Monday, January 21, 2008

Sustainable Dining Versus The Working Chef

Sustainable Dining Versus the Working Chef
Chef Michael Hayes

The sustainable food movement is expanding rapidly both nationally and globally. Restaurants, hotels, schools and colleges are increasingly embracing sustainable food options in their operations. Especially programs such as the Farm to School program, which provides grant money to schools so that they can purchase local food and provide education to today’s youth on the prospects of growing and purchasing local product.

As a chef, especially a hands-on chef, there are a ton of obstacles that face the individuals that appreciate and would love to embrace the idea of sustainable dining.

The general idea of doing sustainable dining is attractive to any chef; in my humble opinion it is always about the food; always has been and always should be. The attraction is taking food from the planet to the palate. If life were that simple wouldn’t that be a beautiful concept?

In my simplicity of thought it is inspiring as a chef and human being to think that ALL food and food-based products begin with the natural resources that Mother Nature has been providing the human race with for tens of thousands of years.

All edible product begins with some form of a phytochemical yet in our industry we are complacent in purchasing/accepting products out of a bag or a box that has wasted a huge amount of resources; both natural and unnatural; so that we can sell a product for the simplicity of the sale instead of attempting to reduce the carbon footprint.

The universal thought of buying local and organic foods is quite compelling; regional businesses and farms supports the local economy, reduces the use of energy and the environmental costs relating to shipping products. My thought process is not only related to the food tasting better and being fresher but somewhere in the background of my brain housing group I am wondering what in the heck are we thinking?

There are obstacles that the planning chef faces when trying to establish a sustainable dining program and certain procedures they need to walk through in order to make the sustainable approach a reality.

Some of the obstacles that chefs confront are:
 Year round availability of product
 Lack of a dependable market
 Supply versus demand
 Product distribution
 Fair market value

Unfortunately, due to the nature of our profession these obstacles are a large deterrent to chefs investigating and resourcing products that they can use in their establishment.

I have spent an incredible amount of time trying to decipher these (and other) issues in order to achieve a sustainable dining establishment, and I feel that there are steps that the professional needs to take in order to turn this thought process into a reality.

 Develop a food mission statement, map out your vision and incorporate the systems necessary to achieve your goal.
 Identify wants and needs
 Meet and greet the local farmers. Build lasting relationships with these individuals, there aren’t many people that are as down to earth as a farmer.
 Embrace flexibility in working with the local farms and establish a system that will allow flexibility not only in purchasing, but also in the supply and demand of local product
 Be creative in menu implementation, spending and budget restrictions
 Institute awareness to the general public about your program, the products available locally and brand your local farmer on your menu
 Consider launching a special meal/event focusing on local fare instead of attempting to re-vamp your entire menu
 Discuss food issues with your local suppliers, farmers and your staff. Be open to all ideas and thought processes.
 Design a consortium with local businesses and other local chefs to develop a "power of purchase" program
 Plan in advance. Now is the optimal time to speak with your farmers as they are getting prepared for the next growing season.

Sometimes it is difficult not to be discouraged with situations that seem improbable, I consider them stepping stones in the learning process. Instead of getting discouraged I evaluate all progresses towards a sustainable program. One of the best ways that I have found to put this thought process into perspective is by staying up to date on all the developments locally by keeping in close contact with local farmers/producers, farmer markets, local distribution companies etc. Taking that step back to observe the progress is easier and more practical than attempting to sort out the improbabilities and brick walls that we sometimes find ourselves confronted with.

As chefs, it is our mission to enhance the consumer’s food literacy and one way that we can accomplish this is to make the public aware of what is available to them. If we can enhance the knowledge of one person as to what is available locally and give them a more sophisticated insight to food economics; enlist their help in supporting our local farmers and economy; and work together towards making this dream of a sustainable program a reality; as far as I am concerned we are all winners.

Executive Chef Michael Hayes of The Walker House in Mineral Point is a free-lance food writer discussing issues that confront his profession. Currently Michael is working on making the Walker House a sustainable dining establishment that is scheduled to open this Spring.