In the Kitchen
A closer look at local food
Finding local fare and getting it on the menu
By Brandi Cowen
People in Germany are warned against eating raw vegetables as unprecedented E. coli outbreak spreads to eight European nations.
People in Germany are warned against eating raw vegetables as unprecedented E. coli outbreak spreads to eight European nations. Farmers in China watch their watermelon crops explode after improperly applying a chemical growth accelerator to their fields. The United States recalls more than 500 million eggs after dangerous levels of salmonella are detected in eggs from two Iowa farms.
| Mozzarella made from the milk of these Ontario water buffalo has a flavour distinct from traditional Italian varieties.|
Closer to home, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) samples 285 imported manufactured products that either haven’t been inspected for some time, or are suspected to have compliance problems. Testing reveals a 75 per cent quality non-compliance rate in 2008 and 2009. Two years later, the agency reports that the non-compliance rate has got worse, jumping to 84 per cent.
These are just some of the food safety horror stories that have made headlines in the past two years. Factor in growing support for local economies in the wake of the 2008 global economic meltdown, and an increasing consumer consciousness of the toll our purchasing decisions can take on the environment, and it’s little wonder the local food movement has been gaining ground in recent years.
Increased consumer curiosity about where our food comes from can be a mixed blessing for many restaurateurs. On the one hand, you’ve got a captive audience that shares your passion for what goes on the plate. On the other hand, truly embracing the local trend can sometimes seem like one more task to cram into a day that doesn’t have enough hours. It’s true that sourcing local food for your kitchen can be time-consuming, but as the local food movement gains traction, there are more tools to help busy restaurateurs connect with others involved in the local food chain.
Local Food Plus (LFP) is one of those tools. The Toronto-based non-profit has an extensive network throughout Ontario and nascent networks under development across the rest of the country to help connect partner restaurants with certified sustainable farmers and food processors. To be certified, a farmer or processor must use sustainable practices, provide safe and fair working conditions, and work to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. LFP partner restaurants must commit to sourcing ingredients from between five and 15 certified farmers and processors.
LFP’s philosophy when working with restaurants is to find out what you’re already doing (some distributors may already be supplying your kitchen with local products) and where there’s room for improvement. The organization works with restaurant owners to determine what’s feasible for each operation on a case-by-case basis.
“From a restaurateur’s perspective, we’re looking to get them switched up to buying local sustainable food where we can, and where it makes sense for them,” says Don Mills, Local Food Plus vice-president and director of certification. “At the same time, it’s not an all or nothing because it would kill the system. For a restaurant to say ‘we’re all local,’ just isn’t workable. Distribution chains aren’t set up like that.”
For time-pressed restaurateurs, the real value in working with an organization like LFP is membership in a food chain of like-minded members who have already been vetted to ensure minimum standards of sustainability.
Partner restaurants and certified farms and processors are identified on the LFP website, a one-stop shop for anyone interested in building farm to table relationships.
The website offers directories of certified farms, organized by province and/or region. Directories highlight the vegetables, meats, cheeses and even wines available from each LFP-certified operation. Think of it as a road map to local farmers in your area.
Focus on food
On their 600-acre Mount Brydges, Ont., farm, approximately 200 kilometres west of Toronto, Johanna and Joe Ferket grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini and squash, as well as wheat, corn and soybeans. From Aug. 1 through the first frost of the year, chefs take to the LFP-certified fields of Ferket Tomatoes and Vegetable Farm to pick their own produce. In the process, they get to know the land and the people who tend it.
Johanna says hands-on harvesting is a positive experience that most chefs who visit the farm seem to enjoy.
“There was one guy this year that asked us to pick the produce for him, but the other guys love to get out of the kitchen and get some fresh air, so they come to pick themselves,” she explains.
The Ferkets can accommodate the average restaurant’s volumes on an as-needed basis; there’s no need to make special arrangements or sign contracts. Simply drop by the farm between sun up and sun down to select the produce you need.
For larger operations, it’s best to touch base in the spring and have a conversation about what you’re going to need and when. A chat will help the Ferkets shed some light on whether your timeline is realistic, given the growing conditions that season. Just last year an unusually cold, wet spring put tomato planting two weeks behind schedule, which in turn delayed the harvest. A phone call ahead of time can also help you decide the best way to go about making your purchase. Getting a few members of your staff together to harvest field fresh veggies may be a great team-building exercise, but having your order pre-picked when you arrive may be a better use of your limited time and resources.
Just like independent pizzerias, no two farms are alike. Each farmer will have a different way of doing business.
At Martin Littkemann and Lori Smith’s farm in Stirling, Ont., demand for water buffalo meat far outstrips supply. When restaurants like Toronto’s Beast or Campagnolo want to switch up their selections and add Ontario-raised water buffalo meat to the menu, they call up Littkemann and Smith to ask what’s available.
So far Littkemann and Smith’s three-and-a-half-year-old Ontario Water Buffalo Company has butchered less than a dozen animals. Each buffalo is slaughtered at roughly 20 months and weighs in at somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds live weight.
“We’re doing probably one animal every two weeks right now. We hope to go up to one a week. That sounds like a lot, but there’s how many million people living in Toronto?” says Littkemann. “Because we don’t have a huge volume yet, when we deliver to a restaurant, it comes on as a special.”
He and Smith do their best to accommodate standing restaurant orders, as well as one-time requests for particular cuts of meat, salami, pepperettes and jerky. Smith advises that restaurateurs interested in their buffalo meat pick up the phone or fire off an e-mail, explaining what they’d like, and when. That way, she and Littkemann can assess overall demand and, when the size and age of their 200 head herd allows, try to arrange their slaughter schedule to accommodate as many orders as possible.
