Farm-to-table is a phrase that might make you roll your eyes. What started out as a movement away from processed foods has become a punchline. If you’ve ever seen this skit from Portlandia, you know what I mean. Although “farm-to-table” may seem like a tired trend, its roots actually date back to the ‘70s when Alice Waters first opened Chez Panisse, a restaurant dedicated to cooking and serving locally grown produce. Since then, the movement has grown to focus on organic, non-GMO foods, as well as helping reduce the effects of climate change by urging consumers to make more sustainable choices. A well-planned out menu that takes advantage of local farmers and producers can have marvelous effects on the community and the environment. So does your restaurant embrace a farm-to-table ethos?
Seasonal menus are a good place to start if you’d like to embrace a local approach to food. As Americans, we’re used to having access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, imported from around the world. Therefore, consumers have a very distant relationship with their food sources. According to the The Farm Project, an organization started by Zooey Deschanel and Jacob Pechenik to help people build stronger connections to food, “Buying seasonal food has a positive correlation with eating locally, because seasonal and local produce go hand-in-hand.” Buying local, seasonal food is affordable, because you’re not overpaying for perishable foods that have costly shipping expenses. When food travels shorter distances to our plates, the environment is protected. And, of course, when you purchase from local farmers, you’re investing in your local economy.
Seasonal menus are also good for business. Since purchasing local food may be more economical for you, you can pass those savings to your customers. Customers will also appreciate having something new to try, and will look forward to seasonal specialties that only come around once a year. And cooking seasonally is a creative chef’s dream. Being able to experiment with different ingredients each season keeps the kitchen staff learning.
So where do you start? Farmers Markets are an excellent choice. Search for farmers markets in your area, and hit them early and often. Hunt for the freshest ingredients, and talk to the farmers. Many times, the people running the stand are the people who grew the food, so they can answer all your questions. Eventually, you may even form a relationship with your favorite farmers to collaborate more closely on menu items and recipes.
Do you have green space on your property and perhaps a green thumb? If you’re really dedicated to fresh, local ingredients, you may even consider growing some yourself. Herbs are a good place to start.
So while “farm-to-table” may have become buzz words over the last decade, remember that locally grown food is fresher, often healthier and many times, cheaper than food from a large supplier. Try making your menu more seasonal, and your customers will be glad you did.