Dine Locally on Sustainable and Organic Fare
Dec 03, 2014 01:31AM
● By Eileen Weber
Local, organic and sustainable are not just buzzwords. Consumers have become savvier and more aware of the foods they put on their plates. That doesn’t stop at the restaurant door and restaurant owners are very aware of that. In this year’s Top 20 Food Trends for 2014 from the National Restaurant Association, locally sourced, organic and sustainable were listed as their top three choices.
The concept of “locally grown” is no stranger in Fairfield County. In the last decade alone, residents have supported their local farms by shopping at farmer’s markets or joining CSAs. In many cases, they’ve gone a step further by growing their own organic vegetables and raising backyard chickens and bees.
There is an environmental aspect as well—shipping. Of the 1,300 chefs interviewed by the National Restaurant Association for their 2014 trends list, nearly 40 percent believed environmental sustainability will continue to be a culinary trend. Fresh produce trucked from thousands of miles away isn’t really “fresh.” But when a box of Swiss chard arrives from a local farm, it was more than likely picked that same day.
At Elm (ElmRestaurant.com) in New Canaan, they source much of their ingredients from Millstone Farm (MillstoneFarm.org) in neighboring Wilton. They get their hormone-free, pasture-raised meats from them as well as fresh produce.
That kind of attention to good, clean food is attractive. But, for many people, a shrewd focus on ingredients is necessary, not just trendy. The rise of gluten-free products has soared because of chronic conditions like celiac disease. Increasingly, consumers want to eat healthy and stay away from processed foods.
“With all the diseases and health issues that people have been experiencing,” said Eli Hawli, co-owner of Market Place Kitchen and Bar (MarketPlaceDanbury.com),
farm-to-table restaurants in Danbury and Woodbury (MarketPlaceWoodbury.com). “I think they realize they need a better approach to what and how they eat.”
Rex Bobo of Savor Healthy Pizza (SavorHealthyPizza.com) in Norwalk couldn’t agree more. He says he is one of the only pizza places in the area that doesn’t use any white flour. In fact, his biggest seller is grain-free pizza handmade with almond and flaxseed flour. Originally offered as a specialty item, it is now his most popular one.
“We don’t order processed foods from other places. I make all of this stuff myself every day,” he said. “We have to be educated when it comes to food. People want to get something quick because they’re busy, but they know nothing about nutrition.”
Breno Donatti, general manager at Bistro 7 (Bistro7Wilton.com) in Wilton, says his customers have a food “consciousness.” His restaurant serves local, organic and sustainable foods, much of which comes from farms only a few miles away. One of his earliest suppliers was Jonathan Kirschner at Ambler Farm (AmblerFarm.org), also in Wilton. Donatti didn’t have to seek out the farmer; the farmer came to him.
“One day this guy walked in—disheveled and covered in dirt,” said Donatti. “He asked me if I wanted some fresh produce. I said, ‘Sure!’ He’s really easy to work with and he got me connected. It’s really about having a great relationship with your farmer.”
Another great source for Donatti was Donna Simons of Pound Ridge Organics (Facebook.com/PoundRidgeOrganics) in Pound Ridge, New York. Calling herself a “food warrior,” Simons says she doesn’t just supply food; she educates. Simons acts as the liaison between the farmer and the consumer. She has 400 members in her food co-op and she’s currently working with two restaurants—Bistro 7 and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s recently renovated The Inn at Pound Ridge (TheInnAtPoundRidge.com).
As Simons puts it, both restaurants really get the concept of local. If certain items aren’t in season, the menu has to reflect that. She says that’s a concept a lot of chefs decide to not embrace. This year, for example, the growing season was off by about two or three weeks because of the cold spring. That caused the strawberry season to be short and meager. The apples this fall have not fared any better. But you still see dishes listed on menus that coordinate with what the season should be, not what it is.
Simons takes it a step further by saying that just because something comes from a farm doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pesticide or hormone-free. “Just because it’s from a farm, doesn’t mean it’s ‘clean’,” she stated. “It’s great buying local, but it’s even better buying organic local.”
The average consumer concurs. According to the Organic Trade Association’s “2013 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study,” 81 percent of U.S. families buy organic foods at least sometimes. New entrants to buying organic represent 41 percent of all families, indicating an increasing recognition of the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming.
Chris Molyneux, the executive chef at Parallel Post (ParallelPostRestaurant.com) in Trumbull, says customers often don’t see the big picture. He sources his seafood locally from Norm Bloom & Sons (CoppsIslandOysters.com) in Norwalk, his coffee from Shearwater Organic Coffee Roasters (ShearwaterCoffeeRoasters.com) in Trumbull, and his pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone-free meats from Ox Hollow Farm (OxHollowFarmCT.com) in Roxbury.
Molyneux makes a clear point about the farm-to-table concept: follow the food chain. Great ingredients take time to grow and cultivate. The people who make the food are getting paid, and so is the farmer.
“There’s definitely staying power to this food trend,” he said. “There’s enough farm land in Connecticut to feed the population of Connecticut. Up to now, there were farmers who were leaving some of their fields fallow because the upkeep was too expensive. Now they’re selling to more restaurants and that’s changing.”
That was a stumbling block for Meredith Mulhearn of Ridgefield. As a nutritionist and owner of Cucumber and Chamomile (CucumberAndChamomile.com), she tried to kickstart a food movement by getting restaurants in her town on board with her “Eat Well Ridgefield” initiative. The concept was to have restaurants label on their menus what was healthy, organic, local and sustainable. Mulhearn suggested a sticker in the restaurant window would let diners know which restaurants participated.
Unfortunately, the area restaurants didn’t find the idea as appealing as she did. Many chefs felt that if they labeled some of the items on the menu as healthy it would imply that the other items were unhealthy. They also didn’t want to go through the effort of labeling their menus. So far, this has prevented Mulhearn from snowballing the project.
Like so many people, she came to the field of nutrition honestly—she had health issues. Suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, medications didn’t seem to work for her. “I just couldn’t get out of bed,” Mulhearn explained. “All the alternative therapies—all the other options—they just ran out. Food was the only thing left.”
Out of desperation, she changed her diet. Slowly but surely by eating “clean,” she began to feel much better. Her energy was up. She slept better. She didn’t feel bad anymore. That’s when she realized she was on to something.
“I’m proof positive that food is healing,” she said. “I’m on a mission to help other people do the same thing.”
The big message is what we eat makes a difference in how we feel. Being healthy isn’t a trend. It’s a lifestyle.
Eileen Weber is a Fairfield-based freelance writer with a master’s degree in journalism and a professional background in publishing. She has written numerous articles for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and websites, including the Fairfield Green Food Guide.