Although cuisines, menus, specialties, dining atmospheres and culinary styles vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant, the goal of dedicated professional chefs everywhere is to provide exciting menus that please their diners. And, at the core of every single exciting menu is the process of selecting thoughtfully sourced, quality ingredients—and, today, chefs are valuing food supply chain transparency more than ever before.
In fact, Food and Wine lists sourcing transparency on their list of the top 11 restaurant trends for 2019, and here’s why: “People want to know more and more about where their food is coming from. They don’t want to ignore what they’re eating anymore, which forces chefs to take a closer look at sourcing.”
Discussions at a 2018 conference held at the Michelin Star-holding Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) led to a similar conclusion: that the “quality of produce remains ever-important but transparency—and traceability—is critical for consumers.”
What matters to consumers, one conference panelist shared, includes the following:
- what they eat
- where it comes from
- how it was made
- with what ethics it was made
Transparency, the panelist concludes, is the name of the game.
Before we explore transparent ingredient sourcing in more depth, here’s an overview of what can make sourcing quality ingredients more difficult than it should be.
Greenwashing: The Anti-Transparency Movement
We call this the anti-transparency movement because of how certain companies position their products as being more environmentally friendly than they really are, These misleading claims create a lot of noise and can waste the time of chefs who are looking for sustainable food sourcing options.
At Roots 2018, our keynote speaker, Andrew Zimmern, named greenwashing as one of the most pressing food issues to address today. The solution, at least in part, consists of food professionals openly discussing their issues with food supply chain transparency and sharing how they successfully, sustainably source their quality ingredients.
When it comes to fresh produce, the tenets of the farm to table movement/farm to fork movement can work well as a guiding light. They include:
- specifically knowing where food comes from; it may once, for example, have been enough to know that a tomato was grown in the United States, but the farm to table movement emphasizes knowing very precisely who grew that tomato, where
- also knowing, again very specifically, how that produce was grown; was it sustainably farmed, for example, without the use of any pesticides?
- getting this produce directly from the farmer, not from a middleman
- knowing that the farm of choice grows produce in line with the restaurant’s values
As a litmus test of how transparent a particular food chain is, chefs can check to see if they can talk directly with the people who are growing the ingredients used in their dishes. Better yet, check to see if you can go beyond that and actually form a relationship with the farmers, asking questions and making requests about what is being grown.
At the heart of farm to table—and therefore of transparently sourcing quality ingredients—is relationship. According to the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, the “goal is to develop relationships between stakeholders in a food system,” such as ‘farmers, processors, retailers, restauranteurs, consumers’ and more.”
Questions chefs can ask farmers who are growing the types of ingredients they want for their dishes can include:
- What is your philosophy about sustainable farming?
- How does that philosophy translate into daily practices on your farm?
- Under what circumstances would you not follow these sustainability practices?
- In what kind of situations do you use pesticides?
- How do you treat your soil?
- Does everything you sell come from your farm?
- If not, under what circumstances do you act as a middleman for another farmer’s produce?
- Will you let us know if a certain product was not grown by you?
- When do you harvest your produce?
- More specifically, what will the time frame be between when you harvest the produce and when it’s shipped to our restaurant?
- What food safety procedures do you have in place?
- How will the food be shipped to me?
- What is the shelf life of your product?
- How should your produce be stored upon delivery?
- Am I able to tour your farm? If so, what can I expect to see and do?
Pay attention to what the answers are—and also pay close attention to how willing the growers are to respond. You can easily tailor most of these questions when sourcing meat, seafood, and just about any other ingredients needed.
Source of Ingredients and the Buy Local Movement
Sustainable food systems focus on reducing carbon footprints, so it’s only natural to consider food transport as part of your ingredient sourcing. Rather than focusing on miles involved, though, we invite you to think about the subject in another way. We’ll share highlights of a Roots 2018 conversation held right here on the grounds of the Culinary Vegetable Institute on the subject, including:
- Farmer Lee Jones’s statement that “local” is the most bastardized term since “organic”
- how the term “local” doesn’t even mean that ingredients are being grown locally
- how food transport is not the biggest contributor to the carbon footprint
- how transport isn’t the biggest part of energy or water use in the food supply chain
At the Roots culinary conference in 2018, Farmer Lee shared an anecdote that illustrated the first two bullet points. The situation began when an upstate New York customer shared how he couldn’t buy from The Chef’s Garden anymore because he was required to buy local. His restaurant was defining “local” geographically.
When Lee was in New York, he visited the former customer and received permission to take a look at his produce, where he could see the source of ingredients. What he found was that “local purveyors” were providing the former customer with:
- haricot verts from Guatemala
- cherry tomatoes from New Zealand
- fruit from somewhere else entirely
Through this move to “local,” this man’s carbon footprint expanded by 3,000 times.
At Roots, scientific research was discussed that shows how food is grown has the biggest impact on the footprint—more than 95 percent of it. So, when sourcing ingredients, it makes sense to do the deepest dive at the literal source of those ingredients.
A shorter food supply chain does not automatically mean a less complicated one. Instead, this can make the entire sourcing process much more complicated. Using produce as an example, the reality is that there are far more restaurants in urban areas than rural ones; here is a quick visual (and accompanying chart) that shows restaurant clusters.
