WHERE CREDIT IS DUE: The back page of menus at Piatti locations talks about the sources of some locally obtained ingredients.
EMPTY FREEZERS: "Our walk-ins are almost empty," says Bradley Ogden (center) of his namesake restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where the menu changes daily to reflect a focus on fresh.
MAKING THE NUMBERS WORK: 1789 Restaurant's Ris Lacoste, below, works all the angles to minimize the impact of paying about double for specialty produce.
Ris Lacoste's fondness for farmers markets transcends simple love; she freely admits that jamming her old Honda with crates of field-fresh produce is an addiction. "I can't stand it, I'm so happy to be there...the colors are so sensational, so stunning to the eye, I just want to buy it all," she rhapsodizes. The chef of 1789 Restaurant in Washington's Georgetown district visits the local FreshFarm Markets Sundays year-round; sometimes she goes more often, on the prowl for a discovery that will spark her culinary imagination.
"It's much more expensive to do, and it's hard to do," she admits. "It's definitely a commitment, but it's so worth it," she adds.
Americans are increasingly interested in knowing where their food is coming from. Small and and organic farmers and specialty producers are responding to that demand; at the restaurant level, more chefs like Lacoste are rethinking the way they develop their menus. For her, recapturing the farm-to-table culture is a creative kick, a show of respect for ingredients and a test of her gastronomic chops; others do it as a way to show support for the local economy.
The latter motivation was a driving force for Piatti, a group of 15 rustic Italian restaurants clustered in the Southwest. Each of the restaurants builds on a core menu, but fills it out with local and regional tastes. That, and a desire to help sustain the local economy, led to development of Piatti Locali (loosely translated, "local plates"), a section of the menu devoted to nearby farmers, livestock producers and fishers in each of the 15 markets where the restaurants are located. The back page of the menu tells brief stories about 7-10 local purveyors that supply the individual restaurants.
"We wanted to shorten the distance from the soil to the plate," says Bob Burke, president of the Mill Valley, CA-based company. "What we found when we looked at our own shelves is that some of the product was traveling all the way across the U.S., and it was silly." Today, Piatti menus feature just-picked produce, artisan cheese, California seafood, free range chicken, organic beef and more to different degrees, depending on the location.
Location, Location, Location
Depending on the part of the country, getting local products on a restaurant table is easier in theory than in practice. Ultimately, though, it's all about relationship building. For the Piatti unit in Danville, CA, that might mean looking in the immediate neighborhood for suppliers; at the one in San Antonio, the chef might have to cast a 20-mile net to round up something fresh from the farm.
"For most of our restaurants, it's not a problem," Burke says. The locations in California are in sufficiently small communities that word gets around when a restaurant is buying local products."Once the ball got rolling, they started coming to us. It kind of feeds on itself. Now we've become this restaurant where they say, 'you've got to go by there because they're looking.' Sometimes we might buy only one thing - maybe just peaches," he says.
With today's convenient overnight delivery services, some chefs have set up a virtual network of local suppliers. Bradley Ogden buys from more than 100 boutique growers, specialty meat, poultry and seafood suppliers and artisan cheesemakers from across the country to stock his eponymous new restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas as well as the other restaurants in his Lark Creek Restaurant Group in California. About 85 percent of the FedEx shipments he receives in Las Vegas have California return addresses; other items arrive from Vermont, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and other destinations, all from specialty producers that have established relationships with Ogden during his two decades in the business. His staff works from a basic product list, touching base with growers to flesh it out with items at their peak, but sometimes his suppliers surprise him with an unexpected bonus crop.
"A lot of times I don't even know what I'm going to get until the boxes show up, so the menu changes every day," Ogden says. It's clear that he wouldn't have it any other way. "This has always been our approach to food - farm to table," he explains. In the middle of the desert, those farms aren't just around around the corner, but overnight delivery does a fair job of closing up the geographic chasm.
Ogden says guests are "overwhelmed" at the variety of fresh products he's able to bring in. Still he admits he misses the unmistakable pleasures of items like corn pulled straight off the stalk or vine-ripened tomatoes still warm from the day's sun.
Ellen Yin, owner of the 68-seat Fork, an American-style bistro in Philadelphia, also turned to prized contacts to establish a network of local producers. She tends to work with farmers who understand the unique needs of restaurants, such as receiving product that has been cleaned and is ready to use. "The hardest thing is if you order something and it comes in just covered with dirtññwe don't have the labor for that," she observes.
Not a Perfect Solution
As passionate as many chefs are about sourcing boutique or organic ingredients, the practice is not without some flaws. One arguable negative, especially for chefs who insist on doing their own shopping, is the time required to find products. Michael Tusk, who opened the 45-seat Quince in San Francisco about a year ago, makes the rounds of the many farmers markets in the Bay Area as often as he can, sometimes more than one a day. He'll drive 90 minutes to pick up rabbits or turkeys in Sonoma County. He'll take off for an hour to pick up white asparagus at the Ferry Terminal market in the city. "As great as all the farmers are, a lot of them don't really go to the lengths to deliver to you unless you change around to fit their business schedule," he explains. Yet Tusk, a Chez Panisse alum who says he is happiest when he can introduce something new to the menu, doesn't mind the hassle. "I have a lot of time, since I'm pretty much here from seven in the morning until midnight," he says. He estimates that he personally orders or picks up about 70 percent of the components on the menu.
