Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 1
Part I: Getting Local Food Through the Door
Written onFebruary 01 , 2012
As I walk toward the table, the customers—a 50-something couple—are deep in conversation. The woman, with wavy, silver hair, turns away from her companion to spread softened butter on a roll and sprinkle on a pinch of smoked sea salt, noticing my approach as she does.
“I came to tell you a little more about our menu,” I explain, gesturing to a large chalkboard on the wall. It’s covered in cursive that sometimes slopes down at the end of the line and is smudged in places. “The rabbit on the appetizer menu comes from Tangletown Farm in Middlesex. We mix the meat with sautéed wild leeks and serve it on a buttery biscuit. And last week we were using brisket in our beer-braised beef entrée, but the farm we were buying it from ran out, so now we’ve got shank instead….”
Over the course of 34 years, including four years as the food editor at Seven Days, I never heard a restaurateur pin the blame on a farm when a particular dish ran out. But when I left my editing job to open Salt, a tiny restaurant in Montpelier, I knew that I wanted to be more transparent than usual about the eatery’s food supply.
Having watched the state’s community-supported agriculture movement grow and evolve, I knew, as most CSA customers do, that when hail or floods damage crops, shareholders will get fewer vegetables. And I knew, as most farmers’ market patrons do, that when late blight wipes out the August tomato crop, it’s understood that the per-pound price of the remaining fruits will go up.
But even as the names of growers and producers appear more often on menus at farm-to-table eateries, the systems behind the purchase, storage, and pricing of the local meats, vegetables, and cheeses remain a mystery to most diners.
Why? Perhaps because talking about them means telling customers things they don’t want to hear when they’re on a date or celebrating a special occasion: that the beef cows were trucked all the way to Massachusetts for slaughter because Vermont lacks crucial pieces of agricultural infrastructure; that vegetarian dishes are pricey because local spinach and Brussels sprouts cost more per pound than even pastured organic chicken; and that sometimes frozen bell peppers are the only ones that are affordable and ethical.
When I began thinking of opening Salt, there were many parts of the localvore equation that I did not yet understand. For example, I wondered why so many high-end Vermont restaurants purchase duck from a large farm in New York State instead of one closer by. (Now I know that plucking oily, slippery duck feathers is a royal pain, and without the right equipment, it’s not worth the time.) I thought that potatoes, carrots, and cabbage would be readily available all winter, but now know that sometimes even farmers with sizable root cellars sell out.
Given that Salt only has six tables, I figured it would be pretty easy to find numerous suppliers who could keep up with the restaurant’s demand, and my original goal was to support as many of them as possible. I dreamed of writing out a long list of other businesses entwined with ours, each of which would send us a few of their best ingredients each week.
Reality check: no farmer wants to drive 20 minutes each way to drop off $15 worth of radishes.
The petite, diversified farms I like so much as a model of sustainable agriculture are perfectly suited to selling to individuals. A better fit for our purposes are the medium-scale businesses that specialize in vegetables or a variety of meats rather than both. Their practices are still in line with our ethics, yet they can deliver the amount of product we need to feed 100 or so customers per week. Want to use local ingredients and feed 100 customers or more a day? You’ll mainly be limited to a handful of highly specialized farms, the ones that just raise cows, or chickens, or only sell milk. That’s why most eateries that offer local chicken buy theirs from Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven, and eggs delivered by Shadow Cross in Colchester are found nearly everywhere.
When a chef orders from a distributor such as Vermont’s Black River Produce, nearly any snazzy ingredient she desires can appear on her doorstep with fewer than 24 hours notice: blood oranges, caviar, Italian olive oil, and saffron strands. Black River’s fleet of trucks and copious warehouse space—which includes a 54,000-square -foot facility with a massive refrigeration unit—make this possible. But start to deal with smaller suppliers and the lead time extends dramatically. If I want to serve goose at Christmas, I need to make that decision before the small-scale poultry farmer purchases her chicks, approximately six months prior to the holiday. Farmers show up at my door in January asking me how many pounds of potatoes I’ll want to buy next November.
For a restaurant like Salt, which is more quirky than elegant, hitting a price point that feels comfortable for customers is crucial. For most of my 20s, I lived without a car or cable TV and spent what I earned on eating. I lost sight of supermarket prices because I’d go years without setting foot in a Shaw's or Price Chopper. I happily paid whatever farmers asked for microgreens, artisan cheeses, and pork loin. I was shocked when I opened Salt and realized that to purchase those same types of items for restaurant dishes would necessitate charging New York City prices.
So I gave up on the idea of offering an elegant cheese plate and quickly determined that we would have to eschew fancy cuts of meat in favor of the larger, tougher pieces that people don’t often cook at home. On the flip side, burgers seduce diners away from higher-priced options, to the detriment of the bottom line. Can a restaurant survive without serving burgers or a steak, I wondered?
The answer, it seems, is yes. Salt’s customers care about learning where our food comes from, and how it’s prepared. A few have visited for every single one of our three-week menus—from the Eastern European iteration, for which we made two types of pierogi and a rich borscht, to the one based on Alice in Wonderland, which featured a dish made of white rabbit. Many ask questions, give constructive criticism, and leave generous tips.
Sourcing local food is possible, and restaurants are doing it, but it takes plenty of time and effort on the part of the buyer—and the farmer. When you’re panicking because it’s an hour until your first customer walks in the door and your box of lamb chops hasn’t arrived yet, it’s important to take a breath and remember that the farmer is the one who got up at 4 a.m. to help a sow give birth, then got the tractor stuck in a heap of mud and had to tow it out in a brisk drizzle before he could show up at your door with the goods. When that happens, and you can offer him a cup of mulled cider and describe how somebody raved about the chops last night and see a smile spread across his face as he takes a minute to relax and bask in a little bit of culinary glory, you see that the system might be frustrating at times and that there are plenty of flaws, but that things are heading in the right direction.
By the time I return to the table, the couple knows what they would like to order. The woman orders cream of sorrel soup and pastured veal with lemon-mint risotto and fiddlehead ferns. Her partner gets a snap-pea and baby beet salad and wild mushroom-chevre ravioli.
They know by now that we grew the sorrel and peas ourselves and that the veal was humanely raised on Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park. And the guy who sold us the mushrooms and fiddleheads? An old acquaintance of theirs from back when they lived in Calais. I walk back to the kitchen thinking that when diners are so intimately connected to the food they're served, their appreciation of it seems a little bit deeper. No matter what's on the menu community is an excellent sauce.