More farms, naturally enough, are found in rural areas—which means that literally buying local in bustling cities will mean that those restaurants will be greatly limited in their choice of produce, making it impractical to be sustainable by using the mileage definition of buying local.
Sustainable Ingredient Transparency
At the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we’re very fortunate to be part of The Chef’s Garden, which gives us a year-round supply of the best of farm-fresh produce. Besides having complete access to that top-shelf source of ingredients, we’re also fortunate in that we’ve hosted the Roots culinary conference for several years now and regularly collaborate with the most-forward thinking chefs today.
We also monitor the internet to see what other food professionals are saying about issues that matter, including creating a more sustainable food system—and we’d like to share some of what Open for Business has to say about making restaurants more sustainable, especially in regards to sourcing ingredients.
The site encourages seasonal menus, perhaps having four different menus for the four seasons and rotating in two new dishes every six weeks; the latter strategy is ideal for using ingredients, such as asparagus, with shorter growing seasons. This strategy dovetails best with fresh produce but can also work well in other ways. For example, “when fish or squid are in a period of regrowth,” one chef will “swap in smoked salmon. Operating this way requires a certain amount of flexibility and creativity on the part of the kitchen staff, but the quality is well worth the effort.”
The article also points out the importance of partnering with the right producers, choosing ones with clearly defined and communicated sustainable practices, ones that are producing food ethically. One person quoted in the article notes that, by following this procedure, 90 percent of his suppliers are family-oriented business. This allows the restauranteur to use “people who are still caring about what they do.”
Another restauranteur shares that, yes, it can take some homework when choosing your food producers, but it’s worth the extra effort to find ones where you’re confident in ingredient transparency and quality.
Foraged Food Trends
Another interesting trend is the use of foraged ingredients to supplement what’s being sustainably sourced. This can “spark a deeply personal connection to the earth,” with one forager sharing how this activity allowed her to truly understand how “everything in nature was cyclical, everything interrelated.”
Foraged ingredients can include anything from mushrooms to sea vegetables and seaweed, and from chokecherries to nettles, moss, lupin seeds and more. What can be foraged depends upon the season and geography, and how it’s used can depend upon the restaurant’s cuisine.
One restaurant in Poland takes this foraging philosophy to the limit, changing his menu weekly to “incorporate the freshest foraged ingredients from the countryside and his garden . . . [and] follow three different themes, or spirits. In spirit of time dishes, all ingredients are harvested within one week; for spirit of place, the food not only comes from one week but also only one of Poland’s natural habitats. The last, spirit of tradition, is usually invoked in winter. The components of these dishes have been smoked, dried, salted, fermented, pickled, or burned.”
This dovetails beautifully with how chefs at the Culinary Vegetable Garden celebrate moments in time and honors nature’s gifts, whether that’s when we tap syrup, cultivate honey, or host culinary events, each of which celebrates what is peaking at the exact moment in time of the event.
Food Transparency Trend: Sustainable Strategies
WeAreChefs.com provides sustainability “hacks” for chefs to help create a better food chain when sourcing ingredients, describing strategies that are also close to our hearts.
The article quotes Chef Jehangir Mehta, a regular at our Roots culinary conferences, and he encourages chefs to swap more plants for protein. His example includes adding 10 to 20 percent more mushrooms and onions to a burger, cutting back on the red meat.
Plant-based dishes can be pushed more front and center on menus, as well—with flavorful, nutritious “ugly” vegetables playing a role in ingredient purchases. The article encourages chefs to use their creativity—something they have a surplus of!—to rethink ingredient sourcing to include what might have been overlooked in the past. A collaboration between The Chef’s Garden and Mantra Artisan Ales, for example, led to an incredible new ale made from ugly carrots, one that debuted at Roots 2017.
Finally, the article shares how, when sourcing produce, to think about how you can use root to tip, including “beet greens, carrot tops and carrot and onion peels that might otherwise end up in the compost bin.”
One quoted expert calls this “mindful cooking.” We like that.
Join Us! Research and Development Retreats
At the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we offer special, intense culinary opportunities for food and beverage professionals to participate in research and development opportunities in conjunction with our parent company, The Chef’s Garden.
This will give your team the opportunity to have a private tour of the farm, to see how ingredients are sustainably farmed, and the Culinary Vegetable Institute team can provide specialized consultation regarding product use, menu development, and other services. Our environment and our expertise make us the premier culinary research and development location.
Named 2003 R&D Kitchen of the Year by Food Arts magazine, the experimental kitchen at the Culinary Vegetable Institute is handsomely furnished with the very latest in culinary equipment.
The Fourneaux de France is an exhibition cook station that is as stunning as it is functional. Manufactured in France by Bonnet, this beautiful unit features an electric grill, electric plancha, two gas burners and two electric burners. Also at your chefs’ disposal is an eight-burner Montague range with a combination convection/conduction oven, a salamander above, and a commercial wok.
We also offer an Alto Shaam Combitherm oven, which is a steamer, convection oven or combination of both. There is also a wood/charcoal grill-oven, a rotisserie oven, a commercial ice cream maker, plus VitaMix blenders, KitchenAid® mixers, Arcobaleno Pasta Extruder, Calphalon pots and pans as well as a full complement of Calphalon Katana Series™ knives.
In addition, we also have the finest outdoor cooking appliances for use in your chef challenge: EVO planchas and Viking® LP grills equipped with rotisserie and burners.