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Activists in Aprons

The environmental movement has a new battleground: the restaurant kitchen.

My ecologically correct little heart was light when I set out to build a new, earth-friendly kitchen. At last! Foods like my homegrown organic produce, the local farmstead dairy products and free-range chickens would finally be prepared in a workplace worthy of them. But as the space got eaten up--here a set of pullout recycling bins for bottles, cans and plastics; there a special tub for the compost; over there the storage for the dry goods bought in bulk--as I figured on pegs in the closet for the cloth shopping bags, places on my precious shelves for all those used yogurt tubs that cut down on the need for food wraps, I found myself singing the liberal blues. It's not easy being green.

Sitting in a nearby restaurant, salving my remodeler's sorrows with a salad of baby lettuces, goat cheese and pears, all credited on the menu to local farms, I started thinking: if it's hard for me, how much harder must it be for chefs? Though their interest in environmental and social issues isn't exactly in the culinary mainstream just yet, more and more of them are fully aware of such problems as pollution, resource depletion and the exploitation of agricultural workers, and they're trying their best to be part of the solution.

These chefs recycle, they try to compost, they look for energy-saving appliances. And perhaps most important, they define the quality of the food they buy not just in terms of taste but also in terms of its place in the larger scheme of things. Were the vegetables grown in ways that damaged neither the environment nor the workers who produced, picked and packed them? Was the meat raised humanely? Is serving a wildly popular fish going to push it farther toward the endangered-species list?

The next question these chefs are asking--"Is it local?"--is vital. A long-term alliance between a chef and a nearby farmer brings a host of advantages that starts with the two parties and radiates outward almost indefinitely. Chefs get the finest ingredients and some influence over what is produced. Farmers are guaranteed customers, which helps them stay in business. When farmers stay in business, the entire community benefits in ways that range from the preservation of open space to a reduction in the air pollution caused by long-distance trucking.

How does this work in practice? Consider the local lamb served at Chicago's Topolobampo. It has a deep, true lamb taste with the slightest edge of game. It comes from Crawford Farm, which is just three hours away from the restaurant in south-central Wisconsin, and it also has a story. "We had a few problems when we started buying from Janie Crawford," says chef and co-owner Rick Bayless. "Quality wasn't consistent, sizes of the legs varied--it took a lot more labor to deal with such a product. But we were one of only two customers Janie had, and we were afraid that if we dropped out there'd be one less local farmer.

"I knew she was smart," he goes on, "and that she was willing to work with us. Her long-term plan was worth supporting, so we made a commitment before we were completely happy, and now we're very happy. The lamb is wonderful, and Crawford Farm is a going concern with plenty of customers besides us."

There are similar stories all over the country--about an herb grower, a quail farmer, a preacher with a grove of peach trees. The chefs who work with these producers--Greg Higgins (Higgins Restaurant & Bar in Portland, Oregon), Tim Keating (DeVille at the Four Seasons Hotel Houston) and Jamie Shannon (Commander's Palace in New Orleans)--all belong to what might be called a national support group, the Chefs Collaborative 2000. Part social service, part ecological missionary society, this nonprofit educational association was formed in 1993 as an outgrowth of Boston's Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust. (For information on the Collaborative, call 617-621-3000.) Although there's a board of overseers composed of superstar chefs--Bayless is the current chair--the Collaborative's real strength is in the commitment of its 1,500 members to the environment and their eagerness to share a rapidly growing body of useful knowledge.

"For years I didn't serve prawns," says Jesse Cool, whose Flea St. Café, in Menlo Park, California, has been carrying the organic banner for almost two decades. "I knew they were being farm-raised in harmful ways, and I didn't want to buy into that. Then, through the Collaborative, I learned about a company that's raising prawns responsibly, and we started serving them again--in summer, with homemade pasta and pesto and a little tomato. I wanted to go to each table and say, 'I'd like to talk to you about these prawns.'"

The Collaborative isn't just for working chefs and farmers. Students at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in Hyde Park, New York, can join a student chapter led by Eve Felder, a 1988 graduate who went on to cook at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, then came back to teach organic principles to the next generation. "Being a chef doesn't just mean coming up with ideas for beautiful dishes," she says. "You've got to be aware of your role as a member of a community."

The CIA teaches that lesson by example as well. Purchasing director Brad Matthews spends 30 to 35 percent of his $1.2 million produce budget on locally grown ingredients, most of which are organic. There's a huge Dumpster where compostables from the school's 39 kitchens are gathered for pickup by nearby McEnroe Organic Farm. Feeding the Dumpster will be part of the students' routine for as long as they're enrolled at the CIA.

Once the students leave for the working world, they'll find that although buying from farmers is a present-tense proposition, composting is still mostly in the someday stage. The problem isn't too much garbage but too little--few restaurants create enough to be worthwhile stops on a route like McEnroe's, and even fewer have the two acres of land that let chefs like Jimmy Mitchell of The Rainbow Lodge in Houston compost, and garden, in peace.

All this makes chef Ed Doyle's accomplishment at Boston's Aura stand out. Since Aura is part of The Seaport Hotel, he's not just composting, he's doing it at an upscale downtown hotel. "There was a lot of resistance initially," he says. "Cooks would come in and say, 'Uh, you're composting?' It's so much easier to throw scraps in the trash--this is a lot of work. But it's all a matter of developing habits. Once they get trained and see it won't be horrible and smelly, once they see it's part of the routine, it's no big deal."

Actually, it is a big deal in a hotel setting. The compost bins don't just look odd, they take up space that could be allotted to parking. But Doyle is working at this hotel in part because its owners want to be in the eco-vanguard. They were willing to let him prove that composting could be economically viable--what they lose on parking they save on trash hauling. Now he's able to say, "It's satisfying to see the farmers come in. It feels good to see the compost go back with them. It's great for us to be able to close the circle."

Not everyone in the Collaborative has this kind of dedication. Some are just starting to learn the gospel, and those are the ones the organization is most eager to reach. "Some of our members say 'only organic, only organic, only organic,'" Bayless reports, "but that kind of rigidity doesn't sound tasty to me. Last year, 90 percent of the produce I bought in the growing season was organic, but I bought it because it was delicious and because it was local.

"If you can persuade a hotel to get its lettuce from a local source, it's a tiny step--but it's a big step," he adds, pointing out that large companies are used to buying from single vendors who sell everything from bananas to baking powder and don't mind getting the check in 30 to 60 days. Buying from lots of small farms, each of which has its own billing system and each of which wants to be paid on delivery or soon after, is not the modern American way.

It could be the way of the future, though, if the ranks of these forward-thinking chefs keep growing. "This business is brutal," Cool says. "It has very few rewards if you're not a superstar. Just giving chefs a reason to do things, something to make them feel proud about their work...well, once they're hooked, they're hooked."

And when they get together later this year in Portland, Oregon, for the Collaborative's next big meeting, in between the meals, the farm tours, the aquaculture workshop and the update on Adopt-a-School, they can browse through a trade fair that will include benign cleaning products. Cleaning products? Sounds even less sexy than compost, but keeping a restaurant sanitary can mean using a lot of harmful chemicals. "When I hear chlorine I think, Oh, my God," says Greg Higgins, whose chapter is hosting the event. "People don't understand what it does to the water supply." By the time they leave the meeting, they will, and they'll also know, at least in part, what they can do about it.

Leslie Land, the food and home editor of Yankee Magazine, is the coauthor, with Roger Phillips, of The 3000 Mile Garden (Viking).

Published April 1999
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