By Phil McGrath, Chef and Owner of the Iron Horse Grill in Pleasantville
The culinary mantra which is being embraced by chefs from all sections of the country and increasingly the world is, “Think globally, eat locally.” A noble cause if ever there was one, but just how easy and practical is it to accomplish this as a chef in the Hudson Valley or other parts of the country for that matter?
In the course of human history the ability to procure fresh food products from further than a day’s journey from home, or the restaurant for that matter, is a relatively new phenomenon. It is only since the advent of rapid transportation and refrigeration that we can get asparagus and raspberries from South American growers in winter or tuna from Hawaii or game from Scotland over-nighted via UPS.
The first question that should come to mind is the quality and flavor of these products. Personally I feel that the majority of the fruits and vegetables that are shipped long distances lack the flavor of the local version. Most of the fruits are picked before they are optimally ripe. Food scientists have developed hearty hybrids that are grown more for appearance and their ability to travel than for their taste. A freshly harvested raspberry at the Pleasantville Farmers’ Market from a local farm is light years ahead of its cousins shipped from Central America in flavor. But get them quick; their season is short, and they are fragile and wonderfully sweet.
Heartier things like meats, oysters, well-handled fish, and poultry can fare much better than fragile produce. As long as they are handled correctly these foodstuffs can maintain their high quality while being shipped substantial distances. One of the menu items at Iron Horse Grill includes Fishers Island Oysters from off the coast of Connecticut. If I call Steve at the oyster farm before noon, he will have his wonderful bivalves on the 3 o’clock ferry and in my kitchen by 11 am the next day and they are none the worse for wear.
There is a concept out there called the 200-mile diet. Proponents feel that we should not consume anything produced more than 200 miles from where we live. A bit extreme, don’t you think? Just because we can not effectively grow bananas, pineapples, avocados, figs, and the like in our northern climate, should we stop eating them just because they are not locally grown?
The ancient Silk Route that wound its way from the far reaches of China, through Central Asia to its terminus in Europe wasn’t just for the trade in the fine thread. It was the way that then-exotic spices like black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom made their way west to vastly improve the bland diet of ancient Europe. Today should we just rely on rosemary, thyme, and other northern herbs and eschew pepper, saffron and others that cannot thrive in our climate?
Just because we can not effectively grow bananas, pineapples, avocados, figs, and the like in our northern climate, should we stop eating them just because they are not locally grown?
Last week I gave two cooking demonstrations/lessons. The first one was at Rainbeau Ridge Farm in Bedford Hills, an organic, sustainable farm in Northern Westchester (visit their site for more information and availability), the second at Fortunoff’s in White Plains. At Rainbeau Ridge there was a group of about 12 women along with Lisa Schwartz, the owner and driving force behind the farm. We spoke about “prolonging the harvest” by canning, freezing, pickling and preserving the bounty at the end of the relatively short growing season for the rest of the year. We all agreed that it was a lot of work, and finding the time to do it would be a challenge but worth it in the long run. By using these preservation methods we agreed that we could “eat locally” throughout the winter months.
For the Fortunoff demo, I was lucky enough to have Deb Taft with me, the “grower” at Rainbeau Ridge. She brought with her what she harvested that day: a multiple variety of peppers, hot and sweet ranging in color from deep green to red to chocolate. She also had a myriad of herbs and some lettuces that she raises as well. Of course she brought along a few varieties of the wonderful goat cheeses that the farm is famous for. We talked to the 100 or so attendees about the heirloom varieties of the peppers that she brought as well as the concept of eating only what is local and fresh. We roasted some of the peppers, dressed them in extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and fresh milled pepper, topped them with a scoop of the fresh chevre and a salad of the herbs Deb brought and surrounded the whole thing with a gastrique made from reduced local apple cider and balsamic vinegar. The flavors were fresh, bright, and mostly local.
