Thursday, October 19, 2006

My Views on the Sustainable-Organic-Local Food Issue from a restauranteur's perspective.

Ah, Marketing, Marketing...everybody wants to be on the right side of the consumer's conscience these days. So, how does it feel to be a consumer? Do you feel---Confused? Guilty? Perplexed? Bombarded? Folks, let me tell you that as a chef the simple notion of buying clean food is frighteningly complex! The complexity has increased tenfold over the last five years. Sourcing real food---unprocessed, that is---is a full time effort.
We chefs are approached by waves of salespeople---some innocent though ignorant and some bordering on diabolical---with hundreds of "Money Saving" or "Value Added" items. When the name of the game is survival, many restaurant operators are blinded by the initial price of the food they purchase. The industry press has us all in a state of fear, and for the uninformed operator, the panacea is CHEAP FOOD!
The idea that cheaper is better has divided the industry. Fine restaurants are offering a greater selection of locally grown, free range and organic items because they have an informed and well heeled customer base that appreciates their effort and will not cringe when buying a conscientiously created menu item. On the other hand, those who are not informed, either through naivete or willful ignorance, have ventured much further from fresh and clean food than ever before. Dangerous chemicals and genetically modified ingredients are in EVERYTHING! The shiny produce items we all see on the shelves at the supermarket are coated after harvest with preservatives and pesticides. I know this because, though this is not listed on the actual apple that is displayed in such a fine still life pose under nutrient sapping florescent lights in the store, it is stated in small print on the packing case it was shipped in. Unless you are an investigator, you are sold and are reselling poison.
I wish that every person who is not in the food service industry could attend just one corporate "Food" show. There are many types of product expos---fine foods, fancy foods, health foods, etc. But the Industry "Food Shows" run by Sysco, Kraft, US Foodservice etc are at once fascinating and ghastly. Imagine a conference center filled with rows of tables sporting plastic tablecloths and disposable serviceware laid out for you to taste the latest in portion control wedding fare? How about the "Grab and Go" line--pastries that stay "Soft for a week!" Folks, of the thousands of items on display, my guess is that fewer than 10% of them are products that you would pick up if you saw them in a supermarket. The saddest picture, though, is the army of fervid sales reps vying for your attention to sell you their latest concoction. As you walk by any given table you're bound to see a tired looking guy in a polyester suit holding out a plastic fork with a sample of something scary like a new heat and serve Cajun Sausage popover while he looks past you into the freckled cleavage of the Uneeda Bicuit lady across the aisle!
My feeling is that the dumbing down of America has made it into the food chain. Food service buyers are being sold on the concept that the consumer is clueless. Operators who have been groomed (and intimidated) into thinking only of immediate cash savings serve these unseemly victuals to contain costs so they can stay in business.To assuage their fear of demise, they have resorted to the lowest of the low. And believe me it is low.
Ah, but there is a catch---and it is a catch that doesn't affect the corporate factory food producers who are designing this arsenal of unhealthy slop. The catch is that when a restaurant or diner degrades the product that they sell, they also degrade the quality of patron that their establishment draws in. And the lower they go, the lower the expectations become---including an expectation of unrealistically low prices. And then--poof---the little guy who bought the cheap processed food to save a few bucks is out of business because he could not survive selling at the low prices his customers have come to expect. So now the corporate food producer's sister company---the cheap food chain shop--moves in and thrives. Because of their deep pockets, they have the ability to market and purchase on a grossly larger level. They also have the financing to sustain lower profits for a longer period of time. Bye, bye Mama Mia's. Hello Olive Garden!
So there you have it---the food you might eat is all in the hands of a few publicly held corporate giants who must show quarterly growth or their portfolios will shrink and their CEOs will lose their heads. WOW--and I thought I was just going out for lunch! Look at this simple chain of events --the chemical makers sell products to the food producers who use them to create cheap but diminished ingredients. These products are sold to the food wholesalers who turn it over to the food retailers. You buy and eat this food which is not wholesome or nutritious and ultimately over the years you develop diabetes or worse from all of the processed food in your diet. Your doctor prescribes you a few medications that you have to take for the rest of your life----Have you looked at your stock portfolio lately?

