Imagine standing in a walk-in cooler at 9 a.m. on a Friday, and you are tasked with finding space for 2 bushels of scarlet runner beans, a case of duck eggs and 3 whole freshly harvested lambs. This is a dreamscape for an avid diner, a foodie who fancies a farm-to-table menu and someone who values fresh seasonal food. To a young sous chef faced with a full reservation book, an understaffed kitchen and a 700-cubic-feet walk-in cooler, it can be a nightmare.
One of the biggest challenges to any restaurant ambitious enough to pursue the farm-to-table philosophy is keeping up with the ever-changing inventory. Fitting it all into an undersized cooler is one of the most daunting tasks. As a diner you must be able to appreciate the ever-changing menu that cooking seasonally provides. Entrees and their accompaniments may change weekly, daily or even hourly based on the availability of the freshest ingredients.
“You can bet that an heirloom tomato grown and harvested in an abandoned car parts factory in Detroit is going to taste far better than a mealy, unripe Roma shipped in from Mexico.”
Chefs across the country are embracing this natural style of cooking, and their customers have finally come around to expect the rather unpredictable nature of a seasonally changing menu. For the novice foodie this ideology may take some adjustment. You will need to keep an open mind when arriving at your favorite Saturday night haunt, only to find that the artichoke dip you’ve always enjoyed has been replaced by a more seasonally appropriate dish.
Here are some insights into the mind of a farm-to-fork chef:
The Ingredient Is King (or Queen).
Some credit Alice Waters, of Berkeley, California, with introducing the farm-to-table concept to American diners in the early ’70s at her restaurant, Chez Panisse. Truth be told, she was just doing what came naturally to her, cooking in an environment that provided fresh seasonal ingredients 12 months out of the year. Instead of falling prey to the heavy French continental style of cooking born out of the nouvelle cuisine of the ’60s, she embraced a rustic peasant style of cooking. Her menus were very vegetable forward and full of natural flavors that allowed the ingredients to speak for themselves.
Local. Local. Local.
The distance from harvest to feast makes a huge difference in both the quality of the ingredient as well as the taste. Imagine if you will an ear of Peaches and Cream corn plucked from the stalk in mid-August. The heat of the day has forced the plant to produce a ton of natural sugars, and the plump kernels are full of flavor. Now as soon as you pick that ear of corn, those natural sugars begin to turn to starch. So the faster you can get it from the field to the kitchen, the better it will be. This rings true for almost any vegetable or fruit. So look for food that you know is grown and harvested close by.
’Tis the Season!
By all accounts, a tomato picked in August is far superior to one picked in December and shipped in from thousands of miles away. Thus one of the most hallowed tenets to maintaining the farm-to-fork philosophy is to cook with the ingredients that are currently in season. By “in season” note that it doesn’t count if that particular vegetable is currently in season in Venezuela or Costa Rica. It means in season right here at home. This can seem like a daunting task living in a climate such as Michigan’s. But do not despair. Farmers have been making great strides with hoop house growing, which uses materials to create greenhouse-like environments for plants, and are now able to stretch the growing season for most vegetables well into the winter months. The advent of vertical indoor farming and the proliferation of hydroponic technology have also made it possible to harvest tomatoes well into January and February. So is this truly seasonal? That’s debatable, but you can bet that an heirloom tomato grown and harvested in an abandoned car parts factory in Detroit is going to taste far better than a mealy, unripe Roma shipped in from Mexico.
Now as a diner and home cook, you must ask yourself if keeping a strict farm-to-fork practice alive and well in your own life is worth the struggle. The taste will be worth the hard work. The nutritional benefits will pay off in spades. One important note to consider as you mull it over: Every dollar you spend on a locally grown vegetable is a dollar that helps support a small farm right in your area. You can pat yourself on the back every time you pick up your Community Supported Agriculture share of produce.