Organic Foods, Sustainable Foods,
and What Should We Promote?
As chefs, there is
much to be gained from recognizing how we participate
in the health of the environment. Understanding the
origin of the products that we use is one of the best
tools we have for guaranteeing the quality that we seek.
With a new food-borne illness outbreak in the news seemingly
each month, it’s become even more important that
we know how our food is produced, and that we can pass
that knowledge on to our customers. Recently, I’ve
been asked by many of our guests at Bar Pilar
Saint-Ex why it is that we do not source strictly
organic produce to use on our menus. This always begets
a lengthy discussion of the politics and circumstance
that rest at the heart of why we do what we do. I tell
them that the organic label is a useful tool: it ensures
that a product is of an origin that has less negative
environmental impact than conventional farming. But
organic often falls short of addressing many of the
issues most prevalent in the American food market.
The Organic Movement gained attention in the past few
decades as a critique of – and an alternative
to – government funded farm policies that moved
production from small family farms into massive factory-like
production farms. The organic label, finally regulated
in 2002, was intended to carry with it the ideologies
of the small farmer and what they contribute to our
communities. But organic has increasingly become the
domain of large business that seeks to gain from the
profits and markups that the organic label commands.
And the ideologies behind the movement have largely
become lost in the assimilation of a niche market into
Where organic has
lost traction is precisely where the term sustainable
has ascended. Since its legal definition, organic has
come to represent a recipe for the growth of produce,
livestock, and dairy. It is a set of regulations that
go to great lengths to define exactly what a farmer
is not permitted to do in their fields. Absent from
organic regulations is any concern of how the food fits
into the larger context of the health of the world that
it is meant to nourish. If organic is what a farmer
cannot do, then sustainable represents what a farmer
should do. Organic is not necessarily sustainable, and
sustainable is not always organic. Herein lies one of
the major gaps in sustainable agriculture.
The sustainable food ethic is concerned with every step
of the chain involved in bringing food to the plate.
The manner in which the product was grown, how far it
had to travel, its nutritive value, even its marketability
all in turn take precedence. Farms are businesses and
therefore it must be taken into account whether or not
the product is good for the farm. These are the remnants
of organic philosophy that have evolved to be those
of the new sustainable thinking. Many of the farmers
whose products we use are not certified organic. Some
claim to be ‘beyond organic,’ and others
eschew the word entirely and focus on marketing the
value of a product that holds true to the sustainable
intent. There is no meaningful research that proves
that organic food is more healthful than its conventional
counterpart. So what then is the draw of organic? It
certainly has an implied value that customers are willing
to pay extra for, and even expect, in grocery stores
and top-notch restaurants. But with all of the choices
available to a chef, I feel that it’s time to
shift the economic and cultural focus beyond organic,
to the promotion of farmers and ranchers that are producing
products that advance a greater ethos.
So how can a restaurant
effectively convey the value of these products to its
guests? Flavor is the first and easiest way. Chefs had
a huge role in the ascendance of organics by promoting
the taste and educating their customers on the connection
between the two. Food that is local and well cared for
has a definite appeal on the plate. This concept is
nothing new; our task now is to convince the consumer
that it is not just the lack of chemicals in food that
makes it great, but the quality and integrity inherent
in its sourcing.
At Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar I am dedicated
to supporting a small number of farmers whose products
I know that I can trust. Just as I rely on these farmers,
they rely on our restaurants to continue buying throughout
the season, even when offerings are few. When it’s
the middle of January and I have to make turnips interesting
for another two months – this is where dedication
really comes in! It is a challenge, it can be trying,
but it is an integral part of the ethos (and lucky for
me, my customers have come to expect that our winter
menus are leaner and simpler). And of course, not everything
that we source can be purchased locally. I buy citrus
from a co-op in Florida, and DC is certainly not known
for its olive oil. It’s often necessary to source
product from places beyond our region – this is
one of the concessions needed to keep our business healthy.
It’s in the dedication to minimizing these purchases
that commitment is shown. It is a humbling task to write
a menu based on what’s available, and the creative
process becomes very elementary as the options decrease.
It’s important that my guests know that we strive
to support sustainable sources whenever possible, and
when not possible we seek the most responsible alternative.
Those are some of the challenges…but now for the
benefits! Sustainable farms are more resistant to the
inconsistencies of nature, they provide a more diverse
diet, and contribute to the quality of the soil. They
operate in a manner that ensures production for not
only this generation but for all successive generations.
The farmers that I deal with are within 150 miles of
our restaurants and have many clients in the area; this
means deliveries travel short distances on tightly packed
trucks making the most of the fuel used. The product
is picked when ordered and arrives within a day, reducing
nutrient loss making it more healthful and more flavorful
for my guests. Because we deal directly with the farmers,
there is no profit lost to middlemen, meaning the farmer
and the community see more of every food dollar spent.
This is reflected in the overall cost of the food, which
in the end is cheaper than commodity goods. The food
I serve is also the food that is eaten by the farmers.
It represents a diverse and healthy diet that a family
can actually live off, and it’s a good rule of
thumb that if the farmer will feed their products to
their own family, I will serve it to my guests. Whether
new to the business or born into it, all my producers
believe, as I do, that small, sustainable farms form
the backbone of a healthy society.
In a dream world, all of my guests would care
about these issues, but they don’t, and some are
not even aware that the food they eat here is of a commendable
origin. I don’t go out of my way to pile information
into my menus, but just tell them that by supporting
Café Saint-Ex, they support local family
farms. I feel it’s important to recognize that
it’s the guests who ultimately support the farms.
While I feel strongly that it’s the civic duty
of my restaurant to provide a product that is nourishing
to the community, we cannot force the consumer to believe
in what we do, we can only appreciate those who do.
Consumers have shown
a great interest in eating food that they feel to be
to be consistent with their political views. The success
of Whole Foods and local farmers markets prove that
we are choosing to eat responsibly in our homes, and
are beginning to demand the same of restaurants. I am
thrilled to see more and more restaurants in Washington
and other cities offering products that show a greater
concern for the environment. As chefs, we must be proactive
in both promoting and embracing this change. Every action
of support can result in change, and each restaurant
can contribute in different ways. What we choose to
offer, even small changes to our menus, can become the
tipping point for major change.
Feel free to contact
me with any questions or comments.
This is the first
in a series of monthly articles by Barton Seaver on
the topic of sustainability. Published the 15th of each
month, “A Sustainable Kitchen” will present
articles on sustainability from a back-of-house perspective.
Barton will address a variety of timely issues both
within and surrounding sustainability and how they relate