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Chefs Say Local Produce Boosts Their Success

Upcoming Epicurean Classic confirms ‘fresh’ is ultimate secret ingredient

September 26, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Across the country, chefs are attracting rave reviews for using more locally grown foods in their menus--including in this bountiful buffet at last November’s Seeds of Prosperity conference in northern Lower Michigan.

Chef Stu Stein is on the phone with farmers on Mondays no matter where he is — home, on the road, or at his famed establishment, The Peerless Restaurant, in Ashland, Ore. A dozen farmers have all three of his phone numbers, and Mondays are the day they tell him what he can buy fresh from their fields.  

In Kentucky, Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia, a restaurant in Louisville, makes a weekly 20-minute pilgrimage across town to a church where one of his favorite farmers sells her vegetables. And in northern Michigan, Chef Pete Peterson travels from his noted Tapawingo restaurant in tiny Ellsworth to nearby Traverse City and its bustling Saturday farmers market. As he pokes through fat purple eggplants, ripe juicy tomatoes, and crimson apples, he spies other local chefs doing the same thing.

Chefs Stein, Lee, and Peterson, whose restaurants attract notice from the nation’s esteemed gourmet and travel magazines, are among a growing group of professional cooks who use the finest local ingredients they can find, instead of food shipped from thousands of miles away. The three will be in Traverse City this week for a major culinary event that will show, in addition to saucy techniques and rich recipes, how big small farming is getting.

These chefs provide a profitable, expanding market for smaller family farmers looking for an alternative to withering competition from monolithic factory farms and the plummeting prices that global food companies pay. Joining such restaurants in promoting local foods are specialty retail stores, everyday food lovers, business organizations that see economic promise for entrepreneurial small farms, and citizens groups working to preserve a region’s rural character and prevent sprawl.

From Tiny Trend to National Movement
This once-tiny trend among a few chefs is rapidly becoming a full blown movement. For example, the Chef’s Collaborative, a culinary organization that promotes sustainably produced local, seasonal and artisan foods, now boasts 1,000 members, mostly chefs. That’s up sharply from the 22 members it had when it was founded in 1993. Mr. Stein, author of the recently published book “The Sustainable Kitchen,” which takes the message to home cooks, is an active member.

But the movement is much broader than that. A national on-line directory, www.localharvest.org, lists 7,000 farms, farm markets, retail stores, and restaurants that sell local farm foods, a huge leap up from the 1,000 the directory listed in 1999. The number of local farmers’ markets in the country is growing rapidly, increasing by nearly 80 percent, to 3,100, in less than 10 years. And a national small farm research organization, the Rodale Institute, recently estimated there are 1,700 “community supported agriculture” farms, where consumers pay in advance for a season’s worth of products from the farm. That’s up from just two known CSAs in 1986.

All of this activity is one reason food aficionados Matt Sutherland and Mark Dressler are organizing the Traverse Epicurean Classic in Traverse City, which will draw stars of the culinary field from across the country Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 to host cooking classes, wine tastings, and what the organizers are calling Great Chefs Dinners. More than 20 chefs from Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Kansas City, Maine, Oregon, Kentucky and Michigan will be on hand to share their tips with home cooks and chefs alike. One theme they will stress: Using local foods from their own regions.

“Everyone who is a good cook is going to use local ingredients,” Tapawingo’s Chef Peterson said. “It’s the freshness. There is just no comparison in the taste.”

The Epicurean Classic will benefit the local college’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute, where Director Fred Laughlin instills an appreciation for fresh local foods in his students. The Institute just held a second sell-out local foods gala in partnership with Traverse City’s cooperative, largely organic grocery store, Oryana Natural Foods Market, using foods from local farms that are either certified organic or avoid the use of synthetic chemicals, hormones and antibiotics.

The local food movement is steadily strengthening in this region. For example the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce is a major sponsor of Select A Taste of Traverse Bay, a print and online farm food guide published by the Michigan Land Use Institute that connects consumers to area farm foods. 

