Chef Adam Weiner and mentor Chef Jesse Cool broaden the concept of buying local food to include selecting food that is freshly grown locally from known farms with greater biodiversity and sustainability.
By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE
Note: I am writing this article on March 6, 2016 which happens to be Chef Jesse Cool’s birthday. Chef Cool is a restaurant owner, former food columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and writer of seven cookbooks geared toward seasonal cooking. This article is her birthday present from me. She has been a mentor to me throughout my teaching career. Her most important lesson was encouraging me to teach the importance of issues such as sustainability and buying local. For decades, long before anyone had even talked of local food, Jesse has shown the culinary world that gourmet food starts with how the food was farmed or raised and does not start with what happens in the kitchen. For more about this amazing culinary trendsetter—including her very successful business philosophy that “the customer comes last” take a look at the article Food Artisan Interview – Jesse Ziff Cool, Cool Eatz.
Last month, I wrote about how to teach your students about Seafood Sustainability. This month I address the perplexing issue of “local.” Like many things involving food, the origins and timeline of the local food movement are not clear. However, it is safe to say that this is a fairly modern phenomena.
In a nutshell, the local food movement means that as much food products as possible should be grown or raised locally. There are several problems with this. First, there is no fixed definition on how near something has to be raised for it to be considered local. A pioneer in the local food movement has been Bon Appetit Management Company. According to Maisie Ganzler, who was instrumental in creating Bon Appetit’s Farm-to-Fork movement, told me that Bon Appetit’s definition of local is 150 miles. However, I have been to a farmer’s market in San Francisco where a vendor was showcasing local dates. The label on the date box referred to the City of Indio which is over 500 miles away from San Francisco.
The second problem occurs with a 150-mile definition in that many products are not available within 150 miles of every location. Fresh vegetables for much of the country would be impossible to source for much of the year with that limitation. Products such as vanilla, sugar, flour, etc. are not raised within 150 miles of most locations. And, as I’ve said repeatedly, I am not giving up coffee!
The third problem with this 150-mile definition is people play fast and loose with its requirements. As I mentioned in last month’s article, I saw in a major grocery chain store in California with a local coffee display. When I told the assistant manager the closest coffee bean was growing over 2000 miles away, he told me (and seemed to be satisfied with his answer) that the coffee was roasted in a town within 150 miles and therefore it was local. By that definition, garlic grown in China but cut up and bagged in my classroom could be sold in Northern California as being local. If you pardon the pun, that is a LOCO definition of LOCAL.
Another concern with the word local is consumers, whether restaurant customers or shoppers in the produce aisle, have preconceived notions of what the word means. Awhile back I was in the produce section of my local supermarket when a young girl sitting in a shopping cart said, “Mommy, look peaches! Can we buy some peaches mommy?” The mom went into a lengthy discussion on how these peaches were from Chile and how bad it was for the environment to buy peaches shipped in from South America. She talked about the importance of supporting local farmers and eating what’s in season. The daughter looked crest-fallen and said, “Okay, I guess. Can we get some bananas?” The mom said yes and reached for a bunch to put in her cart. I really wanted to walk up to her and say, “Excuse me, where do they grow bananas within 150 miles of San Francisco?” However, discretion prevailed and I didn’t.
Likewise, I have seen and heard many people confuse the concepts of organic with local. Some people feel these two concepts are one in the same, which they are not. You can buy organic coffee from South America, and yet buy chard from a small farmer 10 miles away who uses pesticides.
My friend and mentor Chef Cool takes a different—and perhaps more practical—approach to local. For her restaurants, she tries to buy whatever she can first from within a few hundred miles. She admits that you can’t run a restaurant that way however. Chocolate, coffee, bananas, and even onions and lemons can’t be procured that way. She encourages chefs to try and use local and seasonal foods as much as possible. She points out this was how our grandmothers cooked. (Author’s note: One thing I teach my students when discussing passion and pride is never serve anything you wouldn’t serve your grandmother.) But Chef Cool also stresses that no matter where your product comes from—local or across the world—it is important to get to know the farmer, rancher and producer. In her words, you need to always ask, “How was the food grown and produced? And, how are the people who are involved in it treated?”
The local concept involves much more than just distance. Local can include things like biodiversity (which means the producers are growing more than one product), it involves supporting smaller producers, and it means supporting the local economy and not a worldwide corporate giant. For example, according to Ms. Ganzler of Appetit Management Company, local means the provider sells less than $5 million per year, is owner-operated, and located within 150 miles.
I am not an expert in the issues of farm management nor trained in any agricultural fields. I am not trained in the local movement beyond the basics. So with that in mind I find these arguments to support the “buy local” concept: food is fresher, comes from farms with greater biodiversity, supports local businesses, and is more sustainable. The arguments for the concept of mass produced foods are: the quality is good and prices are lower because of modern corporate farming techniques.
Both sides argue the other concept cannot feed the country or world in the long run. The local movement supports the proposition that large corporate farms cannot be sustained because the lack of biodiversity. They further argue that farming techniques (including but not limited to pesticides) have devastating environmental and health effects. The contrary argument by the major producers is if everything was locally raised by small producers much of the country would not be able to afford to buy the food produced, and that there would—by their definition—be a lack of biodiversity for consumers. You can’t grow pineapples in Wisconsin or cranberries in Arizona.
Before closing, a brief comment on the Farm-to-Fork movement is appropriate. The Farm-to-Fork movement is similar to the local movement. However, as Chef Cool and Ms. Ganzler clearly point out, the Farm-to-Fork movement involves not only buying locally but having a direct connection with the farmer, rancher or producer. For example, buying local would involve buying onions, chard, and artichokes grown within 150 or so miles. The Farm-to-Fork movement entails buying onions, chard, and artichokes from a local farmer directly and that the restaurant or corporate dining facility has a direct personal connection with the famer. There are many Farm-to-Fork relationships where chefs regularly work directly with the farmers. This allows the chef to know what will be available in the upcoming weeks and let the farmer know how much of his or her crop will be purchased.
Even the most ardent local movement supporter realizes it is really impractical to go strictly local. (Think of my points above on sugar and coffee.) Furthermore, like most ethical and moral decisions there is no clear-cut answer on what is right and what is wrong. What is important is that your students know the issue exists, are sensitive to it and consider it when they shop, cook, and eat out.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.