We all agreed that these local heirloom products tasted better than the hybrids available at the local supermarket. Deb noted that the fuel spent to transport foods from far away places is a hidden cost that has a major impact on the environment and the cost of the item itself. We came to the consensus that, unless one was committed to limiting their choices to only locally produced raw ingredients, we balance the foods from far away with local products as much as possible. That was sound advice not only for the novice cook, but to the professional as well.
Part of the problem with only consuming what is in season and grown close to home is the repetitiveness of the products due to the short, intense, local growing season. At home we belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm called Roxbury. Roxbury is one of the largest of its kind, (Rainbeau Ridge is a CSA as well but only able to accommodate a limited number of members). In the spring we make an initial contribution to the farm, literally “seed” money, so that the farmers can have start-up capital. Every Wednesday we go to a local home, which acts as a pick up station for the fresh fruits and vegetables. The problem is that after the first four weeks of getting beautiful heirloom and plum tomatoes, for instance, the next three weeks the shine is off the tomato, so to speak. We wind up turning them into sauce and freezing them for future use, our way of “prolonging the harvest.” Our share the last two weeks included giant red and green cabbages and beautiful apples. I am afraid that I will be looking at cabbages and apples for the foreseeable future.
What can be seen as another deterrent to the completely local food concept is the cost factor. The majority of locally grown and raised eggs, meats, vegetables, and fruits are comparatively very expensive to those grown on larger farms. When it comes to things that really matter like fresh ripe local tomatoes and corn or fragile greens, the cost is worth it. But when it comes to something like bulk carrots ($14 for 25 lbs. from the Hunts Point market vs. $2/lb. at the greenmarket) or onions ($14 for 50 lbs. vs. $1.75/lb. at the greenmarket) that mostly wind up in a stock that is where a chef may try to save a little money.
The rule of thumb in the restaurant business is that your “food cost” is around 32 percent of the menu price (the other 68 percent is eaten up by other costs such as rent, insurance, payroll, utilities, advertising, linen, carting, and, if you are lucky, a little profit for your hard work). For example, a main course of an eight ounce filet mignon (about $8.75 raw cost this week) with a basic sauce ($.75), starch ($1) and vegetable ($1) costs the restaurant $11.50 to produce. Throw in another $.50 to cover the cost of the bread, butter, or olive oil that comes with it and you can see why some menu prices are escalating like the price of a barrel of Middle East crude. Although many of us think that the Hudson Valley is at least the equal of the Napa Valley when it comes to natural beauty, they differ dramatically when it comes to climate. As anyone who is paying attention to the environment knows, it may change in the near future, but for now our climate is not as temperate as it is in the Napa Valley. Our growing season is shorter and the type of produce that we can grow differs. I would love to feature fresh Hudson Valley products year round and only use locally grown but it is not as practical or easy as it seems.
The rule of thumb in the restaurant business is that your “food cost” is around 32 percent of the menu price (the other 68 percent is eaten up by other costs such as rent, insurance, payroll, utilities, advertising, linen, carting, and, if you are lucky, a little profit for your hard work). For example, a main course of an 8-ounce filet mignon (about $8.75 raw cost this week) with a basic sauce ($.75), starch ($1) and vegetable ($1) costs the restaurant $11.50 to produce. Throw in another $.50 to cover the cost of the bread, butter, or olive oil that comes with it and you can see why some menu prices are escalating like the price of a barrel of Middle East crude.
I am all for and do support local sustainable farmers and believe in their mission. I also have a business to run and customers to feed, so I must balance the two to succeed in the Westchester restaurant market.
I think the best approach is the one that Deb conveyed at our demonstration. Pick your poison so to speak. Pairing Alaskan wild salmon with Hudson Valley grown sorrel and ramps or wild boar from Texas with Dutchess County apples, or California black mission figs with Rainbeau Ridge Farms chevre cheese seems to be a way to both support local farmers, growers and producers, eat locally, seasonally and sustainably, all the while keeping our restaurant menus interesting and cost effective.