While online culinary school students have the benefit of learning from a variety of different locations, they all eventually aim to work in decidedly local businesses that mostly serve residents of nearby towns and cities. The community-focused nature of restaurants, catering companies and other culinary endeavors, as well as the obvious connections between farms and food, makes local sourcing especially important for many chefs, restaurants and eaters alike. Let's look at why the farm-to-table movement, and core related concerns like sourcing transparency, are growing in importance and how to incorporate them into the operations of modern restaurants.
Understanding the drive for more sourcing transparency and farm-to-table experiences
Food & Wine cited sourcing transparency as a growing restaurant trend in 2019. In a discussion with Jean Imbert, executive chef of Paris-based L'Acajou and Miami's Swan and Bar Bevy, the chef said there's an increasing curiosity on the part of customers about where food and ingredients come from. Although this is a relatively new desire on the part of eaters, at least on a widespread level, it's likely here to stay. Those who are passionate about the topic clearly have a vested interest, and even those who aren't as curious would be hard-pressed to see more information about the origin of ingredients as anything but a positive.
It's important to recognize that sourcing transparency isn't just a hot topic in the world of food. Although restaurants and grocery stores are one of the areas where this practice is most visible to the average consumer – where programs like Oxfam's Behind the Brands ranks major companies based on overall transparency of operations – it's also increasingly popular in many other areas of the economy. Activist investors want to know their investments will go toward sustainable, visible supply chains across a variety of industries. Companies use the ethical sourcing of raw materials in everything from health and beauty products to clothing as a selling point. In this context, it's easy to see sourcing transparency and farm-to-table experiences as an extension of a much broader and, importantly, stable trend.
Tactics to increase sourcing transparency
A few simple actions can highlight existing practices and shine a spotlight on current efforts. Making sure menus mention all uses of local and regional ingredients is a good start. Featuring such ingredients, which are already in the walk-in or dry storage, in specials is another. Emphasizing the ingredients and finished products in marketing efforts can also help spread the word without any major changes. Even when things aren't local or artisanal, highlighting other positive attributes like the use of free-range proteins or the high-level craftsmanship involved in certain luxury ingredients is also a positive. In many cases, calling out sources isn't particularly difficult – the underlying concern is finding those local, sustainable ingredients.
Chefs can expand the range of their local sources, and bring positive attention to them, by reaching out to a wide variety of local producers. Professional farms and ranches are obvious choices, but there are other options to consider. Shopping at a local farmer's market is a good way to find ingredients that can make the most out of a special or punch up a regular menu item, and can serve as a great way to meet local providers.
Student and community farms are another important aspect to consider – if there's a nearby university with an agricultural program or even a small community garden, getting in touch with the heads of the program can't hurt. Even if these leaders can't work with your restaurant directly, their relationships with local farmers can be valuable. Finally, don't be afraid to ask front- and back-of-house staff about any nearby connections that could lead to more potential sources of ingredients you would be proud to call out on your menu.