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Why Local Food, and How?

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2007 WCR National Conference
November 3-5, 2007
Newport, Rhode Island


Back…for the Future –
Traditional Foodways Inspiring a Healthier Tomorrow

By Heather Sperling and Antoinette Bruno
With contributions from Dara Bunjon and Kenneth Knox
December 2007


For one weekend in Rhode Island, over 300 women from all realms of the culinary industry (and a few male farmers, businessmen and supporters) came together to create a dialogue – between chefs, farmers, lawyers, environmentalists, and architects – that focused on traditional food practices, and how they can contribute to a healthier future for the industry and the public.

Within the umbrella of this ambitious theme, topics ranged from the general (why is local food important?) to the specific (what are biodynamic wines?), and from artisan products to business practices. For every session on local products, there was another on the legalities of food safety and firing. This mix of big-picture philosophy and small-scale “how-to’s” was user-friendly – and useful.

Sustainability and Agriculture:

The conference kicked off with Dr. Joan Dye Gussow’s keynote address: “Why Local Food…and How?” In the United States, food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate, and there are 5 million fewer farms in the US today than there were in the 1930s. There’s a correlation between these numbers, and it goes something like: local agriculture (small yields) was taken over by industrial agriculture (bigger, faster yields), and small local farms couldn’t compete. Anyone with an ear to the sustainability beat is familiar with the American agriculture evolution; now it’s time to expand the discussion about what to do about it, and how to combat the environmental and health issues of industrial agriculture. Gussow has taken a proactive approach – “civic agriculture,” she calls it – raising her own vegetables and shaping her diet around seasonal, local products. Eating locally used to be referred to as “romantic,” and Gussow, who has been a proponent of local, diversified agriculture for 35 years, was told by many that local was the way of the past, and “we had to move forward." Today, says Gussow, we have to go back – to local, to biodiversity, to seasonality – for the future.

WCR Key note address and the Women Chefs and Restaurants Conference  2007 on StarChefs.com
Left to Right: Michael Rozyne, Nora Pouillon, Elizabeth Henderson, Dr. Joan Dye Gussow

After the keynote, Gussow joined three people working with local food – Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm, Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora in DC, and Michael Rozyne of Red Tomoto, a non-profit that markets produce from family farms to larger distributors – to discuss buying locally and promoting sustainability.

Heritage Farming:
A danger of industrial farming is the loss of biodiversity. Most of our meat supply, for example, comes from only a few breeds which have been developed for certain characteristics (fast-growing muscle, for one). On the Heritage Breed Farming – Back for the Future! panel, representatives from small farms growing heritage breed animals and grass fed cattle, including Craig Floyd of Footstep Farms, Julia Cronun of Cedar Meadow Farm, Patrick McNiff of Casey Farm, and Don Minto of Watson Farm, discussed everything from benefits of a rotational grazing system to pricing ($10 to $15 more than your average grocery store organic). These small farmers, who produce around 300 broiler chickens and 25 turkeys a year, choose to raise heritage breeds despite their limited seasonal growing patterns and slower growth rates because they’re committed to bio-diversity and the health benefits and flavor of the meat. Their solution for overcoming the economic difficulties and raising their bottom line: work with legislators at a local level to keep land affordable and plentiful to farmers.

Helene York of Bon Appetit Management on Starchefs.com
Helene York of Bon Appetit Management
Climate Change:
Consumers may balk at the price of local meats, but they’re overlooking an important aspect of the industrial meats that are easier on the wallet – that they’re harder (much harder) on the environment. A session on climate change asked the question: how much does food contribute to global warming? From livestock operations (responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions) to the gas and emissions from the truck and plane transport of produce, the environmental effects of modern agriculture are taking their toll. Agriculture is said to be responsible for an estimated 1/3 of global warming and climate change, and our food transport system is imbalanced (it takes 435 calories to fly a 5-calorie strawberry from California to New York). Helene York (Director of Bon Appetit Management Company) and panelists Preeti Mistry (Executive Chef, Young Museum) and Mary Soto (Executive Chef, American University) called for a radical reduction of the amount of foods brought by plane, and presented feasible small-scale steps for minimizing agriculture’s ecological footprint in restaurants and catering operations – among them were composting, reducing portion size, using canned tomatoes in winter instead of hothouse-grown tomatoes, and buying locally.

Sustainable Seafood:
In a session on sustainable seafood, Nick Hall of the Blue Ocean Institute put the world’s fishing industry into perspective when he told the audience that it employs 41 million people and that 35% percent of international fisheries are seriously overpopulated, crowding fish into their facilities far beyond capacity. This poor management has meant a boom in fish consumption, but at a cost to the industry from the inside out. Hall suggested educating both chefs and diners on the negative affects of shrimp trawling, long-lining, and gill netting, common fishing practices that damage an ecosystem’s balance of predator to prey. As “the gatekeepers of the seafood industry,” chefs have the power to effect serious change; Blue Ocean Institute is one of the organizations working to enable that change, and empower those who make it happen.

