When chef Rick Bayless returned to Chicago in 1987 after six years of culinary research and writing in Mexico, he went looking for strawberries.
"I knew we had a really short strawberry season," Bayless told the audience in his keynote for the 2013 Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit. "I went to the terminal market to ask who was carrying local strawberries. I was met with laughter."
Midwestern strawberries, the wholesalers told Bayless, were too small, too fragile, and just plain terrible. Chicago had no farmers market at the time and virtually no local agriculture, and chefs were just fine with that. One of the city's most celebrated cooks had even declared publicly that he would never (never!) serve anything grown locally, for it was clearly inferior to the finest meats, seafood, and produce that he had shipped in from around the world.
A quarter century later, the philosophy has changed dramatically, at least in fine dining circles, and that progress was celebrated at the Chefs Collaborative's summit, which took place at the Francis Marion Hotel Nov. 3-5.
The Collaborative is a nonprofit organization of chefs and culinary professionals committed to promoting local, seasonal foods and advancing a sustainable food supply. Its annual summit brings members together for three days of discussion panels, workshops, community building, and, of course, plenty of dining.
Hot on the heels of Cook It Raw, the summit was the second event this fall to bring a caravan of visiting chefs to town. For many of the participants, it was their first visit to Charleston and their first real immersion into Lowcountry cuisine. It was also a time for them to take a step back to reflect on what they had accomplished and what work still lay ahead.
Twenty years since its founding, the Chefs Collaborative has many victories to celebrate with their fellow sustainable food advocates.
Heirloom grains and vegetables are now being grown in sufficient quantities to be used in restaurants. The number of available food varieties, which had once dwindled to around 5,000, now totals over 20,000, as Gary Nabham, an agricultural ecologist and writer, noted in his opening-night speech.
"The greatest grains on this earth," Nabham declared, "are now back on tables for the first time in over 50 years."
More than 4,000 Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are now in operation, and they've spun off variants like the Community Supported Fishery program that Mark and Kerry Marhefka of Abundant Seafood run here in Charleston.
Indeed, the fundamental aesthetic toward ingredients has changed among the elites of the food world. "In Chicago right now," Rick Bayless noted, "if you want to be considered a good chef, you have to be tied into the local food system."
And there are plenty of local strawberries to be found in the spring time.
A Second, More Challenging Phase
Despite the progress made toward returning high-quality, locally grown ingredients to American tables, the summit's participants were quick to admit that there is still a long way to go. