And not long after, in the small hours of one morning, Mark Bittman posted a brilliant video from Quantified Bodega, a group tracking the issue of access to fresh food in Manhattan. They are shining the light of reason and scientific inquiry on the question of where New Yorkers shop for fresh food. Watching the video made me aware of just how potent this kind of measurement — the workings of statisticians — could be in creating change.
These two events coincided with a mini Twitter rant by one of my favourite Ontario farmers who was covertly calling out some local restaurant, which has a token garden plot, on their claim that it supplies the restaurant’s raw goods. No question the restaurant is correct, there is a direct link from their garden to their restaurant tables. But the problem my farmer friend was pointing to was the soft, unchallenged implication that the plot is supplying 100 per cent when the reality runs to something considerably less.
This confluence of events led me to thinking that if we could measure fresh food offerings in grocery stores in Manhattan then surely we should be able to muster some hard data around our restaurant meals. What the local food movement really needs is the means for measuring local content on our dinner plates.
But there is some resistance, a lack of will, to move beyond the first-flush-of-attraction in the local food movement. We’re being seduced by the language of sustainability. Cozying up to it because we know that this shit sells — a lot. What chef doesn’t want to be photographed in her garden, outfitted in a crisp Egyptian cotton jacket and apron? And up to this point we seem content with little more than the suggestion of proximity.
I’m not suggesting that chefs are performing a ruse nor that we need the tools to out the con artists among us. No. Frankly I think that too small and ignoble a goal. I don’t want any movement that has chefs running scared of transparency. I hold out a belief that local practitioners will embrace some form of hard data collection. Even if just to address the fuzzy marketing or stop the back room, supply chain, whispering about the chefs and restaurants which are posing not practicing.
It’s easy for me to tell when you’re talking haute couture but wearing Target. On my dinner plate the distinction is more obscure. Tools for measuring a chef’s or restaurant’s commitment could clarify whether all that cozy talk about sustainability is backed up with real locavore items on the menu. It will let me know exactly what I’m paying for. Call it an edible consumer report. It would also have the added benefit of providing us with the mundane accounting necessary for educating our audience about the real costs of eating with this kind of integrity. It seems the next logical step.
We can look to guidance from a few global chefs who adhere to local food principals — Alain Passard, Dan Barber, David Kinch, Renee Redzepi leap immediately to mind. I know what you’re thinking: they all have one thing in common — a restaurant that can afford to pay a premium for produce because their clients can afford, and demand, that assurance. At this year’s Mad3 conference, David Kinch and his farmer partner Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm walked the audience through the process of building an exclusive relationship between a restaurant and a farm. Kinch candidly offered his books for viewing, supplying financial documentation, and spoke of his own evolution in food supply relationship at his restaurant Manresa.
It’s easy to write this off as just more precious stuff, to shoot holes through its relevancy and application to the restaurant industry at large. But what if we were to look beyond the shallow surface argument that the garden has become a status symbol for professional chefs and see the true potential. At some point in their journey these chefs found the will, and the way to practice followed.
I’m not naive about the challenges inherent in establishing the means of measurement. But surely we’re not going to turn away from a thing simply because it’s difficult? Let’s begin by considering what we’d like to know. I’m curious about the scale of a garden that would supply a successful 70-seat urban restaurant with all its produce needs. I want to know the outer limits of a local food supply in relationship to a specific climate? What are the limitations and how can we successfully surmount them? I’d like to know how many orders farmers process and who’s buying? I’d like to know how a small, non-Michelin-rated, restaurant can participate? And to determine what constitutes the tipping point for local content in our kitchens — are 10, 20, 40 per cent or more of our purchases locally made?
Beyond asking and grappling with the answers to these questions it seems that a meaningful start could be made with a couple of small farms and a few willing restaurants. Recording and tracking data to measure progress and establish future opportunity. David Kinch opened his own books for further scrutiny, leading by example. I’m hoping that some academic or student searching for a thesis might take up the challenge because a local food movement is that damn important.