Tusk also cures his own salami and turns out sausages and vinegars on the premises and sees this personal attention to detail as a key to the strong buzz his restaurant has generated in its short history.-"When I can't get out there, it's not that the food suffers, but it's those little extra touches that make things very nice," he explains.
Another fairly universal drawback of local sourcing is the added cost. Building a menu this way is not cheap. "Our prices are high because everything is twice the cost," Ogden says. "We have to pass it on, but we don't charge quite as much as we really should."
Guests are overwhelmed at the variety of fresh product Ogden brings into Las Vegas, but he admits he misses the unmistakable pleasures of corn pulled straight off the stalk or vine-ripened tomatoes still warm from the day's sun.
PERSONAL TOUCH: Hand selecting much of what goes on the day's menu is a signature for Quince.
Not every restaurant operator has the same luxury of elevating menu prices to match the ingredient cost. Lacoste, who also estimates that buying from boutique sources approximately doubles her food cost for certain items, says she can't build that cost differential into her menu. She pulls every trick she knows— showing up at a farmers market just before closing time to take advantage of last-minute deals, taking care to use every part of a vegetable, exercising careful portion control and so on—to stretch seasonal products out to the max. "It's a game you have to play," she says.
Burke argues that the price gap is not that wide, and it has narrowed as more farmers have discovered a paying market for specialty and organic items. "It depends on how creative you get; if you find the right people, it can be just a few pennies more (for a dish)," he says.
Aside from restaurants in mild climates, insisting on local products can severely challenge the variety of products available for cold month menus. A lot of root vegetables show up on the menus for Yin, Lacoste and their colleagues in the northeast. "Spring is green and summer is hot red and yellow, but winter is brown," Lacoste says. Some local hothouses still produce salad greens, but other vegetable choices are limited, so it's back to a mainstream produce purveyor as necessary.
Restaurants like 1789 and others sometimes commit to buying a whole crop, which presents another issue: quality. "Local produce breathes the same air you do, and it's nutritionally sound because it hasn't traveled," Lacoste says. "But the flavor comes from the farmers and mother nature, and if it rains a lot, melons don't have a lot of flavor."
Just as too much of a mediocre thing is not good, a too-small producer that can't deliver adequate volume might leave a kitchen with a big gap on the menu.
Finally, the temptation to overbuy is both a plus and a minus. "There's so much out there that it's kind of hard to resist," Tusk says, as he mulls over a handful of shelling bean varieties he's spotted at a market.
"It's certainly harder," Burke says. "You don't pick up the phone and call one vendor and do all your ordering for the week. But we don't have kitchen managers, we have chefs - and they enjoy that. The chefs have embraced it."
As have the customers, who are increasingly aware that these restaurants are supporting the community and minimizing the time between harvest and consumption. "Our customers have told us, 'it's a better product, and we love the fact that you're buying from the farmer up the street,'" Burke says.
But Ogden points out what may be the biggest bonus of fresh, artisan ingredient: "It's hard to mess up...as long as you're starting with something really good."
Packaging the Farm
One New England entrepreneur is hoping to revolutionize how food gets onto restaurant plates, one diner at a time.
Tod Murphy, who spent two decades in retail food, started up the Farmers Diner in Barre, VT, with the ultimate goal of buying as much as possible from local farmers and small-scale food producers—not just produce, but eggs, cheese, bread, bacon, hamburger, poultry and other items essential to any respectable diner menu. His goal is to create an economy that will sustain the local farmer, a dying breed.
But when he hatched his plan in 1999, he quickly learned the infrastructure for all this didn't exist. The raw ingredients—pesticide-free produce; antibiotic-and hormonefree range-fed livestock and poultry; milk, cheese and eggs—were available, but no system to distribute or process them was in place. So Murphy set about solving a giant logistical puzzle. Eventually he found small local operations to process the products he needed. For the biggest challenge, meat, he enlisted nearby slaughterhouses to do that work and set up his own butchering and smoking operation.
His first Farmers Diner opened in 2002 and today, about 70 percent of the products come from area farms. It's never going to reach 100 percent—not with orange juice and coffee on the menu—but Murphy thinks it can stretch to 80 percent.
What Murphy envisions for the future is a network of central commissaries that will take in the raw products and prepare them to supply groups of five diners. The commissary would also sell Farmers Diner-branded products to upscale grocery stores, inns and foodservice customers.
His idea has caught the eye of a number of prominent investors who believe in Murphy. They, and Murphy, see a potential for hundreds of Farmers Diners across the country.