Thursday, October 19, 2006

Let's talk about the availability of Organic, Sustainable and Free Range food.
So I Insist that Sustainable food is the way to go.
But can you get it?

So, Organic vegetables are now available all of the year. In the winter lettuces come from Southern California, Arizona and now Mexico. Root vegetables and some stalk vegetables are also in the market year round. However, committing to sustainable produce also means committing to common sense. We have caused the corporate agri-culture to produce less than desirable food due to our unreasonable expectation of finding everything under the sun all year round, especially organic. As I said before, businesses will do what they can to respond to our demands. If we want red tomatoes in February, someone will figure out a way to make them happen, even if it means genetically engineering them to grow in ice cubes! Or in the case of organic, flying in foods from New Zealand, Israel and Chile in the winter to feed our appetite for the ingredients we "need".
What do we really need? Does it all have to be perfect? Remember that food is alive and responsive to its environment. Anyone who has ever had a vegetable garden knows that real produce has variations in size and color. When all of the tomatoes on a shelf look exactly the same, don't you get a little suspicious? Are these the Stepford tomatoes?--and is that what you really want rushing through your bloodstream en route to your heart and brain?

To help keep our produce marketplace clean and sane, try to think seasonally when buying stuff. Baby greens, root vegetables, apples, allium and cabbages all are reasonable products that either grow quickly or cellar well. Insisting on white asparagus, yellow tomatoes or fresh peas in winter will just bring us more of the same chemically assisted suicide we have commissioned all along. Shop for produce in your local co-op or health food store. And don't be afraid of canned stuff. Real nice canned tomatoes are full of nutrients and that is the way that most peasants get their tomatoes in the off season.
Good canned tomatoes are excellent!

Did you know this...Frozen greens are often more nutritious than the fresh ones that you may find in the supermarket! Most frozen spinach and kale is picked, blanched and frozen within 24-48 hours of harvest. This locks in many of the water-soluble vitamins. If you don’t live close to the farms, most greens are up to 10 days old by the time you buy them. The nutrients are pretty much shot by then. Surprise!!!!

What about the price of organics?
Organic produce is more expensive than commercial produce. In most cases it is about double the price. But does that mean that it is expensive? I suppose that it is a relative question. We do have the cheapest food in the world. That is one of the great yet strange American truths. Our insistence on cheap food has created this monster of genetically engineered, chemically fed foodstuff. Let's try doing some math. A regular head of romaine is .89 in Walmart, an organic head is $1.59 in the health food store and a MacDonalds hamburger is .89 .Two people can have a beautiful organic romaine salad for the same price as they can each have a Macdonald's hamburger.
Notice the value? These absurd comparisons are fun. Is an organic loaf of bread half the price of a pack of cigarettes? Is an organic apple cheaper than Blue Gatorade? Are you having fun yet? I have costed out dinner for four made with an organic roast chicken, organic brown rice, organic carrots and an organic salad to be about $4.75 per person. That is the same as a Banquet frozen turkey dinner. Duh! The price of organic food is really a matter of perspective. If you are cooking at home with fresh stuff for your family, using organics is about the same as buying frozen prepared dinners or eating out in a chemical rich "Budget" restaurant.
Be wise, be your grandparents! Use the stuff that is on hand and don't encourage the chemical farmers!
Eat seasonably!

Marry the Ketchups!
Ric the chef
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

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