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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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05.25.07

Home on the Range

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Chefs discussing the importance of local and sustainably farmed seasonal ingredients at the National Restaurant Show

If you happen to cross paths with a grumpy Paul Kahan in January, don’t take it personally. It’s just that Kahan, the executive chef/partner of Chicago’s Blackbird and avec, is most likely just a little fed up with cooking with root vegetables, a natural consequence of his commitment to using seasonal and locally grown produce at his restaurants. But come spring, well, it’s a whole different story, he says.

Judging by the packed room at recent seminar held at the 2007 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show at McCormick Place – “Local, Sustainable and Organic: America’s culinary leaders are changing the way we eat” – Kahan’s not the only chef paying close attention to where his ingredients are coming from. Sharing the panel with Kahan for the hour and half discussion were John Folse, president and chef, Chef John Folse & Co., and a leading authority on Cajun and Creole cuisine; Rick Tramonto, culinary director/executive chef, TRU and Cenitare Restaurants; Rich Vellante, executive chef and executive VP of Restaurants, Legal Sea Foods Inc.; and moderator Aaron Noveshen, founder of The Culinary Edge and Pacific Catch Restaurants.

If you weren’t there, here’s what you missed:

Local trumps organic

It was unanimous: Chef after chef downplayed the importance of organic in favor of local and seasonal. “We’re more excited about locally grown, seasonal ingredients,” says Vellante. “For me, local and sustainable mean more flavor,” says Kahan, adding that items in season normally don’t travel well. Kahan told of the 30-or-so comments cards he left at a local Whole Foods after seeing stacks of heirloom tomatoes from California. While he never got a response at least his messages were heard:

“Now, they’re buying from local farmers,” he says.

Why it’s good to be green

For some of the chefs choosing to buy local and sustainable comes down to doing the right thing and acting with a conscience. For Tramonto it’s also a “spiritual journey,” who also cited the bigger issue of making food more accessible to those that need it the most. “The big challenge is how are we going to get people fed,” he says.

The farmer and fisherman are your friends

“We need to wrap our arms around the individual farmers and make it worth it to them,” says Tramonto. Folse cites the importance of being honest with your growers and following through on promises. “You need to develop a relationship with the fishermen,” says Vellante. “It comes down to passion.”

More on foie gras

The way Folse sees it the ban on foie gras opens a door that we might not be able to close. Kahan calls the ban hypocritical especially when you take into consideration the way chickens are raised. “No one should dictate on what we can put on a plate,” he says. Tramonto kept it short: “I’m serving foie gras in the suburbs and I’ll end with that.”

Is the idea of a large-scale corporation doing organic an oxymoron?

A big question to think about, says Vellante, is whether the big guys are going organic only to sell more or do they really care. He recalls an incident nine years ago when he contacted some large companies about making trans fat-free crackers for his restaurants. “They all said, ‘Get lost, Legal.’” They eventually found a small company who would, and now that trans fats are big in the news, guess who’s offering their new healthier products to Legal. But no matter where the motivation comes from, these larger companies are bringing attention to important issues and making consumers ask questions. Kahan cites the growth of local farmers markets as a great indicator of better things to come. Says Kahan, “If I wasn’t optimistic, I’d quit tomorrow.”

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