Chemicals, Processed Food, Fast Food Chains, Drug Companies--- all working in harmony.
Well---it doesn't have to be so bleak. My hope is to get everyday people to think about this. Let's talk to the kids and the moms and pops of the world. Many of us chefs are preaching to the converted at these wonderful conferences and retreats. That is good for networking and brainstorming but we need to address this on a more populist level. This is MY MISSION. I believe that we as humans want clean food and we want to be healthy. And I believe that if I can convince people that cooking in itself is not a chore or a skill left to the star chefs, even those with little means could begin to enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

The following are my basic rules for survival
1. As often as you can, buy sustainable, free range, local or organic, or what I like to refer to as CLEAN FOOD. Make one of the most important statements in your life--- and keep yourself and your family healthy by buying CLEAN food. The more we use our consumer dollars to buy clean food, the louder the message is to big business: WE WANT CLEAN FOOD.
Remember that businesses respond to our demands. In the 1950's and 60's when we decided that we wanted year round access and simplicity in the kitchen, the huge commercial food producers responded by forcing production, limiting the variety available in the market place and lowering the standard of flavor in our food.
2. Our food supply has become so driven by chemicals that it isn't even as nutritious as it once was. Greens raised in depleted soil don't bring anything to the table. It is the minerals from well composted soils that make greens a desirable form of food. Though there is conflicting information in the lobbyist-polluted American information system,
The Organic Retailers and Growers Association of Australia have recently completed an extensive study comparing organically raised vegetables from well composted soils to commercially grown "supermarket" tomatoes. Their study concluded that the organic tomatoes were "20% higher in vitamin C, higher in beta carotene, ten times higher in potassium, seven times higher in calcium and six times higher in zinc. Higher levels of vitamins and minerals were also found in beans, silver beet and capsicum." It is reasonable to believe that naturally composted soil and rotated crops will provide better nutrients than dirt pumped with Round-Up and steroids.
As they say in Woodstock, You don't have to be an Einstein to figure that one out! Organic farming brings healthy food back to the table. In order to grow organic, composting and crop rotation are essential. When the soil is made healthy, the plants are actually stronger themselves and are more resistant to pests and diseases. On the other hand, the more artificial the growing procedure, the more the producers rely on pesticides and chemical growth stimulants to keep bringing food to market.
Remember that the word pesticide includes sprays for weeds, insects and other vermin. Many of these are WWII-era neurotoxins and are notoriously destructive and carcinogenic, regardless of what the bought FDA has to say.
Check back for a quickie on availability and price issues.

Don't disturb the rice,
Ric the chef


Anonymous said...

I am glad to see someone else out there thinks like me. "I want clean food!" I want to help others to get educated about clean food. It takes work to eat clean and that is the hard part of swaying people. WE ARE A CONVENIENCE SOCIETY.....and our childern are paying for it!

Jacinda Osborne
Evansville, IN

Sally Mole said...

This blog was posted in 2006 and there's only one comment? Yikes, I wish more people were interested in clean food! I live in Manchester Vermont, where there about 2 restaurants for every resident -- some even belong to the Farm Fresh Network. But there are none worth eating at! I wish there were someone in my town who thought they could make money advertising and serving REAL FOOD. We have a strong farm economy, two great local farmer's markets (one winter one), but I seldom see the chefs at the markets, and if they are there, they are not highlighting the farms they buy from on the menu. Wish more people cared!
I'm happy to say that every single thing we had for Thanksgiving this week came from less than a 40 mile radius of our home, except for the Fishers Island Oysters.

Ric Orlando said...

So- As for chefs and farmers markets. It is great that they are all Saturday, but that is the WORST day for chefs. The best deal for me it to hook up with vendors who might be willing to drop by after the market to sell what they couldn't unload and offer a better price for it. Keep in mind that real chefs can utilize the less beautiful stuff-- I but #2 tomatoes and greens from local famrs all of the time for salsa, braising etc.
I do go to the markets in season as much as I can, But when I am busy, Saturday is a pill for me.

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