Asking the Right Questions About Local Eateries
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DANIELLE MULCAHY
Once upon a time in a land not so far away, a restaurant was born. And this brainchild, known to all as the Farmers Diner in Barre, Vermont, was heralded back in 2002; not by angels but by scribes at publications like The New York Times and Harper’s. Aspiring to make this the first local sustainable diner in the country, the king of this domain, Tod Murphy, loved his creation very much and gave it a motto to live by; “Hope cuisine, not haute cuisine.” But his child failed to thrive. Perhaps it was because they didn’t serve orange juice at a breakfast place—but whoever heard of local Vermont oranges? Or maybe it was the fact that patrons “couldn’t understand the value of paying $1 more for breakfast with eggs sourced from down the road” as the king decried. Eventually, after some success and expansion, his child fell victim to a flagging economy and closed, leaving behind the question: Is a truly sustainable restaurant merely a flash in the pan, or worse yet, a fairy tale?
This fable raises much larger questions as well: What is a truly sustainable restaurant? Do we, as patrons, require our meals to be local, sustainable, cruelty-free and/or organic, as well as affordable? And how do food purveyors begin to provide that?
To understand how a restaurant functions, you need to look first at sourcing. Most restaurants buy their ingredients from larger distributors who themselves buy from larger manufacturers or producers. Large, as we have all come to realize, is often inherently unsustainable. But, at the same time, sourcing from small farms is not without its complications. Consistency and supply are always problematic when you have 25 suppliers and even more so when you have 50 or even 100. Each producer or farmer has a different way of growing vegetables, raising steer or pickling ramps. And with that comes the inevitable slump in production due to seasonality.
Chickens don’t lay as much in winter nor do cows produce as much milk—their yields dropping just as Christmas cookie season hits. This is not taking into account that, in colder weather, vegetable is spelled r-o-o-t in much of the Northeast and, oh right, oranges don’t grow in Vermont (or anywhere in the Northeast, for that matter). This seasonality greatly limits restaurants for up to six months at a time if they are sticking strictly local.
Meat brings with it an additional burden of not only having to find a supplier but a butcher as well, if the chef is doing the right thing by buying a whole animal. And if that’s the case, that’s a significant amount of meat broken down into cuts that most restaurant patrons don’t want. If you are a 4-star restaurant, what are you going to do with 250 pounds of ground chuck and one hanger steak. Cause that’s all there is on a steer—one hanger steak.
Seafood is even harder these days—farmed, wild, line-caught? The news is filled with stories of slave shrimp shuckers and mercuryladen fish. Tofu is most often made from GMO soy products, and vegetables, if they are not organic, are often drenched in pesticides and herbicides. And we haven’t even begun to talk about animal welfare or workers’ rights (both of which people don’t talk about often enough). Are my eggs free-range (cause cage-free doesn’t cut it) and are my apple pickers getting minimum wage; is my server getting health insurance? And then there’s waste, water, recycling, energy, paper and cleaning products…. It’s an overwhelming amount to think about, whether you are running a restaurant or choosing to dine at one.
So how can one become a conscientious consumer without starting to lose one’s mind? To be certain, the Hudson Valley is home to many sustainably focused eateries as well as those striving to achieve the moniker and feed locals while sustaining the farming community. Here are the rules I follow to encourage their efforts while also enjoying a good meal “out,” but feel free to adapt them to your personal choices and lifestyle:
- Be willing to pay for “better” food—sustainability isn’t just about being “green,” it’s about a sustainable way of life, for you, the restaurateurs and their staff.
- Understand what can be sustainable in your area and what cannot be. E.g., as a general rule tomatoes in February are not available in the Hudson Valley.
- Ask questions and expect good answers. One of my favorite sourcing stories is from friends who went to an excellent restaurant known for its impeccable sourcing. They asked where the pork chops were from and they were told White Marble Farms. White Marble Farms is a division of Sysco, a multinational corporation worth billions. It’s just another way for a huge conglomerate to look small and cozy.
- Praise chefs who are doing the right thing and support them. But understand the concessions they often have to make. If a menu is 75 percent sustainable, understand that sourcing the other 25 percent may be impossible.
- Make up your mind about what you are comfortable with—I have an Asian “exception” that I am happy to live by. Meaning that when I go out for Asian food I will eat pork, seafood and other things I might not in other types of restaurants. My love of dumplings overwhelms my politics at times.
- Familiarize yourself with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (seafoodwatch.org) and the Eat Well Guide (eatwellguide.org). I also like Slow Food’s Snail of Approval Awards for NYC-based shops and restaurants.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Smarter Living/ Shopping Wise section on their website is an invaluable “resource for everything from choosing the most sustainable seafood to ordering seasonally and locally.
- Promote restaurants that you think are doing the right thing but call restaurants out privately if you think that they are not. Yelp and TripAdvisor are terrible forums to convince chefs to change their minds about sourcing or how they are labeling things on their menu.
- Be your own middleman: If you know of a great source for local goat cheese, tell the chef (not during the dinner rush, please!), but understand that just because you love it doesn’t mean it will work for the restaurant; economies of scale may mean that your favorite chèvre is just too expensive for your favorite restaurant.
- Praise the staff and inspire them to be storytellers and advocates for the food they are serving. Everyone wants to feel good at his or her job.
Lastly, keep your expectations consistent and reasonable. Hold restaurateurs to the same (or similar) standards you apply to your own kitchen, and know that sustainability is a moving target and more of a journey than a destination.