This is part of NRN's special coverage of the 2012 Food & Wine Classic held in Aspen, Colo., June 15-17. Follow all of our coverage at NRN's 'Aspen Food & Wine Classic' section.
It wasn’t that long ago that the farm-to-table movement was a niche occupied by only young chefs who cared far less about profit than they did about putting spectacular ingredients on the plate. Now, the idea of restaurants with strong connections to farmers and ranchers has become so mainstream that those who don’t have direct connections to the land may be at a competitive disadvantage. This point and others were discussed by four industry power players at the American Express Restaurant Trade Program in Aspen, Colo., at the Food & Wine Classic.
The panelists were John Besh of New Orleans, Sean Brock of Charleston, Niki Leondakis of San Francisco and Michel Nischan of Connecticut. The panel was moderated by Chicago television personality Steve Dolinsky.
A video of the seminar can be viewed in its entirety at Restaurant Briefing.
So why should restaurants grow their own food?
Michel Nischan, the chef/owner of The Dressing Room restaurant in Connecticut explained that America’s food culture had gotten so homogenized that we’ve all become too disconnected from the land. Now we want to know where our food comes from and how it was grown. And many people are looking to restaurants to provide that information.
John Besh, the chef/owner of several acclaimed New Orleans restaurants, explained that he has his own farm and the food that comes from it instills pride in his staff. The food they make from that land has soul because of that connection. People can taste your connection to the land, he said.
Sean Brock, the executive chef of McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, expressed the same sentiments. “When a chef sees a carrot plucked from the ground, they peel it slower and they cook it with more care. That connection to the land truly leads to better quality food that people crave.”
And though he has his own 2.5-acre farm, Brock says there are others locally who can simple do it better than he can and they are his partners. He told a story of how his cooks would complain about a guy who provides the restaurants with clams and oysters. He would often deliver late, but the oysters and clams were always in a pristine manner. One day Brock picked up a load of oysters and dropped them on the table and asked his chefs to clean them. By the end, all the cooks had bandages on their hands from cuts. They never complained again, he laughed. Having good partners is good.
Niki Leondakis is president and chief operating officer of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, which has 54 boutique hotels and chef-driven restaurants throughout the United States. She explained that many of the Kimpton restaurants have rooftop or patio gardens that provide vegetables and herbs. “When servers are passionate about the products they serve, it affects the top line.” Their excitement makes customers excited.
Just because a restaurant is located in a cold climate doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be buying locally, explained Nischan. “There is nothing wrong with being without things. Having the need for a tomato on a burger 365 days a year is ridiculous.”
Brock, who grows a number of heirloom crops and studies 19th-century Southern cookbooks, said so many crops end up on the compost heap at the end of the season when they should, instead, be canned and preserved. “Then you can have great products all year long.”
How do restaurants best promote their connections to farmers and producers?
In the ’90s, menu descriptions were a paragraph long, which was silly, says Besh. “You don’t want to be too precious.”
Brock agreed, saying his menu merely describes a few ingredients for each dish. But along the side of his menus is a long list of farms and the products they supply. “If someone is interested, all the information is there.”
Should chefs be concerned that by embracing the so-called farm-to-table movement they’re merely exploiting a trend?
“Don’t worry about it,” said Brock. "It’s the right thing to do.”
Farm-to-table is not a fad; it’s here to stay, said Leondakis. Paying attention to the environment is a good thing for everyone.
“As chefs and restaurateurs we’ve been given a platform to raise awareness and educate,” added Brock. One shouldn’t be afraid to use their restaurants and menus to show people a better way to cook and eat.
A version of this article appears at NRN.com sister site Restaurant-Hospitality.com.
Follow Michael Sanson on Twitter: @MikeSansonRH.