The Sustainability Dilemma

05/25/2010 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This weekend I attended a wine dinner at Michael Chiarello's restaurant Bottega in Yountville Ca. Michael and his wife Eileen are very involved in green issues and have been for some time even before it was chic. Eileen has been instrumental in starting a program for children called Dirt To Dine This program shows kids where their food comes from. Michael recently posted a blog that talks about his dilemma regarding best quality product vs sustainability. He finds that often the best quality ingredient may not be local. Is it more important to serve his diners the best tasting food or the most sustainable? Not so easy an answer as more and more people are expecting that their restaurants can and should do both.

In my past life I worked for a large multinational investment firm. I sat through many meetings discussing the benefits of globalization. Globalization rather than "localization" allows the best products to come to market from whatever part of the world they might originate. This was looked at as a great step forward. In the past you needed to make do with whatever was available locally. This was good in one sense, but not good in others. It kept prices high and perhaps quality low, as the vendor knew that you really did not have options. With globalization vendors realized that they had to compete in a global marketplace and you could buy the goods elsewhere.

This issue like so many others is not so black and white. Unfortunately in the age of sound bites we like nice and tidy answers to issues. In the case of a restaurant owner that is expected to produce high quality food should he opt for a lower quality product because it is produced locally? Maybe yes and maybe no. If it isn't the star of the show as it were - it is minor ingredient in the recipe then I would say yes. Star? Possibly no. But the market place as it so nicely does, will dictate what is needed. No great local source for lamb? Well maybe some entrepreneur will see that need and fill it working with the restaurant owner. But maybe the product that is the best must be flown in from a far away place. As Michael points out we are never going to have local truffles or the best mushrooms.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. I think the conclusion I have come to is unless a restaurant is really marketing themselves as using only local ingredients they shouldn't be expected to use only local ingredients. If the issue is important to the consumer it is the consumer's responsibility to find out for themselves where that food is coming from. But it is the responsibility of the restaurant to be able to provide that information if requested - within reason - and not to market itself as using local sources if it really does not.

Bottom line, chefs should try to use as many high quality local ingredients as possible and work with entrepreneurs in your area to get those ingredients that are lacking. Be honest and open with the consumer about what is local and what isn't if that matters to them.

But honestly I don't think that we want to go back to the old days where you had no choice but to buy from the local producer. As with most hot topics of the moment the pendulum swings a bit too far before getting to balance. It takes leadership like Michael's in the cooking world to ask the tougher questions and realize that there aren't easy answers.

I don't know about you but I have no intention of giving up my Columbian grown coffee in the morning (or Sumatran). But I also don't have any intention of giving up the amazing homegrown fruits and vegetables I raise in my backyard. I think it is about balance as with most things in life.