It is 1 p.m. on a Saturday. In about two hours, Jenneffer and I will load up the van and head to another high volume fundraiser usually over an hour away. Suddenly, I realize that I've forgotten to procure, and consequently, prepare that locally grown spinach from a nearby farm which I promised for our dish at the event. And that's how the description of the dish includes on the event display marquee for Cress: "Vo-LaSalle Spinach". Not using that spinach is not an option. An urgent call to the Crump Family ensues and after communicating a sense of urgency I find myself driving to the farm and back now left with only an hour to continue preparing for normal dinner service at the restaurant and the fundraiser. But, I now have Vo-LaSalle Farm spinach, as promised. Somehow, the dish tastes better. My conscience is clearer and my commitment to supporting local farms and farmers remains uncompromised. Such occurrences are common and the solutions are almost always the same. Sometimes, logistics prevents a similar solution, in which case, we don't offer that dish and replace it with another that equally showcases an ingredient, we are proud to have procured.
Of course it makes economic, healthy, and gastronomic sense to use in-season, minimally processed ingredients which may have traveled minimally to get to the plate. But for chefs to practice this way of sourcing day in and day out requires a conscious commitment. No matter the odds, doing so should be at the top of the heap of priorities. It should be at least as important as using proper cooking techniques and exciting the palate and satisfying the desire.
It would be much easier and some might argue probably make little difference (depending on the preparation) to use a generic version of spinach. However, knowing that a commitment was honored will in some intangible way result in a greater value for the creation and ultimately, a clearer conscience. What I am proposing (to quote a Seinfeld character) is that "it's all pipes." Making undeliverable promises results in compromises which naturally affect the outcomes. The phrase "voting your conscience" could easily be "living your conscience." The voting will naturally follow.
Our little restaurant has been a tireless beacon of supporting local, wholesome, and sustainable sources of ingredients. We live in a small town (albeit, the county seat). After seven years, there is only one other restaurant in our town which seems to be following in our footsteps at least when it comes to responsible and thoughtful sourcing. Perhaps, it is worth noting that the chef/owner (a former sous-chef) there has had the opportunity to see how we practice our conscious commitment on a daily basis. But to have only two restaurants in our town who proudly tell guests where they get their ingredients from is frankly discouraging. Our restaurant is consistently regarded as one that serves among the tastiest food in our region. A big reason for that is that we respect our ingredients and support our farmers. I've been actively advocating about improving aspects of our food system for at least two years now. But if one measured the effectiveness of my efforts in my own backyard, teacher Hari would give chef Hari a failing grade. The conundrum as I see it after all these years is "How do we as communities increase the level of conscious commitment when it comes to the food we serve?"