Farm to Fable

Farm to Table or Farm to Fable? A Restaurant Critic’s Exposé

An article was published this week that rocked the world of farm-to-table restaurants. Laura Reiley, a food critic for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote an extensive exposé on restaurants around her city that made false statements about where their so-called locally sourced ingredients were from. Over the course of two months Laura went through hundreds of restaurant menus, noted where specific claims were made and then proceeded to do some critical research. She talked to farmers, food distributors and restaurateurs, visited farms and even had some seafood samples genetically tested.

Her findings: “if you eat food, you’re being lied to everyday”.

Florida blue crab from the Indian Ocean, pork on a restaurant menu from a farm that doesn’t sell to them, homemade cheese curds that arrive in a box and chalkboards chock full of lies. Laura doesn’t tiptoe around: she lists specific restaurants, shows photos of menus and includes quotes from chefs and farmers.

From her investigation into The Mill in St Petersburg, a restaurant that the Tampa Bay Times had given three stars out of four and was awarded Best New Restaurant in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon awards:
 

    Servers are likely to start proceedings with a mini-disquisition on how all the food comes from within a couple hundred miles of the restaurant (mileage may vary).
    “Everybody’s spiel is a little different,” said chef-owner Ted Dorsey. “But I say a 250-mile radius.”
    Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Sons, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.
    I called him on all this. He said he needed to speak with his chef, Zach West, and get back to us. The results didn’t get any closer: farmed trout from Idaho, beef from Colorado, yellowfin tuna off the northern East Coast.
    “Local Florida proteins are not quality,” Dorsey explained.
    But what about the mileage claims? “Well, we serve local within reason.”

 
It goes on. Needless to say, the article has been flying around the internet, it’s been tweeted and shared on Facebook thousands of times, caused a lot of commentary and spurred some serious conversations.

I appreciate what Laura did, as far as putting in the leg work, asking real questions, verifying the answers and then approaching the chefs with her results and concerns. It’s definitely thorough and informed journalism. While the title of her article is “At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you’re being fed fiction” one adverse outcome is that her findings are being extrapolated and applied to all farm-to-table restaurants.

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As someone who has been in this industry for almost a decade and worked with hundreds of chefs across the country I know there are many out there that have real connections with their farmers and purveyors and are serving up the truth on their menus. It does exist and those chefs and restaurants should not be discredited.

As “local”, “organic” and “knowing where your food comes from” have become buzzwords and phrases, “farm-to-table” has been reduced to a marketing term. It’s trendy, customers want to see it, restaurants recognize that and some stoop down and take advantage of the situation. Unfortunately, some Eaters aren’t informed enough to really know what those terms mean. They don’t ask questions to ensure what they’re being served is legitimate, or even know what their meal should cost if it is truly well-sourced.
 

How did we get here?

 

Farm names are all over menus these days, and while it’s a beautiful way to give credit to those producers, it shouldn’t be entirely tell-tale, or even necessary. There are many authentically farm-to-table restaurants that only list a couple of their farms on the menu, if any at all. Can it not just be implied that if you’re serving pork, chicken, carrots or beets on your menu that you’ve done your due diligence to find a good quality and ideally local source for those ingredients?

It’s unfortunate those Tampa Bay restaurants have made it to that point: stretching the truth, forgetting to update menus, or just straight up lying for the sake of riding a trend. They’re taking advantage of the Eaters that are attempting to do the right thing and in many cases willing to pay a higher price. But there’s more than a few reasons why many restaurants aren’t able to pull it off, which gives even more credit to those chefs that are putting in the hard work to do their part and really know where their food is coming from.
 

It’s not easy to source local

 

Conscious, local sourcing requires a serious amount of time and dedication. What could be easily ordered on standardized forms from SYSCO or other large distributors to create a static menu that can be served throughout the year, becomes much, much more than that. Doing research, creating relationships, testing ingredients, ordering from many different farmers and purveyors through texting, emails or on the phone, picking up product, juggling delivery days and times, writing menus and re-writing menus. And at no point does that stop. The nature of the business is that farm fresh ingredients are inconsistent: seasons change, weather happens and nothing is reliable. But for many chefs, that’s the thrill and the challenge. They thrive on the creative process and the beauty of really collaborating with their producers to best showcase their products. On creating a unique dining experience for their guests that show a true sense of place and time.
 


 

It Costs More

 

High quality, locally sourced food costs more. Definitely more than food from Sysco or Restaurant Depot, and for good reason. A near-unreasonable amount of money, time and labor goes into farming: whether it’s raising free-range, organic chickens, growing heirloom salad mix, or anything in between. I won’t even attempt to list or explain the amount of thought and planning that’s required, the supplies and equipment needed, the risk and potential for things to go wrong and loss to occur. Let alone the time and labor, something that often goes unaccounted for all together.

And the reality is that food should actually cost even more than it does. Many small farmers are barely making a living wage. Family farmers often have to supplement their income with off-farm jobs to make ends meet. Sourcing locally also costs restaurants more money because it takes more time: time spent ordering, prepping ingredients and adjusting menus. Margins are low for the farmers and for the restaurants that are buying from them.

I recognize that it’s not affordable for a lot of people to patronize such restaurants. Some people are able to eat out regularly, or may save such meals for special occasions, some not at all. But the point should be made that US residents spend the lowest percentage of their income on food than any other country in the world – under 10%. That’s less than half of what was spent 30 years ago and half as much as people in similarly developed countries like France and Switzerland spend. In India about 1/4 of a household’s income goes to food and in Pakistan it’s nearly half. [See articles on IBTimes or The Atlantic]

So overall, we need to start spending more money on food, whether it’s out at restaurants, at the farmers market or at the grocery store, so the people that are growing, raising and preparing it are earning what they deserve.

There’s always a ragged edge to innovation, that famous farmer Joel Salatin said. The only path to greater transparency in our food system is consumer activism.
Ask questions. Be prepared for the answers.
“When it comes to something as intimate and personal as our bodies’ fuel,” Salatin said, “I beg people to be as discerning as they are about the Kardashians.”

What does local really mean?

 
What it comes down to is that Eaters should demand transparency. We all need to educate ourselves and know the right questions to ask. If we truly want to support local food and the chefs and restaurants that are doing the right thing, we need to know what that means to those restaurants and to ourselves. Really get to know the farms and restaurants you frequent, as much as possible, and be prepared to pay a higher price if you want to support local.

Laura Reiley followed up her article with some recommendations on how to tell if local food is actually local:

    Understand Seasonality – Know what grows near you and when
    Define “Local” – From within the state? 100 miles away? 500 miles away?
    Read Labels – Organic, naturally-raised, prime meat vs choice meat – know what these terms mean
    Get involved – Ask questions, get to know your chefs and farmers, be curious and put in the work to understand

 
And finally, recognize that sourcing locally isn’t for everyone, but then restaurants shouldn’t claim such. Restaurants should be held accountable. It’s not acceptable to “forget” to change a menu or downright lie on the origins of seafood, meat or vegetables. It dilutes the movement and takes away from hard working chefs and restauranteurs who are going the extra distance everyday. For those Feeders, farm to table is not just a trend, it’s how they do business.

 

Read the full article: At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you’re being fed fiction by Laura Reiley [published April 13, 2016 on TampaBay.com]

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