant staff spends on washing and preparing produce straight off the farm and the costs go even higher. “I think there is an upfront labor cost that is a little more. I’ve told Greg several times that I have five tons of Riverbend Farm soil in my drains from cleaning produce,” says Phillips. He says chefs can make up for this time by simplifying technique and letting the flavors of local ingredients speak for themselves. The issue of cost is in how chefs perceive it. To most, paying up is worth it. “It is a numbers game,” says Pampuch. “Buying local is possible, but you need to put the work in to make it happen.”
3. An educated staff might be a restaurant’s strongest tool
“There’s no room on the menu for all the farms we use.” — Mike Phillips, Chef, Craftsman
Restaurants struggle with marketing their use of local product. If they attach a farm name to a menu item, customers assume everything in that dish is local. But, considering the number of ingredients that go into most dishes, it’s never the case. Rather, chefs and owners are finding that they need to rely on their staff to be informed about where their food comes from and eager to share their knowledge with customers, even without them asking. “Let your staff taste what you’re serving,” says Valenziano. “Find out if the milk in the cheese is pasteurized, or if the beef is grass fed and corn finished.”
The staff at Craftsman and Lucia’s makes farm visits to witness firsthand, and sometimes participate in, the labor that goes into bringing food from farm to table. Some members of Phillips’ staff have taken a liking to butchering the goats and chickens served in the restaurant, becoming all the more knowledgeable about what’s on the menu. Tracy Singleton, owner of the Birchwood Cafe, uses additional marketing tools like a chalkboard menu, a monthly newsletter highlighting farmers, and mentions in publications like the Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook to show the Birchwood’s commitment to using local ingredients.
4. Ethnic eateries are stepping up
“Asian produce, like lemongrass and Thai basil, grows well in Minnesota.” – Joe Hatch-Surisook, Owner, Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai
One segment of the restaurant population that often struggles to use all local all the time is Asian restaurants, since they typically have a standard menu year-round. Hatch-Surisook points out that diners equate Asian restaurants with cheap eats, which makes it difficult for him to justify spending more on local ingredients. “There’s a mixed interest in eating local,” he says. But he still incorporates it wherever he can. “We always have a curry special. They’re served with stir-fried vegetables. Last year I was getting Brussels sprouts and mustard greens during the later part of the season. We threw them in a wok with some garlic and stir-fry sauce. That was a simple way to use local ingredients.”
Tammy Wong of Rainbow Chinese is eager to buy local, but raised her concerns about patrons who might be turned off by ingredients not typically used in Asian cuisine. “If you went to an Asian restaurant and saw rutabaga, would you buy that dish?” she asks. “Because that’s one of the challenges I have. If people aren’t familiar with something, they’re not going to buy it.” Chef Marshall Paulsen of the Birchwood Cafe suggested Wong serve these unfamiliar local ingredients as a side dish to her most popular menu item.
5. Nobody can control the weather
“Farming isn’t linear.” — Greg Reynolds, Riverbend Farm
Let’s face it, Minnesota isn’t California. Thanks to winter, the growing season is not year-round, and during the off season – roughly Jan. 15 through Apr. 15 – some local products, like produce, are not consistently available. “Welcome to spring. It’s a month early,” says Reynolds. “We work with weather. What should we do with this? Is it time to plant, or would that be a waste of seed? Is it going to be bone dry? Is it going to be 25 degrees above normal? We don’t know these things.”
What’s more, farmers don’t want their brand attached to a poor product. “If it isn’t something I will eat, I won’t deliver it,” says Reynolds. Take peas, for example: If the temperature shoots up to 70 degrees, they turn starchy. So Reynolds might be able to offer peas on a Saturday, but not the following week. The farmers present at the event vowed that, if situations like these occur, they will communicate it to the chefs as soon as possible. “Having this notice from farmers shows me that quality is important to them,” says Hatch-Surisook.