Less specialized livestock farmers are often able to provide meat more regularly. Operations like Beretta Organic Farms in King City, Ont., 20 minutes north of Toronto, have a variety of beef, chicken, lamb and pork available year-round. If you’re looking to source local meat for your menu, an organization like LFP can be a good starting point in figuring out the options in your area.
Although they are slowly branching out into meat, the core business of the Ontario Water Buffalo Company is its dairy operation. Littkemann and Smith sell buffalo milk to Quality Cheese in Vaughn, Ont., where it is turned into fresh Ontario water buffalo mozzarella and distributed to restaurants across Canada.
The Ontario buffalo mozzarella has a distinct flavour that makes it stand out from the better-known Italian product, says Albert Borgo, president of Quality Cheese.
“The Italian one, to me, is a little more acidic and sour, and people think that’s what it should be like, but our milk is sweet.”
The water the buffalo drink, the food they eat and even the smells of the area where they live can affect the taste of their milk. The same is true for cows, goats and other dairy animals. Together these environmental factors produce cheeses that capture the terroir of their place of origin. It’s regional cuisine at its finest, and a big opportunity for restaurateurs trying to tap into the local trend.
It’s also tasty news for Canadians – there’s no shortage of unique, not to mention award-winning, cheeses produced right across the country. The 2011 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix handed out awards to cheese makers in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island. Canadian cheeses are also stepping into the spotlight on the international stage. In 2009, Quebec’s La Maison Alexis de Portneuf’s Le Cendrillon took top honours at the World Cheese Awards, beating out 2,440 other contenders for the title of best cheese in the world. These artisanal options probably won’t replace your favourite pizza mozzarella, but they may make for a mouthwatering accent when sprinkled atop a specialty pie.
There are plenty of ways to incorporate local products into your dishes, and there’s certainly a marketing advantage in doing so. In a 2011 Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA) survey of 500 chefs, local capped a list of the top 10 menu trends for the second year running.
Food prices have been creeping steadily upward in the past year. The most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) data from Statistics Canada shows the price of fresh vegetables increased 13 per cent between September 2010 and September 2011. That’s well above the 3.2 per cent average increase in the CPI for all food products. During this same period, the price of meat jumped 5.2 per cent, the price of fats and oils went up 5.5 per cent, and those of condiments, spices and vinegars climbed five per cent.
Although shorter distances from farm to fork mean fewer embedded energy costs built into the price of locally produced foods, they often wind up costing more than their imported counterparts. Canada boasts relatively high land and labour costs compared to many of the countries we trade with. As a result, homegrown produce often comes at a higher price point than imported alternatives.
For example, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada statistics show that in October 2010, Vancouver wholesalers charged 11 per cent more for field green peppers grown in B.C. than for those grown in Mexico ($14.65 versus $13.00). That same month, wholesalers based in Toronto charged 25 per cent more for Ontario field green zucchinis than for Mexican imports. A 20-pound carton from Mexico sold for $12, while an equivalent weight in homegrown zucchinis was priced at $16.00. In an industry that operates on tight profit margins, paying a few dollars more for each produce order may add up to a bad business decision in the long run.
Restaurateurs juggling higher food costs along with steadily climbing labour costs and an uncertain economic footing may be tempted to source lower-cost items from outside Canada. But keep in mind that though consumers are feeling the pinch too, your customers have already decided to splurge on a restaurant meal. If the quality is there, many customers can be convinced to pay a little more for locally sourced products. A Mintel survey found that 57 per cent of American consumers would be willing to pay more for local and sustainable food.
Here in Canada, it’s locally produced cheeses that tend to result in real cost-savings. Our supply management system is heavily criticized for artificially inflating the price of dairy products. In fact, Statistics Canada data show Canadian prices are roughly double the average prices most dairy products command on the international market. But while the supply management system remains in place, domestically produced cheeses will remain the only financially feasible option for most in the foodservice industry. As long as tariffs on imported products run between 200 and 300 per cent, foreign-produced cheeses will be priced right off the menu at most restaurants.
There’s no one way to make local food work in your restaurant. The key is to explore the options that are available in your area and invest time and effort in building relationships with other players in your local food system.
Last summer an unusually hot, dry July threatened to leave Joe and Johanna Ferkets’ tomato fields filled with dead and dying plants. Some much-needed rain in the first week of August turned things around, but other farms weren’t so lucky – the Ferkets know some farmers whose fields didn’t give any tomatoes at all.
Factor in the threat of a cold snap like the one that wiped out 70 per cent of Florida’s tomato crop in 2010, doubling prices and creating a shortage that affected restaurants across North America, and betting on local produce may seem like quite a gamble.
But as far as Local Food Plus’ Don Mills is concerned, year-round availability of homegrown produce has come a long way in Canada. A boom in greenhousing in and around Leamington, Ont., has earned the area the title of greenhouse capital of North America. In total, 1,500 acres of greenhouses shelter beefsteak and cluster tomatoes, cucumbers and red, yellow and orange peppers, protecting them from the vagaries of the weather.
Ontario is by far the nation’s hotspot for greenhouse produce. The province accounts for 66.6 per cent of Canada’s total fruit and vegetable greenhouse square footage. But Statistics Canada data shows green housing is on the rise across much of the country. British Columbia (22.4 per cent of total square footage), Quebec (6.5 per cent) and the Prairies (4.4 per cent) all added square footage between 2009 and 2010.
During this period, the Atlantic provinces (0.3 per cent of total square footage) joined Ontario in posting slight losses in total square footage. In general, however, a cross-country trend toward increased greenhousing means more fresh, Canadian produce is available year-round.