Labeling Farm-to-Fork: Chefs' Opinions
In the last issue of Edible Sacramento, I began a journey to understand how our community feels about defining our Farm-to-Fork Capital with a set of criteria. When we label a restaurant as “farm-to-fork,” how does that restaurant meet certain standards? Or does anyone sourcing products from farms in the region, no matter the size or the quality of the farm product, have a claim to use the farm-to-fork seal?
I started this series of articles by asking regional food thought leaders for their opinions on the matter. For them, what mattered most was increasing education, both of chefs and consumers, to improve the sustainability of local food. (Be sure to read our previous September/October 2014 issue for the whole story.)
For this article, I talked to chefs throughout the region who cook with local, seasonal ingredients. What do they think about having a farm-to-fork standard by which they must operate? Even among chefs, opinions vary. Some think the effort should be bigger, others fear it could become nothing more than a diluted marketing campaign.
Historically, the term “farm-to-fork” or “farm-to-table” has roots in the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, which is often associated with small farms and pioneers like Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse. The term refers to eating locally grown food.
In the Sacramento region, where we produce over 120 crops ranging from almonds to sushi rice to beef and tomatoes, eating locally takes on a broader definition than the original farm-to-table movement implied. In a region where a local McDonald’s franchise could source all of its tomatoes locally, would that make McDonald’s “farm-to-fork?” Does it shift the farm-to-fork movement away from a conversation about small farmers and shine a spotlight on industrial agriculture?
It’s a complex conversation around a broad food system. Even the chefs within the region hold differing claims to the farm-to-fork moniker.
“It’s hard for me to put my head around the fact that we have to make this a thing,” says Executive Chef Eric Alexander of four-star Auburn restaurant Carpe Vino, which is known for its locally sourced ingredients. “By definition all food is coming from farms and ending up on our forks. It’s crazy that our food system got to the point that we have to create these things to put an emphasis on nutritious food. There’s a revolution of just wanting to get back to the land the way it used to be and should be.” For Scott Ostrander, executive chef at Esquire Grill, by making farm-to-fork a movement, it has become a vehicle for social change. “Farm-to-fork to me represents a revolution in eating in America. Whether it starts here or another part of the country, it’s important that we collectively as chefs facilitate that change, as nutritionists facilitate the information. It’s a combined effort.”
As the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau’s farm-to-fork marketing campaign continues to build momentum, it has enhanced community conversation around the food system as a whole. The questions we ask ourselves as a community get tougher, and our sense of identity is more widely debated.
Who holds claim to the “farm-to-fork” label?
Randall Selland, executive chef of Selland Family Restaurants, says standards would help define farm-to-fork more clearly. He says if we aren’t careful, “It gets diluted into a brand that anybody can buy into. A lot of chefs embrace farm-to-fork, but how many of them are actually living what they talk about?”
Chefs want to see their peers doing more than sourcing items locally. They believe in the farmer-chef relationship.
“When you start meeting the farmers, you learn about what it takes to actually get that food to the restaurant table,” says Chef Alexander. “When you have a restaurant, you want to create a sense of place, terroir. Carpe Vino has a sense of place, attached to the community, part of it. Over time farmers aren’t just people we get food from. They become friends.”
Chef Selland agrees. “It’s important to have a direct connection with your food, to take time to go to the market and take time to get to know the people who grow it.” The farmer-chef relationship is about more than picking up the phone to place a produce order. It’s about a sense of community that hearkens back to the original back-to-the-land movement. It’s also about quality product.
“From early on in your career as a chef, it starts with finding the best ingredients you can,” says Chef Alexander. “It wasn’t knowing too much about ag 15 years ago, or the ill effects of mega farming and industrial ag; it was more about getting the nicest, coolest ingredients.”
Chef Selland, who can be found at the Sacramento Downtown farmers market every week, also seeks out unique varieties that only local farmers can provide. “The variety you get at the farmers market just isn’t available anywhere else.”
As the farm-to-fork movement grows, what should be the role of the chef? Chefs’ priority focus continues to be on cooking.
“Chefs have the most important job in the world,” says Chef Ostrander: “We feed people.”
“There needs to be a conversation with the restaurant and the consumer,” says Chef Selland. “But at the same time, chefs need to be more involved. The more involved they become with farmers the more they’ll get excited. That runs downhill to the consumer.”
“If you’re cooking farm-to-fork and lay that claim, then absolutely you should be walking the walk, talking the talk,” says Chef Alexander. “But that said, I don’t think it’s every chef’s responsibility to be involved with farm-to-fork.”
What about establishing farm-to-fork standards for our region? Do chefs want to see it happen? Their responses reveal mixed feelings.
“Maybe there needs to be another designation,” says Chef Selland, “a gold star that a restaurant can put in their window that shows they directly support farmers.”
He says that a set of criteria gives the effort strength and meaning. “Will it just be a meaningless sales pitch? Will there be a point in time where we can make that happen before the curve turns and everyone is using the farm-to-fork moniker? That’s where it’s going to have to go, the next step. It’s like the old organic. Now that’s becoming watered down [as the regulations are weakened], so what’s the next step for organic?”
Chef Alexander also sees a loophole for mass participation in a farm-to-fork moniker. “All food comes from farms. No farms no food,” he says. “But a farm-to-fork criteria? I can’t see what it could be. Does the food have to be from a certain radius? If you live in Sacramento, it’s possible that McDonald’s could be farm-to-fork because there’s a mega-farm growing the tomatoes—I can guarantee the tomatoes are grown in the Central Valley.”
For some, setting a farm-to-fork standard isn’t enough.
“That’s a tiny issue,” says Chef Ostrander. “These restaurants that exist that aren’t very farm-to-fork exist out of an old model of feeding people. We have to create better business models so it’s sustainable and a customer base that’s diverse enough to seek out those models. That starts with educating our customer base, starting as young as possible. That’s how we fight McDonald’s and Burger King. We’re talking about 50 years of habits that need to be broken.”
As my own farm-to-fork conversations span across industries and interests, it becomes clearer to me that a farm-to-fork criteria may not only help with marketing, but also with education. The amount of confusion about what defines a restaurant or a farm as local or sustainable is as confusing as reading egg cartons. Do I buy organic? Or free range? Or cage free?
Perhaps what we need are tiered criteria, much like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Yet, you can’t create criteria without creating opposition. The Seafood Watch system holds nothing back to list a fish species under its “avoid” list. It upholds environmental impact above all other costs. It’s an independent entity that earns no revenue from the sales of seafood.
Perhaps a similar system to measure the farm-to-fork viability of a regional restaurant could inform customers in a friendlier manner? Perhaps there are a series of icons that indicate a restaurants’ commitment to meeting criteria on health, sustainable farm sourcing and a few other categories, each designated with a symbol. A restaurant that meets each earns a window decal with all the icons. A restaurant that meets only a few earns only one or two icons. It educates consumers, while allowing restaurants to focus on their top priorities.
In part three of this series, I will convene both food thought leaders and chefs to consider whether a rubric could be the answer to deeper education of customers, and if so, who are best suited to be at the drafting table.
Amber K. Stott, founding executive director of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center, celebrates farm-to-fork living and grows her own groceries in Sacramento. She blogs about living la vida locavore at Awake at the Whisk. She’s chair of the Sacramento Region Food System Collaborative and has been named a “food Revolution Hero” by the Jamie Oliver food Foundation.