In the U Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C., restaurant-bookstore Busboys & Poets hosted an author event a couple weeks back that drew foodies, a few folks from area nonprofits and some local farmers. It was National Agriculture Day, and Jeremy Smith, a journalist from Missoula, Mont., was in town promoting his book “Growing a Garden City.” More importantly, he was promoting the concept of communities and local food. Smith’s inspiring stories showed how anyone can be a leader in their community, get their hands a little dirty and produce the best possible ingredients for cooking. I caught up with Smith after his talk and found out how restaurants can be leaders through agriculture in their communities.
Consumer demand for local and nutritious food is changing the way restaurants do business. How can chefs and restaurants capitalize and be leaders in agriculture-supported communities?
In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, [in New York City], five local restaurants buy their produce from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, a pioneering 6,000-square-foot commercial rooftop farm located on top of a film studio with volunteer training, educational programs and a Sunday market. Another great locavore restaurant in the neighborhood, Egg, features weekly specials using produce from the nearby Automotive High School student garden and donates its profits from those specials to the garden. Here and elsewhere, savvy restaurateurs make their community involvement a win-win-win by prominently advertising local produce in their windows, menus, and print and online advertisements so savvy foodies can seek them out.
The local food movement has many social implications. Have you seen any partnerships between restaurants extend beyond the garden?
At the same time chefs are increasingly growing their own produce, many more are leaving the physical confines of their restaurants and cooking on-site at community farm and garden special events. Last year I ate the best Indian food of my life in Missoula, Mont. The event was a 10-course literal farm-to-table fundraiser for and at the University of Montana student farm led by brilliant local Biga Pizza chef and owner Bob Marshall. That’s feeding your community!
What precautions should restaurants take to ensure safe ingredients?
I love the prominent sign in my local organic grocery store: “Organic does not necessarily mean clean.” Wash the food as you would any other, and I’ve never heard of any food safety problems. Knowing the face of your farmer and vice versa means your supply chain begins and ends in the course of a few miles — or even blocks. And if problems occur, everyone will know in hours, not weeks or months.
How will local sourcing affect meal planning and inventory for restaurants? How much does it cost?
I recommend sourcing primarily not from gardens but from local farms and ranches. These are run by experienced hands who should be able to tell you what will be in season, when, and in what quantity. Consider starting with a simple CSA farm subscription, which costs as little as $500 a year, and incorporate the goods you receive into weekly specials. The foodie profiled in “Growing a Garden City” tracked the cost of her family’s meals for five years. They included “nice local chickens and legs of lamb and wine,” but cost less than the USDA “moderate” budget plan for comparable households.
What resources should restaurants look to, locally and nationally, to participate in agriculture-supported communities?
Beyond consulting the many resources listed in “Growing a Garden City” and at growingagardencity.com, join Chefs Collaborative, a grassroots national network working with chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply. Visit it online at chefscollaborative.org and mark your calendar for its summit this Oct. 23 to 25 in New Orleans!
Are you involved in any local food initiatives? Tell us in the comments.
Photo: Biga Pizza chef Bob Marshall at the farm-to-table feast at the University of Montana. Courtesy of Chad Harder.