When you start talking about chefs and restaurants and their sustainable sourcing practices (or lack thereof), you stir up some strong feelings, especially with people who are working hard to do their part in this industry and know what that takes. When Laura Reiley wrote an article in the Tampa Bay Times last week outing a number of restaurants for lying on their so-called local, farm-to-table restaurant menus, I couldn’t help but wonder what other chefs, farmers and advocates thought. We all know it’s a trend, that there are businesses out there trying to capitalize on consumers wanting to “buy local” and “support local agriculture”. These have all become marketing terms.
Through the buzzwords there are people with extreme integrity that are growing, raising, cooking, preparing, selling and promoting good food. It’s definitely not easy but it’s important, and they wouldn’t do it any other way. We asked some members of the LET um EAT Collective and our network of Seeders, Feeders and Eaters who are a part of this food revolution how they felt about Laura Reiley’s article. These are the people actually integrated into their local food systems, which makes it easy to see when others are not, and demand truth and transparency for everyone’s sake.
Ben Meyer, Chef & Owner, Old Salt Marketplace, Portland, OR
Businesses will say what they need to touch the heartstrings of their customers. Sometimes they overstate. Often they don’t even know the truth.
It is hard to run a whole restaurant (or two!) On all direct sourcing.
Ultimately, I think it is the duty of the diner to ask the questions about where their food comes from. Sometimes that means asking the establishment, but they may be misinformed, so it takes digging deeper. In the case of Carlton farms pork…knowing that they are located in Carlton Oregon, and having farm in their name, leads you to believe they raise hogs there. They do not. With a little digging, you will learn about the Canadian suppliers who ship hogs, by the trainload, down to Carlton for processing. Then it is the diners’ choice whether to support that or not.
I don’t think it is realistic for all (or even most) restaurants or grocery stores to sell local goods only. But I do think they should be held accountable for claiming they do.
There will always be someone trying to make money off of some solid idea that they treat as a “trend”. I encourage folks to dig a little deeper. You can tell when you walk into a place by how they treat their employees and in turn how those employees treat the customer if what sword they brandish is true.
If you care to know, the information is there.
It doesn’t have to be a Portlandia-esque conversation, but ask the people who work there if you care. You will know. The others will go away at some point because they can’t make any more money off it and the folks who are committed will remain committed.
Lauren Vannatter, Sustainable Fish Monger, TwoXSea, Portland, OR
I am very impressed by the author of this article. I hope that it is a wake-up call for the diners, restaurants and vendors not only in Florida but across the nation. Chefs work hard, it is understandable that things will slip through the cracks. As customers we assume certain things when buzzwords are shoved in our faces. We are all responsible for our own actions; there is no one holding us accountable. If we care about what we are putting into our bodies it is on us to demand traceability in sourcing. Although traceability can be more easy to follow for produce and meat than it is for seafood (which is, in general a purposefully “gray” industry); the importance of integrity is the same across the board.
We just have to work a little harder to expose the truth. Ask questions and seek the truth in the farmers, fishermen, ranchers & foragers who are doing it right.
When I tell someone I’m a food writer, often the first thing they say is, “Oh, so you’re a restaurant critic?” And I have to say no, I don’t know enough about food to be able to criticize professionals; I’m just a home cook who loves to eat. An enthusiast, if you will.
What I do care about when it comes to restaurants is truthfulness. As a food writer who tries to tell informative stories about how our food gets from the fields—or forests or rivers or oceans—to our plates, it’s important to me that readers get accurate information so that they can be more informed consumers.
When, as in the examples that Laura Reiley cites in her story in the Tampa Bay Times, restaurant owners and chefs obfuscate, stretch the truth or outright lie, it undermines the power that we have to make informed decisions about what we eat.
In one example that I ran across recently, when a supermarket chain posts a billboard saying that their beef has never seen a feedlot, but they’re only talking about the 100 percent grass-fed meat in their butcher cases—which, by law, must be fed only grass from weaning to slaughter—that’s confusing to their customers who then think that none of the meat in the case has been fed the GMO corn and soy, along with antibiotics, that feedlot animals are given before slaughter.
Likewise the local restaurant that has a blackboard touting a list of the local farms they buy from, when it’s January and 90 percent of those farms don’t have crops available at that time of the year. Or restaurant menus that state their meat is bought from suppliers that have the word “Farms” in their names, but those “farms” are just a slaughterhouse that processes factory-farmed meat shipped in from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Or a “farm” that raises its chickens in closed buildings with a barely passable vent to the outside, birds that spend their short lives in litter that is contaminated with their own urine and feces.
Fortunately for us here in Oregon and the Northwest, good sources of food are plentiful for both home cooks and professional chefs, from farmers’ markets—60 and counting in the metro area at the peak of the season—to farms, fishing boats and ranches that derive some to all of their income from retail accounts. We also have a plethora of organizations that promote and encourage small family farms and beginning farmers, as well as nascent efforts to bring chefs together with seed breeders and farmers to grow more marketable, tastier crops.
And there are many, many restaurant owners and chefs who wage the daily struggle with the hassle of ordering and scheduling deliveries from dozens of sources, and who shop the farmers’ markets for the freshest ingredients for their customers. As Ms. Reiley writes in her article and is reiterated in Leah Scafe’s response, it’s up to us to be informed consumers, ask questions and hold our food sources responsible as much as we can. And that is what is going to change our food system, both locally and nationally, into a much more workable, healthy and sustainable one.
Photo Credit: Laura Reiley, Tampa Bay Times
Read the original article by Laura Reiley: At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you’re being fed fiction [Tampa Bay Times, April 13, 2016]
And my response to the article: Farm to Table or Farm to Fable: A Restaurant Critic’s Expose