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From Local Farms When Available

March 12, 2014

It’s rare to receive a handwritten letter. Checkbooks feel like they are going extinct as our society transitions to electronic payments. And more and more point of sale transactions just simply require the swipe of a card.

Has anyone ever asked, “What will become of the signature?”

Everyone has one. Whether yours is neatly formed or a stylistic scribble, with a few strokes of a pen, you can create something that represents you, and only you, on a page. And it never changes. Once it’s yours it is yours forever. Some people take this a step further. There was that TV talk show host who had her signature red framed glasses. Some have suggested that I have a signature laugh, but in reality that’s not entirely unique. I laugh exactly like my father. It’s weird.

Maybe there are chefs who don’t want to have a signature dish, but one gets ascribed to them anyway. In some cases it may be like a rock band that has a breakout hit and is then condemned to play it over and over again for the next forty years. I can imagine it being a real mixed blessing. But would Paul Prudhomme be the man he is today without blackened redfish? And Wolfgang Puck has done so much, but history will remember him as the guy who put smoked salmon on a pizza in Los Angeles.

Why are we talking about this? Because it is the one exception I will tolerate for what follows.

The shenanigans at play in our food system are getting to be intolerable. Fish is caught in the Pacific, sent over to China for processing and then sent back to the US for sale. The same may soon happen for chicken. But animals are fed a shockingly disgusting diet of food waste and animal waste, produce is raised with increasingly toxic pesticides and herbicides, and even organic produce can be sprayed with “natural” pesticides that are just as toxic to living organisms. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Pink slime may be on the ropes but white slime somehow dodged that same bullet. And don’t even get me started on dairy.

If you are interested in eating quality ingredients, you have to know who is producing your food and how they are doing it. Working with farmers directly is a time-intensive process. And admittedly, the farms that are doing it best are small. But there is also a small handful of distributors who specialize in this sort of thing.

Chefs know this. Restaurant owners know this. And they know that consumers are finally starting to demand it. So they try. And that’s a start. But you can always tell when it’s half-assed because the menu will contain the following statement:

From local farms, when available.

It’s a cop out. Restaurants of a certain caliber should be providing the best ingredients they can find all the time.

Now restaurants will say that they’ve tried working with local ranchers to get their beef, but no one farm can supply them with enough tenderloin to get through a month, much less an entire year.

Okay. If beef tenderloin is your signature dish, fine. I absolve you of the requirement to source the absolute best you can find, and settle for something simply great for the sake of consistency.

But there are popular restaurants with plenty of throughput that still manage to work with local farms. So perhaps the real question is how do they do it? And the answer is simple. They plan their menus weekly, keep them small, and adjust them daily based on what they are able to source and what they have on hand.

Yes, there may be a signature dish that always appears on the menu. But unless a restaurant is a steakhouse, it doesn’t have to offer four different steaks every night. When I open a menu, I want to see one steak dish, and I want it to be absolute best one the chef can imagine given the best possible ingredients available that day. And that includes the meat itself.

This is the kind of restaurant that is worth adulation. This is the kind of restaurant where it is worth spending more than twenty dollars a plate. This is the kind of restaurant we need to see more of in the Capital Region and beyond.

And there is absolutely no reason why something like this couldn’t exist here. We’ve got the farms. We’ve got the talent. And we’ve got a dining public that’s becoming increasingly wary of industrially produced ingredients.

I can’t wait to see which local restaurant is going to be bold enough to lead the way.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2014 10:25 am

    This discussion feels familiar. ;)

  2. March 12, 2014 11:26 am

    I agree that there are few excuses. The size of our region shouldn’t be a problem either. Here are six small cities that have good food scenes: http://www.usatoday.com/experience/food-and-wine/best-of-food-and-wine/six-small-cities-with-big-food-scenes/6187081/

    If they can do it, we can do it.

    I do think we could use more business 2 business community building, however. Sometimes I get the sense that the farmers and the chefs just really don’t know how to get together and build the system that needs to be built in the Hudson Valley – and that’s not necessarily their fault. But…they can form groups and start talking or use existing groups like the Regional Farm and Food Project, or Slow Food. The region needs processing facilities and a transportation network that serves both groups. Definitely a couple light industries that could be developed for the benefit of all diners in the region.

    Yeah, the discussion feels familiar and it should. And we need to keep having it until change is underway.

  3. Michael Lapi permalink
    March 12, 2014 6:01 pm

    It’s not only a cop out , most of the time it’s a blatent lie. I’ll admit, however economically unfeasible it was for my own business, I ran a restaurant with the simple ideal that if I wouldn’t eat it or feed it to my family it wouldn’t come through the kitchen door. I also will admit there is a difference between running a business and simply producing for passions and ideology. To merge these you must be expect that if your not ready to use whole animals, and forge relationships with local food producers without the illusion that all products come in uniform packaging and are available year round, the business of “local” itself becomes daunting and unrealistic It takes much more work than calling your Sysco rep to place an order from the ever unchanging variety of “regional/artisanal” fare. I believe that this area still isn’t committed enough to support a completely locally sustainable eatery and also most restaurant owners and chefs are not truely interested in sacrificing the bottom line and ease of following standard quo.

  4. March 12, 2014 11:01 pm

    The Tailor and the Cook is doing it in Utica.

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