Chocolate Passion:
John Scharffenberger At WCR on StarChefs.comA conference on traditional foodways has to touch on traditional foods; in a panel on “Chocolate Passion,” Gary Welling of Johnson & Wales University, Gary Guittard of Guittard Chocolate, John Scharffenberger of Scharffenberger Chocolate, culinary historian Marciel Presilla and pastry chef Susan Kolman of Albert Uster Imports guided attendees through the journey of cacao, from the beans’ Meso-American roots to the texture and flavor of the end result. A focus was on the horticultural details – like most artisan products, great flavor begins at the farm – and how the farming and fermentation of the beans determine the taste. There are two main types of cocoa – Criollo and Forastero – with thousands of variations within these basic varieties, including some that have grown wild for thousands of years. The consumer interest in chocolate terroir (beans from Ghana versus Venezuela) has grown, but chocolate’s integrity, in America at least, is facing a threat. The FDA is considering changing their definition of chocolate to allow vegetable oil-based mixtures (instead of exclusively cocoa butter-based) to be called chocolate; Guittard and Scharffenberger are among the opposed, and according to Guittard, the FDA has received over 34,000 letters of protest.  

Instructor Beth Casey’s of the California Culinary Institute
Instructor Beth Casey of the California Culinary Institute
Service Starved:
On the business side of things, Beth Casey’s “Service Starved” seminar touched on some fundamental – but often ignored – aspects of service. As a hospitality instructor at the California Culinary Academy, Casey’s job is to remember overlooked but essential minor details of great service. She covered basic formalities, like putting on a clean coat before going into the dining room to great a guest, which can get lost in the mix, and presented alternative ideas for thanking guests, making a connection, and getting return diners.

Lawyers in the Kitchen:
A group of lawyers, including Susan C. Cagann of Farella Braun + Martel, Marjorie Foctman of Nixon Peabody and Elizabeth Harrison of Keller and Heckman, came together to tell the audience “How to Keep Lawyers Out of the Kitchen.” Along with Janine M. Harrod of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and Kirsty Melville of Andrews McMeel Publishing, the panel addressed the best ways to avoid legal issues in the workplace, and how to navigate the murky waters of retaliation lawsuits, termination clauses, intellectual property, and food safety. One of the major suggestions: distribute an HR handbook that highlights all policies and procedures to every employee.

Cookbooks:
So you want to write a cookbook? Chances are, if you’re a chef or even just a food lover, the thought has crossed your mind. Two authors, Laurie Masterton (Elsie’s Biscuits: Simple Stories of Me, My Mother, and Food) and Amelia Saltsman (The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook), and a media specialist (Sarah Baurle of the Lisa Ekus Group) shared advice and their varied experiences in the publishing world. Both authors took the self-publishing route – they decided this was necessary to get their project published, but stressed the time and money involved. Though the returns are larger, there is no advance to provide an initial cushion, and no guarantee of distribution. Baurle highlighted common misconceptions, from the timeframe (a book realistically takes 18 months to 2 years to get together) to marketing (an integral part of traditional publishing and self publishing). They reminded their audience: research your options, research your competition, and focus on marketing and PR.  

Women Who Inspire:
On Sunday night, the 2007 WCR Women Who Inspire awards recognized female role-models across the industry – from the farm to the back of the house, and everywhere in between. The winners follow.  

The WCR Golden Fork Award for excellence in the dining room:
Karen Waltuck, Owner/General Manager, Chanterelle, New York, NY

WCR Golden Whisk Award for excellence in the kitchen:
Tracy O'Grady - Executive Chef/Owner, Willow Restaurant, Washington, DC

WCR Golden Bowl Award for excellence in baking and pastry arts:
Thursa Evens - Pastry Chef, Almost Home Tea Room, Greencastle, IN

WCR Golden Goblet Service Award for excellence in the beverage profession:
Helen Turley - Winemaker, Marcassin Winery, Calistoga, CA

Leah chase
Leah Chase - Chef/Owner, Dooky Chase Restaurant
WCR Golden Plow Award recognizing excellence in growing or making artisanal products:
Judith Redmond - Co-Owner, Full Belly Farm, Guinda, CA

WCR Community Service Award:
Alison Costello - Executive Chef, Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Detroit, MI

WCR Barbara Tropp President’s Award recognizing a lifetime of culinary excellence:
Leah Chase - Chef/Owner, Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans, LA



Photo_Galler for Marc Meyer of Five Points, Provence and Cookshop on StarChefs.com View Photo Gallery

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  • A Sustainable Kitchen
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