by Chef Barton Seaver of Café Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar – Washington, DC

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The Consumers

Further Reading:

  • Organic Inc., Sam Fromartz
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
  • Food Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto, the Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest, Peter Pringle
  • Worldwatch Paper #163: “Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global
    Market,” Brian Halweil (available at

  • "I am proud to say that our venison is a lean, clean product based on the principles of sustainable farming."

    ~Trevor Pierce, Cervena Farmer.

    For more info, please visit


    Organic Foods, Sustainable Foods, and What Should We Promote?

    January 2007

    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 and Café 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 giant agribusiness.

    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.

    The Consumers:
    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 to chefs.


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