Four months ago, I opened the first farm-to-table restaurant in eastern Oregon. Besides the expected headaches of managing money (what money?), juggling staff schedules (i.e., no-shows) and equipment failures (hello, electrical fire), I’ve thought a lot about the term “farm to table,” as in, What does it really look like in action?
It’s now common for restaurants in every major city to tout local food. Some prominent chefs have even suggested that the “locavore” trend is tired. But from where I stand — in the hub of Oregon’s bread basket — it’s clear that we have a long way to go to connect eaters with their food sources. Just like the early days of recycling, if every homemaker, cook, foodie and caregiver in every household makes basic shifts in how they buy, use and prepare food, we can build a bona fide system of sustainable agriculture: the ultimate goal of the farm-to-table movement.
As a new chef, it’s dawned on me that I learned much of what I now employ to localize my menu from years of feeding my family at home. Far from what many believe, the practices I follow are not expensive, labor-intensive or terribly exotic. Distilled to five habits, they are easy and effective ways for anyone to adopt a farm-to-table way of life, starting right now.
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Buy direct on a regular basis
Sure, you can forage for wild mushrooms, fish for trout or raise your own egg-laying chickens, but leveraging local food stems from your purchasing power. While typical restaurants order everything from lettuce to pork chops from one big supplier, I purchase directly from several ranchers and growers every week. You can do the same by replacing an item or two you ordinarily purchase at the supermarket with a product from a favorite farmers market vendor, a local rancher or farmer or even via a source on the web. Here’s the key: Don’t do it just once, do it over again, weekly, monthly or annually. By becoming a regular customer, you know you’re getting great quality, and small-scale producers earn their livelihood.
Adapt every menu
Local eating involves shifting our thinking about what we prepare and when. Or, in the words of Ned Ludd’s chef Jason French, “Our menu is driven by the farm.” He has learned how sensitive family farms are to the whims of nature. “It works against us sometimes, but it connects us to the farm cycle.” The question to ask before deciding on a recipe is: What is available now? If it’s tomato season, by all means, make a BLT, but if it’s November, a kale Caesar will not only taste better but will be more economical. With practice (or a quick web search), you can readily find and learn seasonal substitutes for your favorite recipes.
Use whole animals, whole plants
One of the unexpected benefits of cooking with fresh, locally produced foods is how nearly every part of the plant or animal can be food (or compost). When Country Cat’s executive chef Adam Sappington butchers whole hogs, he masterfully repurposes the bones, meat, fat and trim. At home, you can practice whole animal eating by cutting up a whole chicken: Bones become soup, breast meat fills chicken quesadillas and thighs and legs get braised. The principle also applies to vegetables: From radish tops to beet greens, there are many edible parts for salads and sautés, and the scrapings from carrots, onion skins or corn cobs become a quick stock for the best vegetable soups.
Use your freezer wisely
Think about what’s in your freezer. Did you know you could replace the freezer-burnt contents with a quarter share of grass-fed beef, flats of strawberries or bags of basil pesto? At my restaurant, the chest freezer is like my food federal reserve. Stocked and regularly rotated, it enables me to offer more local farm-raised foods for more months of the year to more people. Freezing your food is the most convenient, no-mess way to extend the local eating season all the way through winter — although I encourage anyone to try other preserving options, including canning, pickling and fermenting.
Choose progress over perfection
Making a lifestyle from an ethic of local eating does not commit you to the 100-mile diet. Iconoclastic chef Leather Storrs builds his Noble Rot menu from a rooftop garden above the Portland skyline, but he asserts that purely local eating is a fallacy. There are times of the year when it’s downright challenging to choose what’s seasonal. In many ways, farm-to-table is an intentional effort to eat from within our own food shed to whatever extent we choose. So, start small and slow with one item you regularly buy — be it eggs, beef, bread or lettuce — and you’ve already joined the change.
Main photo: Portland, Ore., chef Jason French goes the extra miles to buy local on his custom-made market bike. Credit: Ben Leonard