The locavore chef’s dilemma: What it takes to cook local through the off-season

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Special delivery: The Local Food Hub's Chris Payne makes a drop-off at Brookville. Even in the winter, the supplier has more than three pages of available products from which restaurants can choose. Photo: John Robinson Special delivery: The Local Food Hub's Chris Payne makes a drop-off at Brookville. Even in the winter, the supplier has more than three pages of available products from which restaurants can choose. Photo: John Robinson

Nowadays, restaurant menus are more likely to tell you where the chicken was raised than how it’s prepared. Four years running, the National Restaurant Association has voted locally sourced foods the top trend. But here in Virginia, where our soil takes a long winter’s nap, what’s a locavore chef to do when the growing season ends?

At Brookville Restaurant, Harrison Keevil fulfills his 90 percent locally sourced goal, no matter the season. He’s outspoken about his belief that a chef’s responsibility is to buy our farmers’ products first. “The flavor generated from these farmers’ hard work is second to none. And our money should be going into our community and into our great farmers’ pockets, rather than the big national distribution companies,” said Keevil.

Ian Boden, chef at the recently opened Glass Haus Kitchen, thinks that by now, sourcing locally should be a given for restaurants. “Today, if you are a chef in the United States, and not doing all you can to use local products, you are being irresponsible,” said Boden, who vows to get 90 percent of the menu from local and regional sources in the growing season. He plans to maintain a winter menu that’s 60 to 70 percent local by preserving, pickling, and freezing peak season produce, and by working directly with farmers with root cellars and greenhouses. “It’s just about being smart, not wasting anything, and training my staff to have the same respect for the ingredients that I do and that the farmers do,” said Boden.

While Keevil admits cooking locally year-round is no small feat, he believes it can be done with creativity and commitment. “[Chefs] have to have the mentality of not creating a menu and then looking for the ingredients, but rather looking for the ingredients and then creating the menu,” he said. He believes that diners also need to better understand seasonal eating, taking cues from Mother Nature herself. “To get through the hot summers, we need fresh plates of foods; in the cold winter, we need the warmth of braised meats and root veggies that stick to your ribs and warm you to your core for an entire day,” said Keevil.

Local Food Hub founder Kate Collier acknowledges that the pickings get slimmer come winter. “November to May is tough, but apples, squash, and potatoes store well and we start to distribute more meat,” she said. Last week, for instance, the Local Food Hub still had 50 active clients (compared to 120 in the height of the season) that had three pages of available products from which to choose. Outreach & Development Director Emily Manley estimates that 75 to 85 percent of their two dozen chef clients remain active throughout the winter. And a large part of the nonprofit’s efforts and resources go towards working with farmers to build greenhouses and high tunnels to encourage an extended season.

According to a recent USDA analysis, farmers producing for local markets generally provide 1.3 full-time jobs compared to 0.9 for farmers who sell through traditional wholesale markets. And the crops grown by local food farmers tend to generate higher sales per acre ($590 versus $304 for the average farm). It’s clear from the success of our own farmers’ markets that we’re willing to pay a higher price for food that’s grown by hands that we know. However, sticker shock sets in when dining out. And since the bottom line’s always there for restaurants too, is it economically feasible for chefs to cook this way?

Keevil feels certain that local foods’ higher prices are a deterrent to chefs and he would like to see a tax credit or rebate for restaurants that can prove that they source a certain percentage of their food locally. Collier agrees that a government-sponsored incentive program would help, but in the meantime, she strives to applaud industry supporters the old-fashioned way. Every year, the Local Food Hub recognizes the devoted efforts of area farms, retailers, and institutions with its Community Food Awards. She also hopes that participating institutions will exert some positive peer pressure. With hundreds of mouths to feed and minds to educate each day, it’s institutional chefs that Collier believes have the best results.

Still, the small, independent restaurants are leading the chef charge in this grassroots movement with a massive impact. Keevil’s aspiration for Brookville to be an entirely local restaurant inspires him every day to find farmers who will help make that happen: “If they grow it, Brookville will cook it.”

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