• Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 1

    Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 1

    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.

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  • Vermont Heirlooms

    Vermont Heirlooms

    My plan was to write an interesting story about a few vegetables that have a Vermont heritage—that is, they were grown in Vermont over many years or were thought to have first been developed commercially by Vermont farmers or breeders. I was thinking of Gilfeather® turnips, Green Mountain potatoes, Chester beans, and Roy’s Calais Flint corn, as examples.

    Little did I realize, however, how murky these waters would be.

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  • Publishers' Note Spring 2012

    Publishers' Note Spring 2012

    It’s hard for us to believe that this is our 20th issue! When we started publishing Vermont’s Local Banquet in 2007, “locavore” (without the “l”which is a Northeast addition) was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year. Folks were holding “localvore challenges” to learn how to eat locally, and there was lots of talk about food being essential to surviving in a “post-oil” world. Today, eating locally is commonplace for many people, but these were among the first steps Vermonters took toward recognizing the fundamental shifts taking place on our finite planet.

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  • Be Square

    Be Square

    Three years ago I converted my front lawn into a garden plot. But it wasn’t your typical garden with rows of vegetables planted side by side. Instead, it was a garden of 12 raised beds that were divided into a bunch of square-foot plots, each one easy to plant and manage. I know it sounds counterintuitive—gardening is supposed to be hard work—but I am a fan of the simple method of square-foot gardening, which doesn’t refer to the size of your garden or the size of the beds, but to the method of preparing, planting, and maintaining a garden made up of square-foot grids.

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  • Out of the Ashes

    Out of the Ashes

    Salt, spices, and baking soda: these culinary staples posed a major challenge to Upper Valley localvores attempting our first 100-Mile Diet Challenge in August 2005. Such products couldn’t be found locally. The closest salt works were in Maine, just beyond our 100-mile radius. We had access to local herbs but few spices. And we wondered: just what is baking soda?

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  • Set the Table with Fennel

    Set the Table with Fennel

    One of my favorite things about fennel is how there are so many different edible parts of the plant and how tasty they all seem to be. The bulb is what most folks think of when they think of cooking with fennel, but the seeds (which, interestingly, aren’t actually seeds, but dried up little fruits) are used around the world. Europeans, who first cultivated the fennel plant, include the seeds in Italian sausage. Middle Easterners use it in dukkah (a spice blend seasoning). Indians will often use it in chai. And Chinese five-spice powder is used across the nation (theirs and ours).

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  • Food Sovereignty, Food as Community

    Food Sovereignty, Food as Community

    Every year my wife and I get inquiries from people who want us to provide them with products that are raised and processed the way we do it for ourselves on our farm in Bethel. They want raw food, unadulterated food, food that comes in its natural form, its most basic form, or that is processed in traditional ways—the kind of food people have been providing to each other for eons. They also want to take part in our farm, to participate in the story of our farm—and to become characters in their own food story. Food that has a story that people want to be a part of connects them to life, land, and their community.

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  • The Wow of Wagyu

    The Wow of Wagyu

    On an early January morning in Springfield, the snow-covered pastures of Spring-Rock Farm sparkle in the sun and a small herd of cattle dot the fields like black velvet buttons. From a distance, it’s hard to tell that these animals are anything out of the ordinary.

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Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 1

Part I: Getting Local Food Through the Door

Suzanne Podhaizer

Written By

Suzanne Podhaizer

Written on

February 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.

About the Author

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer is a food writer, chef, poultry farmer, and the owner of Farm-to-Table Consulting. Through the latter, she teaches cooking classes, offers workshops for farmers,
develops recipes, and designs kitchens. She lives at Good Heart Farmstead in Worcester.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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Home Stories Issues 2012 Spring 2012 | Issue 20 Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 1