There is no doubt that sourcing food locally is a hot topic for restaurateurs, chefs and their customers. In fact, of all the trends captured in the National Restaurant Association’s What Hot Culinary Forecast this year, locally sourced meats and seafood were among the most popular.
Purchasing these items is a great way to get fresh product and it also helps tell an enticing story to customers who want to know where and when a fish was caught or if the bacon they’re eating was supplied by the farmer down the road.
One issue that remains though: Just because food is local, that doesn’t mean it is better for the environment. So, how do you source food that is both local and better for the environment?
At our annual NRA Show, the Conserve team organized local food sourcing panels to discuss this topic in detail. We gathered advice from three local food education sessions from previous NRA Shows. These chefs — Rick Bayless, Susan Feniger, Douglass Katz and Harvard University program director Barton Seaver — outlined how they started buying local meat and seafood and why it was important to them. They recommended the following five steps to sourcing locally and sustainably:
- Visit farmers markets. Farmers markets often have meat and seafood purveyors offering interesting catches, heirloom breeds and different cuts of meat. While typically a more expensive choice, they not only are flavorful, but can be (but are not always) easier on the environment. Buying from local sources also helps support your community’s economy.
- Develop relationships with local suppliers. Talk with area fishermen and butchers and ask a lot of questions. Ask them how the animals or fish were raised or caught. Question them about their philosophies on the use of antibiotics, feed, and protecting wild plants, animals and river ecosystems. If the answers are unsatisfying to you, buy your products from other purveyors whose environmental efforts are more in line with your own.
- Buy lower down the food chain when possible. Many chefs like to serve their customers juicy burgers, seared lamb kabobs or perfectly roasted salmon, but when appropriate, also serve locally-farmed mussels, clams and oysters. Those are not as environmentally intense to raise and offer amazing and diverse flavors that can really spur your creativity.
- Ask what other chefs are doing. Want to know how your peers are handling complex issues surrounding food sourcing? Ask them to share their experiences with you. Find out whether their suppliers helped them source food locally and provided more sustainable options. By working together as a group, you can influence local farms and fisheries to practice less impactful methods or you can get larger distributors to assist you in those efforts.
- Empower your staff to tell the story of your food. Front-of-house staffers are the ambassadors of your restaurant and menu. They can tell the stories of your food in rich detail, so help them make that tale their own, in their own words. See what they get excited about and help them foster food descriptions they can be proud of. Let them broadcast their story loud and clear for your customers to enjoy.
By spending time not just looking for local food, but supporting sustainable food practices, you can support your local butchers, fishermen and farmers for generations to come.
Jeff Clark is program director for the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve sustainability program.
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