Locavoring Our Restaurant Menus...Is It Possible?

What is "Locavoring"? Is it even a real word? Well it is now. 2007 was the year of the "Locavore". The Oxford English Dictionary picked it as their word of the year. The “Locavore” movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over 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 one-year local eating experiment. Their diet experiment consisted of eating food produced or grown within 100 miles of their home apartment. This included not only local produce, but also ensuring that any meat or dairy products came from animals that ate local feed and were packaged locally. We're now about halfway through 2008 now and I'll bet there's only and handful of you who have either heard of or are in anyway living as Locavores or 100 Mile Dieters because committing to this virtuous act is at this point just too damned hard!

We've created a culture of food in this country that ignores seasons, borders and with it common sense. "We" are every Chef or restaurant operator in the country. Though many have tried to re-establish the traditions of locally inspired menus, as a group we are still part of the problems promoting climate change and poor nutrition in the most abundant food culture on the planet. Like many other voices in the commercial food industry, I spent the last twenty years or so demanding easier access to non-local and out of season products. This movement began in earnest in the explosion of restaurants and dining that started in California in the early 80's and spread across the country like a wildfire that hasn't slowed or stopped since. Because of the influences of Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters and others, we were all on the hunt for imported cheeses, oils, artisan pasta and canned tomatoes. We needed to have the same exotic fruits and vegetables we saw on their menus. But California had the upper hand of good climate, so much of the unique produce, (arugula and radicchio etc.), and artisan dairy products (goat cheeses and high fat cream) that were easily obtained there had to be sent hundreds or thousands of miles so the rest of us could stay in step. The importers of products, 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 get these products to us with as little hassle and as inexpensively as possible. It got even more complicated when my creative brethren and I, demanded out of season produce all year long as well. We thought nothing of 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 any seasonality. We also wanted abundant amounts of other products that never existed before. Products like already pre-butchered and sorted chicken breasts, fresh boned filets of salmon, tuna and sea bass, all manner of beef cuts of prime or prime quality, plus a massive catalogue of prepared or partially prepared foods that we would use help keep our labor costs in control. Our vendors, their suppliers, brokers and manufacturers were happy to comply with all of these "requests" and would even up the ante in a few cases with a few new foods (processed of course) or their own creation. Together, the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, created a market demand where there was none before and we are all paying for it now in spades.

Another interesting phenomenon was taking place while all of this was going on in the restaurant and cafe dining rooms around the country. The retail grocery market took notice and responded with a flurry of new food products. The restaurant industry had become a leader in food consumerism. Supermarkets and retail food manufacturers responded to a consumer demand for these new foods. So, without missing a beat, they stoked the fire of this food explosion by stocking their aisles with out of season produce and never before seen imported foods. Then, to complete this "perfect storm" of consumerism, the American dining table at home started to fade into the shadows and became a place to drop the mail rather than be the nightly gathering place for the family. Food manufacturers responded to this change, or perhaps fueled it, with hundreds of convenience foods that virtually turned the kitchen from a place to cook meals using real food into a reheating zone of microwaves and toaster ovens.

The culture of abundance we enjoy in this country has never before seen on this planet and every day this prosperity costs us more and more in fuel and greenhouse gasses. To wean this culture off of pre-made polenta, fresh limes all year and a seemingly permanent supply or fresh Yellowfin Tuna will be nearly impossible. Yet it has to be done if we have any chance at all reducing the carbon footprint created by this massive billion dollar industry. At last estimate, nearly 1/3 of the greenhouse gasses released to our atmosphere were a result of one more aspects of food production in the Untied States alone. A profound and complicated change of this magnitude, to a market that is very well ingrained in our daily way of life, will unfortunately take time that we don't have, and a population wide effort that's never been attempted. Now the questions are, how do we make the effort and if we do, will it be enough? Will the change to one cafe menu really alter our ability to sustain life as we'd like it? Frankly, I don't know that answer and I'm not sure if anybody really does. But, I'd rather do something now rather wait until its too late. The upside is so much better. Not only will we making an effort to save our environment, but I'm betting we'll come up with some tastier, more interesting menus to boot. As I see it we (the movers and shakers of the restaurant industry) have to find a way to make all of the following points happen, if not at the same time, then pretty damn close together.

* Replace old and local phobic menus with menus that are driven seasonally and as locally as possible.
* Demand produce from local farmers. (Hopefully this will create a new market of local growers that until now has been struggling to take hold.)
* Demand grass fed and free range meat products. (Corn and other grain feeding is fuel and greenhouse gas costly)
* Lobby legislature to create laws and funding to support and mandate these changes in the market. (It's going to take both laws and money to make some of this happen)
* Lobby legislature to stop promoting the use food for fuel (Replacing corn with cellulose products as the primary source for ethanol, will avert 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 that someone out there will hear it and follow along. There are already hundreds of Chefs and operators in this country who have lead the way for years on this front. But it's not enough. That number needs to be thousands. In a 2007 NRA (that's restaurant not rifle) hot trend survey of Chefs, local produce, organic produce, grass fed beef and sustainable seafood were all in the top ten. So there's something in the wind. We just need to find a way to speed it up...

This just in; Nation's Restaurant News recently reported on a survey that showed a very low perception of the restaurant industry as being "green". It also mentioned how important this concept is to consumers when they make their dining out decisions.

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