Eat food. Mostly at home. Sometimes out.

No farms, no food.This blog is about eating close to home, but most Americans eat out – in fact, many rarely cook.  Despite all of our personal efforts at home, modern life sometimes dictates that we eat out too. Fortunately, restaurants are beginning to engage in a dialog with their customers about where the food on their menu comes from and in some cases how it came to be.  But like any other single sentence conversation, their current attempts leave a lot to be desired.

The Problem

Sentences like

“We use local and organic ingredients whenever possible.”

“We source many of our ingredients locally.”

“Proudly serving Oregon Country Beef.”

are popping up in likely and unlikely places.  But what do these statements really mean?

Some months ago, we ate in a small cafe on the Olympic Peninsula whose menu devoted an entire page to discussing their involvement in local food.  It was winter and though the menu had a subtle seasonal feel to it, I started to worry when I saw green peppers and olives in various dishes.   I was interested in a hamburger, so we asked: where is the meat from?  After some guessing by the waitress she headed back for more information – the verdict: a food service company.  What about the eggs?  She wasn’t sure – they were delivered, she thought they were local.  I regret that we didn’t walk out.

While on vacation in Northern California last summer, we were often drawn towards delicious sounding seafood at restaurants which lauded their use of local ingredients.  But the best most staff could determine was that the box said “Pacific” – not encouraging.

Even restaurants that seemed to “get it” sometimes disappoint.  We revisited a local favorite which prides itself on the quality of its ingredients.  Previously we were always pleased by the large number of excellent Washington and Oregon cheeses on the menu – but on our last trip all but a single cheese hailed from Europe.

Am I asking too much?  I’m willing to make some compromises.

Some Compromises

It would be completely unreasonable to expect every ingredient in every dish at a successful restaurant to be sourced perfectly and documented for my inspection on the menu.  Can you imagine it – “The Pacific Northwest Salmon was caught by one of the following fishermen: Joe Smith, John Doe, Jane Doe within a 300 mile radius (5% error allowed) of Seattle, WA on or about the 15th of June 2009 aboard United States vessel “Fishing Boat” sailing under license X8383-3333 of…” – well you get the idea.  (But don’t think there aren’t people trying to accomplish this.)

It would be unreasonable to expect every ingredient to be sourced locally.  Is some imported peppercorn acceptable?  What about tea?  Coffee beans?  Chocolate?  Cheese?  Some olives?  A little prosciutto?  How about wine?  Exactly where to draw the line is tough, even at home.

It is also unreasonable to expect every chef to agree with my particular viewpoints on fair trade coffee vs. farm gate programs or to force a chef to pass over a beautiful, bio-dynamic chicken because it wasn’t certified organic.  The trade-offs are complex.

The solution is trust.  Trust that the food was sourced attentively.  Trust that the key issues were considered.  Trust that corners weren’t cut just to keep asparagus on the menu a few weeks longer.  The restaurant, through its waiters and its menus, needs to establish trust with its patrons.  This trust isn’t established through good intentions or even 500 word essays attached to the front of the menu.  Trust is established by attention to detail and knowledge.

What Diners Should Expect… and Demand

The first key is daily menus that showcase seasonal, local items.  A restaurant whose menu doesn’t change at least weekly is likely cutting some corners.  Menu items should reflect the season.  In the Pacific Northwest winter, expect kales and root vegetables.  It’s often the small items that betray the trust – where did the tomatoes on that salad come from?  Fresh strawberries as a garnish?

The second key is to source most of the calories from local farms that the chef trusts.  These should be listed on the menu (for the farm’s benefit too!), but more importantly there must not be any clever substitutions.  If the menu lists “ABC Berry Farms” and I ask the waiter, the blackberries better come from “ABC Berry Farms”.  If the waiter doesn’t know, it’s a bad sign.  Additionally, it is important not to confuse locally processed with locally produced.  Foods like wines, cheeses or sausages can be manufactured locally from ingredients that traveled half-way across the globe.

Luxury items should be treated as such.  Non-local,  place specific foods fall into this category.  An especially fine French cheese?  Some Spanish olives?  These items should appear sparingly on the menu, and only when they are of exceptional quality.  They should not be “sprinkled” throughout every item on the menu like some type of pixie dust for transforming boring food.  Similarly, drink options that are not the typical imported coffee or tea should be available. Water is common, but the output of local vineyards, brewers, or even soda makers is a must.

And of course, the staff should be both informed and proud of the local relationships.   They should not need to scurry back to the kitchen to ask where the duck in the duck ragout came from.  But it goes beyond just memorizing the name of some farms or cooperatives.  They should understand why you should eat the dish you’re eating.  Like the waiter we had at Wildwood, they should know it’s the first strawberry harvest of the season, yes early, and from Viridian Farms.  I bet they sell more food too.

But nobody does this!

It’s hard to effect change!  The best way is to support restaraunts that are trying.  Talk to them about what matters to you.  Ask the hard questions, engage their staff in conversations about the food and don’t be afraid to pass on the dishes that weren’t sourced to your satisfaction.  But most of all, thank them for the efforts they are making – a little appreciation is a powerful tool.


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