Editor's Note: Chris Hastings is the James Beard Award-winning chef of the acclaimed Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama.
The first time I heard a prominent chef bemoan the phrase "farm-to-table," I was in New York meeting with a group of chefs to discuss topics in and around our industry.
I cocked my head in that direction as if to say, “Did I just hear what I think I did?”
Another chef quickly chimed in that he was also "so tired of the farm-to-table movement," like it was no longer a legitimate or important way of thinking.
Seriously? That moment was neither the time nor place to have a debate so I chose, uncharacteristically, to make a note and keep my mouth shut - until now.
Since that time, chefs from around the world have gone on to echo those sentiments in an array of publications. Their declarations have run the gamut from stating that the philosophy is small-minded and naive, and that this “save the world” hogwash is no place for a chef. They seem to believe that a chef's only responsibility is to cook great food, and that anything else is a distraction.
One chef suggested that if you obsess about relationships with farmers, purveyors or producers, you do not have time to cook at all. I want to believe something was lost in translation because he could not have really meant that - it’s just ridiculous.
In defense of the chefs’ viewpoints, I will agree that the term is overused, abused and does not, in and of itself, make you a better cook or restaurant. I am also not of the mindset that every little thing you serve must come from within 200 miles of your restaurant - or whatever your particular philosophy dictates. Most restaurants do reach outside their self-imposed limits every now and again.
However, I grow concerned when some of the most influential voices of our time discourage the farm-to-table philosophy to the next generation of young thinkers, chefs, restaurateurs and, most importantly, leaders.
As is too often the case in our society, we are quick to discard oddities and excess in an effort to reach for the newest shiny object. We show little regard for the value of that we have just abandoned.
My defense rests in what I know, what I have seen and what has changed our country's eating habits profoundly over the last 20-plus years.
When a young, passionate chef decides to plant his or her flag in a backwater town, a small market or even a medium-sized market, they are always met with challenges relative to supply. They not only have to find it, they have to afford it. These folks have to live in the reality of the place where they’ve decided to open their restaurant.
So, what must they do to achieve their goals? Whether it’s the dream of becoming as good as any restaurant in the world or just a great restaurant that serves their particular community, they have to start the same: Make a few phone calls.
Chefs need to make it their mission to find the best, whether it's farmers, foragers, fishermen, a pig man, the local couple raising a few chickens and eggs or heirloom seed banks that are propagating vegetables, grains and fruit. They end up building a network of, arguably, the most disproportionately passionate people on the planet - the local purveyors. This network is key to getting the most bang for their buck.
Now, if developing these relationships affords them a better food supply, they express it in a way that resonates with their community and they introduce that community to those amazing people via their menu, they might still be open in year three.
Next thing you know, the local chefs and the newest, most important heroes in the food community - the purveyors - are now getting phone calls from folks wanting to start farmers markets, create edible schoolyards, organize food festivals, contribute to local charities, improve school cafeteria programs, discuss community development ideas through the prism of food and create a better, safer, more sustainable food supply. Shining a spotlight on these producers and their impact has the potential to educate the community and elevate its standards for food culture.
Solely focusing chefs’ responsibilities on preparing delicious food while not taking a leadership position on this and other issues is certainly a personal choice. Not everyone is going to agree with me, but please, before you throw out the baby with the bath water, recognize the important effects and benefits that the local food and farming movements have had on countless communities and how it has positively changed them forever.
At Hot and Hot Fish Club, we can, and do, use suppliers from any and all sources around the world, as I see fit.
We also choose to plant a seed that one day will grow and provide great shade for generations to come.
Leadership, I hope, will be our legacy.
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This diner's chosen sole responsibility is to eat fantastic food, with great drink, which necessitates a chef and mixologist who can provide that wherever "that' comes from. If you want to eat and drink yours with orverriding flavors of food politics, agendas or such notions, and you are certainly invited to avoid our table. Those who get caught in up with such things dine out for reasons other than mine. To each their own table.
you should definitely look into the politics of where you buy your products.
are the suppliers money or consumer driven – re: is the food they provide laden with bromide pesticides, flouridated and chlorinated water, diet sugars and salts, antibodies, instectides, perservatives, etc., etc., .
I got sick once from a farmer's market outing because I made the mistake of taste testing the strawberries to find the one that tasted right – i have not bought strawberries there since. What do those little seeds on the surface of strawberries really contain when sprayed and grown in chemical laden pesticides, insecticides, and perservatives, etc.?
little things like that can make a VERY big difference in the lives of some.
just one more thing to avoid.
As a chef in Tucson Arizona I had no actual ability to do farm to table in a meaningful way, nobody wants to subsist on beef, pork, chicken and pecans. That said we did get all of our beef, pork chicken and pecans locally, and a lot of produce from New Mexico. Be as local as you can while serving the food your guests crave.
We were late to the farm to table movement that's taken place in Austin over the past few years. We didn't want to have to raise our prices to reflect the price difference between conventional goods and the deluxe meats and produce that a handful of local chefs were using.
Then we decided to go all in. We ran a pop up where we sourced some high dollar groceries from local purveyors, raised the prices accordingly and had our biggest night ever.
This weekend we're producing another pop up event where we shelled out major money for a truckload of boutique meat and produce. We've got our fingers crossed that it will turn out favorably. Details http://www.scrumptiouschef.com/food/index.cfm/2013/2/4/Scrumptious-Chef-Restaurant-Pop-Up-8-Meet-Our-Purveyors-Part-3-Edens-Cove-Farm
What a beautifully written article! I am a retired chef and admittedly not part of the current "cognoscenti", but to my mind, there is no better way to cook that "farm to fork". Getting to know farmers was one of the most enjoyable part of my job and I always had time, if I didn't I made time, to get to know them. Thanks for taking a positive stance on this issue and for expressing yourself so eloquently.,
So true. Chefs are such an important part of the equation and able to bring much-needed awareness to local products. Logistical challenges aside, everyone will appreciate the extra effort and hopefully pay for it.
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