Is it just me, or does it feel like everywhere you go, restaurants are promoting artisanal/handcrafted, farm-to-table, and/or seasonal cuisine? The other day I saw an ad for a national chain promoting “handcrafted cocktails”. Well yeah, how else are you going to make them, with your feet?
These vague terms are plaguing the industry and making it hard for consumers to make smart decisions about their dining habits. At the American Food Journalists conference this year, a panel of writers, chefs, and farmers came together to field questions about the farm-to-table movement. The question Laura Reilly of the Tampa Bay Times brought to light is a valid one: is it farm-to-table, or farm-to-fable?
I did not grow up on a farm, nor did I grow up in a family where ‘local’ was highly prioritized. Good food and fresh ingredients were important, but we never questioned where the food was coming from. Sure, we always picked up corn and tomatoes from the farm stand in the summer, but that was the extent of our farm-to-table dining. Fast-forward to 2011: I’m out of college, cooking for myself, and living just a few miles out from farms in literally every direction. Get in the car and start driving from my place; you’ll hit a farm stand.
So over the last five years, I have been completely enamored and immersed in the local movement. Paying attention to what grows where, when, and by whom, became a top priority for me. And I was rewarded with the fact that I was supporting local farmers, that the animals were being treated right, that it was better for the environment and my health, and of course, better tasting produce, meat, cheese, dairy, and grains.
And for the most part, it was up to me, myself, and I, to make sure I was eating seasonally and locally. But new local restaurants slowly but surely started popping up with the same ethos. And pretty soon, restaurants that had been around forever started revamping their website and branding to connote a rustic, farm feel. And dining out became easier because every restaurant around me seemed to value the same things I did.
But what this AFJ conference brought to light is that maybe not every restaurant and vendor at the farmers market is 100% honest about their sourcing. And whether that’s due to deceitful marketing or just ignorance is not for me to say. Laura Reilly did her due diligence in Florida, and I can’t imagine Florida is the only state where people are being misled. But I do feel like now is a good time to address the issue, seeing as it’s hit peak popularity on Google and it feels like we’ve gotten to a breaking point in the industry.
1. Seasonal, Farm-To-Table, Local: What Does It All Mean?
These words get thrown around like hotcakes, and often it’s left up to the consumer to figure out what they mean. A restaurant can be seasonal, loosely translated: ingredients IN SEASON that are indeed grown on a farm, but they are not necessarily local. Oranges are seasonal in Florida, and they are delicious. But it is not a seasonal crop in New Jersey.
Local: it means something different to everyone. My personal definition is about a 100-mile radius from central New Jersey. That includes Lancaster county and a bit of upstate New York.
And the literal translation of farm-to-table is… from the farm, to the table. And aren’t most things on your plate grown and raised on a farm? Yes, but when you hear those three words together, it paints a picture for many of eating from a small local farm. But that’s not necessarily what you’re getting, right? So when a restaurant claims to be farm-to-table, what does it really mean?
Without statement of where the ingredients are actually coming from, whether it’s the state, region, or actual farm, diners will continue to be in the dark… unless you’re really savvy about knowing what can grow when and where. But even so, crops like peppers, cabbage, and lettuce can grow pretty much anywhere.
So why don’t restaurants come out and tell us? It’s not so simple. They may be creating their menu the night before and not even know what the farm is going to actually supply them with. Relationships between farmers and restaurants are constantly evolving, and while technology makes the job easier, it’s not always straightforward. There are extenuating circumstances on the farmer, and supplying to restaurants high quantities of quality product can’t always be done consistently by small local farms.
The good news is, the movement has increased awareness for chefs: They are now being told more about their ingredients (i.e. where their meat is coming from) so they can make smarter decisions for their diners.
2. 100% “Farm-To-Table” Is A Unicorn – Unless You’re At Home
I may be wrong about this, but I only know of a handful of restaurants in the country that near 100% local farm-to-table offerings. There are just so many restaurants that have made it their mission to be very strict with sourcing, or grow/raise their own ingredients, and only a fraction of them that are able to actually make it happen.
Going all in comes with a hefty price tag for the restaurant, which many Americans can’t afford. Although I’d argue that the healthcare issues that come with eating cheaply, Americans can’t afford either… but that’s another story.
The only way to know that you’re eating 100% farm-to-table is to go directly to the farm, pick up the ingredients yourself, and cook it. Go visit the local farms around you. Attend their events, too. These are great opportunities to familiarize yourself with the farms and their mission.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with dining out at restaurants you believe are making a sustainable effort… it’s just important to recognize that not everything you eat is going to be locally grown. If a restaurant is making an effort to include at least some locally sourced items on their menu, there’s a very good chance that they are also sourcing quality ingredients from other trusted farms throughout the country. And that’s a significant effort worth noting.
3. It’s Up To Us To Dig Up The Dirt
Unfortunately, since farm-to-table has become such a buzzword and marketing ploy, it’s up to us as diners to ask about the food we’re eating. If you really care whether or not your food came from farms practicing sustainable techniques, bring it up to the restaurants you frequent on a regular basis. Let them know how much it means to you that they get their meat from humane farms, and eggs from pastured chickens. Ask them to put up a chalkboard with the farms they’re sourcing from this week. Press them for as much transparency as they can reasonably offer up. Because if they don’t do it, another restaurant will.
If getting information from the restaurant seems difficult, go to your favorite farms and ask which restaurants they are supplying. They may be able to tell you, and could even lead you to some new restaurants you didn’t know about!
One Final Note: I started The Grazette in 2015 to be an advocate for the local artisans, farmers, and restaurants, and to give diners a better handle on the farm-to-table movement in New Jersey and Eastern PA. I am renewing my mission to focus on honest efforts of local sourcing and growing/raising, in hopes that others will follow suit. Even for me, it’s easy to get duped by smoke and mirrors, so I promise to continue to do my due diligence (and will even step it up a level) with all that I share here.