When a chef enters into the process of creating a menu, he or she has basically two options: a permanent menu or one that changes with the seasons. Executing a menu in a restaurant is all about decisions. And just like many things in life, the best choice is the hard one, the responsible choice.
While sourcing for local produce and proteins seems to have become synonymous with only the high-end eateries in town, that doesn’t have to be the reality. In fact, in my experience, it actually doesn’t have to be more expensive to source locally, it’s just more work. Sure a chef can create a static menu that never changes, and all they have to do is have one conversation with a Sysco freezer, in which case Sysco will scour the earth to find the materials needed. But not only is that bad for the environment, it’s bad for the consumer, and often results in a plate of food of lesser quality, i.e. the January tomato.
On the other hand, a chef can deal with local farmers. It requires constant communication and menu flexibility, but the results are a positive impact on everyone involved all the way down to the mouths of the consumer. The chef not only learns about his region, what things are coming out of the ground and water at what times, but he or she also learns how to utilize the full bounty of the earth which broadens the chef’s skills in the kitchen. For example, right now at Bar Normandy we’re working with a lot of root vegetables —turnips, radishes, sweet potatoes — along with hearty winter greens, like Siberian kale. This focus spreads through the kitchen down through the ranks, teaching the line cooks through constantly changing menus keeps their education moving and prevents them from becoming stagnant with an eight year old menu.
A symbiotic relationship is created. I can lower my food costs by talking with local farmers, fishermen, and ranchers by finding out what product they’re needing to move. For example, I get a great deal on drumsticks from Keegan-Filion because most local chefs want breasts and thighs. This deal rivals any price Sysco could offer me and I’m getting a local, responsibly raised, and simply better product. I also deal with Rooting Down Farm, who joins forces with Spade and Clover and Lowland Farms to provide us with beautiful local, organic produce that no big company could come close to matching. I call them Voltron in overalls, a co-op of local farmers that do things the right way, the hard way.
It doesn’t stop with produce though. For seafood I source from the one and only Mark Marhefka at Abundant Seafood along with my friend Vince Seli from The Bearded Lady.
There are many places in the country that aren’t as blessed as we are in the Lowcountry. A chef in North Dakota might not have the option of executing a menu by sourcing locally, but here in Charleston there is no excuse. We are surrounded by a diverse and bountiful ecosystem that can give a chef plenty, so as a consumer don’t just support local businesses when dining out, support local businesses that support local businesses. Make the harder choice, do a little research, and find out which restaurants are doing the good work. The local farmers, fishermen, and ranchers will thank you, along with the environment, your body, and your mouth.