It occurs to us that while there are many signs of progress in the area of using ones food dollars to vote for the more sustainable and even humane production of food ingredients, the progress is still very slow. In fact I for one have not always put my money where my mouth is, and so I am not being critical, as much as I am wishing to influence my colleagues and our customers to catch up.
The subject for this blog was prompted by a recent copy of “Mise En Place, ” the alumni magazine from my alma mater, the Culinary institute of American, Hyde Park, NY. It makes a strong statement that chefs must lead in the effort to connect the so called farm and fork. It is a nice validation for Lenore and me because it comes from that very respected institution. That said I see colleagues still too often choosing a “sometimes stance” rather than “all or nothing.”
I confess Lenore and I did it too in the beginning, as we began to know the local farms and vendors, we learned of people (farmers) who were changing to all sustainable practices, but didn’t have certification because of cost. After a time, we decided that organic is the only way to ensure sustainable food practices in the world, so we changed to ALL organic.
Still it wasn’t easy. And we do sympathize with chefs in more typical restaurants who try to purchase responsibly. Besides the obvious, higher cost, most restaurant menus are static, and so if a chef wanted to serve only sustainable ingredients, they end up using the unsustainable alternatives just to deliver what their menu says. That we own our business, we can be fully true to our own convictions as long as we are willing to pay more for those products, and as long as our customers are willing to pay for it, too. As a result, we are tracking pretty close to our desired sustainable, green, clean mantra. Restaurants that commit and advertise their sustainable practices have only benefited, especially now since the general public is becoming more and more aware.
Some restaurants are practicing the 100 mile radius sourcing of ingredients, which is admirable, but difficult to strictly adhere.The reality that we live in a global economy has led us to practice some latitude in our commitment, latitude that is also responsible we think. Truth is we want to participate in the world of commerce knowing we don’t want to give up bananas, coffee, or chocolate either; so our guiding principle is to stick with the 80-20 rule, meaning about 80% of our products are local and 20% global. This in no way applies to those ingredients that for us must be humanely raised and harvested, where our commitment is “all or nothing.” Oranges in season in California is a reasonable exception, despite the shipping distance, since we most likely will not be harvesting oranges in Oregon. Would we include shipping sustainable lobster from Maine cross country for our menu, not likely, and probably not from Japan either, but we also leave it open for case by case discussion with the 80/20 rule.
Today is all about sharing our self-imposed rules for sourcing our ingredients.
Produce: First we buy in season in the PNW. We apply the belief that local in season ingredients produce the best results, besides being more sustainable. That means we have given up tomatoes out of season for good. There is simply no substitute for a tomato that is in season and grown in the earth without benefit of green house. This rule right now only applies to tomatoes for us, because we do sometimes bring in strawberries before they are in season here, but are in season in California. We argue (or rationalize) that when a bride wants strawberries on her menu, we will make that happen! So the majority of our purchases are, of course, organic, in season produce, and as for local we go to Oregon first, Washington second, Idaho, Alaska, BC Canada, California and Mexico third.
Beef: We look for pastured, antibiotic free grass only fed and finished beef. We prefer processing to be nearby the ranch so animals do not experience the trauma of long travel. It was important for us to weed out those companies that pasture for grass feeding, but who also provide grain in bins out in the field. It is like they are conflicted about why grass feeding is important not just for us, but for those animals that by nature cannot eat grain. And lastly we ask for full term cattle, in other words, those that have been raised as long as it takes to reach market weight, creating a better tasting meat.
Fish & Seafood: We frequently check what the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends. This is the first organization that rated the harvesting of fish whose numbers are dangerously low or that are temporarily in short supply. They let us know which species are caught or farmed in ways that supports the health of the ocean and fish, now and for future generations. We choose “best choices” and if not available we look for “good alternatives” or eco-certified options found on their app and website.
We also know our vendors here on the north coast of Oregon. And they know us. So by now, when we ask for fresh salmon, they might just say not yet available, even though we see it in the markets. This is because we opt only for line caught fish, so fish have not been traumatized by nets that trap and hold them till they perish before pulling them in. It is obvious to me every time I see a fish caught by trolling–there are actual bruises and tears in the flesh. That also creates off taste in the meat.
Dairy: We source pasture raised milk, antibiotic free, knowing that it is more humane and also grass translates to better nutrition for us and makes for better tasting cheeses. We prefer to choose cheese labeled “farmsted,” because it means the milk from which it is made comes from animals raised on the same farm. Transporting to a factory makes sanitation more challenging. It already requires enormous care making cheeses sanitary, especially for the cheeses which do not need pasteurization due to their aging process. In general, where food safety is concerned buying local and sticking close to home is one of the best ways to help prevent FBI. (food borne illness) And that is another topic for another day.
Staples: For flours, (wheat, corn, whole wheat, rice, etc), cinnamon, sugar and chocolate, we ask for certification of GMO free and fair trade. It isn’t always possible to be sure just from a label so we ask the vendor to provide the proof. There has been lots of discussion around olive oils and other oils. We believe the Italian problem (improperly labeled as EVOO) has by now been taken care of but it is always a good idea to talk to the grocers about their products. If they cannot answer to the quality then shame on them. Most vendors want to please; they want you to return. If they don’t know something they most likely will try to find out. As customers our questions help shape what is carried in their stores. We find it difficult to find non-GMO oils. We therefore steer clear of the corn oils vegetable, and some canola oils, unless we know the brands or the label states GMO free.
Footnote: At EVOO we are not entirely where we would like to be on the topic of sourcing ingredients. It is not only the health of the animals, sea creatures and organic farming practices that are important to us. Yes, healthy products are healthier for people. Tastier too, and buying responsibly is the path to preserving quality and quantities for generations. We must also do what is healthy for the planet. Eating more of a plant based diet will enormously help the planet. Raising cattle and milk cows creates a very big carbon footprint; one that can be controlled by cutting the amounts we consume.
The entire world seems to have too large an appetite for beef, which means controlling farming practices alone will not be enough to lessen the impact on the environment. We all must decide to eat less beef. We would also add, that eating only the best cuts of beef is not sustainable no matter how little we eat. We must equally consume the lesser cuts as part of our quotas. We enjoy raising awareness of our guests when we serve them grass fed/finished tenderloin of beef, but we know once we get that message across, we must show by example with menus utilizing all cuts.
And by example we hope to inspire a plant forward style of eating. Eating the true Mediterranean diet is the closest diet pyramid to this end. Making plant foods more prevalent on the plate and using animal foods under 3-4 ounce servings is going to make for good eating and reduce the demand for meat. Choosing other meats like lamb, goat, and bison is healthier for the planet, and yet they are still red meats that must be limited for human health.
Lots to consider, and yet we must consider how what we buy/eat influences our future. It is also important to be open to new technologies; ones tested enough before we jump onto the band wagon. We remain open to change, believe in education, and endeavor to make enlightened responses.