Fresher Foods Spur Healthier Profits
One of the 10 local farmers Mr. Peterson of Tapawingo buys from is Mike Werp, who is a classic example of growers who successfully switch from dead ends in bulk commodity farming to a new, consumer-oriented brand of agriculture. Mr. Werp, who farms in tiny Buckley, south of Traverse City, cultivated up to 600 acres of corn for the commodity market in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, and found himself going bankrupt. He and his wife, Tina, now farm only a fraction of that land, growing more than 80 varieties of tomatoes, specialty salad greens, and gourmet baby vegetables for more than 15 restaurants statewide. Today they earn a good living for themselves, plus three other full-time workers and up to five part-time workers.

“I now have the money to substantially expand,” he said. “It is real exciting.”

Chef Peterson, meanwhile, estimated that he spends $46,000 a year with local farmers. His restaurant prospers with  $1.25 million in sales a year. The inventiveness and taste sensations of the dishes are the draw, and the foundation for that is fresh local food.

“My feeling is that a lot of people don’t really know what the best food tastes like because they have been so overwhelmed by pre-processed food,” Mr. Peterson said. “You can buy these little carrots that are run around in a tub somewhere until they are little round nubbins. But have you tasted these things? You have to dip them in mayonnaise to get them to taste like anything.”

While high-end restaurants like Tapawingo have often led the way in buying local products, there are plenty of more Average Joe-type eateries that are also linking with neighboring farmers. The Farmers Diner in Barre, Vt., was recently profiled in The New York Times for successfully selling food made largely from local ingredients at diner prices — a cup of chili costs $2.75. Rudy’s Taco in Waterloo, Iowa, nearly quadrupled its purchases of local meat, fruits and vegetables from $21,994 in 1998 to $83,983 in 2002 after the University of Northern Iowa Local Food Project linked the restaurant with farmers and processors. And in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area the Blue Sky Dining Guide features more than 40 restaurants, in virtually every price range, that use local products grown either organically or in other sustainable ways that reduce pesticide use, protect wildlife habitat, and conserve soil and water.   

A Change in Mindset
Working with local farmers does require chefs to reorganize their work habits and skills. Instead of ordering a variety of staples off of one mass distribution food truck, chefs work directly with many farmers — in Mr. Lee’s case in Louisville, 75 different ones.

“We will change menus constantly, day-in day-out, depending on what we see coming in from the farms,” said Mr. Lee, of 610 Magnolia. “We are always waiting for asparagus. Once the asparagus comes in, we will put it on the menu regardless — steamed asparagus with a poached duck egg, grated parmesan cheese, and crispy aged Kentucky ham.”

Mr. Lee also taught regular customers that they can’t bring friends later to have a great dish they just ate, because it likely will be out of season next time. He uses local ingredients nontraditionally in ethnic dishes, such as okra in Japanese tempura. And he uses something in season in multiple ways on the same night’s menu. This year in mid-September, for example, he served plums in his Bibb lettuce salad, plum frangipane (almond cream) tarts with thyme ice cream, and fresh plums with the cheese plate. 

Mr. Stein, too, said he’s learned to develop a menu for The Peerless Restaurant that’s “deep” instead of “wide.”

“I was one of those guys where, ‘God forbid I repeat an ingredient on the menu,’” he explained. “It’s a mindset change.” 

Mr. Stein, who buys about 90 percent of his produce in a 150-mile radius in southern Oregon, said he’s also learned cooking techniques to make buying local more economical. Beets shipped in quantity on a truck may be cheaper, but they’re also days old and he’d have to throw away the wilted tops. Local beets are picked that day and he can feature both the beets and the greens.

Every January Mr. Stein sits with his farmers, drinks lots of coffee with them, and discusses what they’ll grow for him in the coming year. But it’s during their regular Monday phone chats that he learns what he’ll really be preparing for his customers on any given day.

“Monday is listening to people,” he said. “It’s not what’s in season this month, it’s 'What’s in season Tuesday?'”

The results? He’s more than doubled the sales volume at the restaurant since he bought it in 2000.

But what he can’t stop talking about is the quality. Take the eggs rich with yellow yolk that he gets from a local farmer.

“My crème brulees glow in the dark,” he said. “They’re awesome.”

Diane Conners, a journalist, is the writer/organizer for the Michigan Land Use Institute's Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture project. This is her first article for the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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