According to Dan Barber, famous proprietor of Blue Hill in Manhattan, "When you pursue great flavor, you also pursue great ecology." You see evidence of it everywhere now: in small charcuterie plates, in fresh green salads, in house-made sausage, in fresh-roasted green chile in the fall. It's all an offshoot of the farm-to-table movement, and it is not new. Its American roots lie in the post-Silent Spring alternative food movements of the '60s, and globally in the food movement first delineated by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner as a response to the burgeoning industrialized farming methods that were an offshoot of the chemical engineering improvements brought about during World War I.
Early on, though, all of this was seen as hippie-style counterculturalism, as the convenience of processed food was not yet considered problematic in terms of nutrition. Nowadays, the counterculture has gone mainstream. Concerns over personal health and damage to the environment have spawned a more holistic approach. The city that is dependent on food trucked in from California or Florida has fallen out of fashion. Why not build a strong local economy out of supplying the basic needs of its citizens, and maybe generate some food that actually tastes good while we're at it?
Because the money to be made through supplying national chains and larger institutions is too big of a draw, large-scale farming remains much more prevalent (and profitable, from a farmer's perspective) than small-scale. Local institutions like schools and hospitals have trouble supporting locavore habits without legislation helping to achieve them. But a restaurant can convert to this change by turning to local suppliers for food, or even growing their own, and create a flavorful and positive experience for its customers. "Collaborating with chefs is thrilling, if you know what they're looking for," says Lauren Kendall Shane, head gardener at Arroyo Vino and wife of Chef Colin Shane. "Chefs look at food totally differently. It's a whole other level of creativity. I like to focus on the energy of the field, and then I show it to Colin and he puts it on a plate and shares it with people."
Lauren's point stands that sourcing locally for food means adopting more creative expectations for what can be made. A small-scale farm that rotates its crops for the health of its soils won't always consistently bring wheat or corn to the table, but maybe millet or barley instead. A creative restaurateur will take advantage of this seasonality to constantly change the menu, even though this means that certain favorite items won't always be available. This means that by giving up our dependency on certain foods, we can encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable practices in the fields. "Not everyone loves kohlrabi or beets," Noela Figueroa of midtown eatery Bodega Prime says, "but I think we have a responsibility to make those intimidating items more approachable." As an example, Figueroa took celery root and pickled it, turning it into a workable ingredient for her Reuben.
It's hard to make sweeping generalizations about improvements that can be made regarding both farming and restaurant practices. After all, it takes a lot of labor to run either type of institution, and the smaller the scale, the harder it is to operate with total efficiency. Because of the costs of energy and labor, it is still cheaper for a restaurant to buy produce from California than New Mexico, putting the grower-farmer at a decided disadvantage. But a restaurant that is willing to pickle and preserve, or even process its own meat, shoulders some of that work.
Dr. Field Goods Butcher Shop and Bakery, an expansion of the killer fast-casual eatery that proudly sources as much as possible from local farms, also supplies other restaurants with locally processed meats from its own butcher shop. Even the in-house charcuteries done by high-end farm-to-table restaurants such as 315 Restaurant and Wine Bar and Radish and Rye contribute to a food system that ensures a strong local economy, not to mention that what is served on the table is as fresh and low-carbon as possible. Both restaurants also make their own mustards, preserves and chutneys, extending the bounty of the summer growing season. It is too naive to expect the same access year-round to local foods, but it can be a powerful marketing draw in the wintertime to experience eating preserved foods sourced locally and crafted with care.
There are food hubs that provide both to institutions and directly to consumers, such as the Santa Fe Farmers Market and La Montañita Co-op, and CSAs from Beneficial Farms and Squash Blossom Farm. All of these are laying the groundwork for a strong local food system, taking care of the hard work that is processing and distribution. They also provide access to ingredients beyond produce and proteins, such as local flours and honey. But there are also restaurants that have taken matters into their own hands and grow some of their own food directly. Perhaps the best local example is Arroyo Vino, which sources its garnishes, herbs, salad greens, and some vegetables extensively from its own gardens; Plants of the Southwest also seasonally caters to its customers in The Kitchen; and State Capital Kitchen grows some of its own ingredients in raised beds outside the door.
The early writings about the health of the soil and the farm that were put forth by Steiner (the scientist and philosopher), mainly the idea of a farm as a complete organism, are now becoming more widely entertained—if not outright accepted. There is a language for what works in the field that can be extended to what works for our own town. If we free ourselves from dependency on outside sources for our foods, starting with restaurants and hopefully extending to what our kids eat in schools and what patients eat at their hospital beds, what is to say that the health of our community cannot be improved as well?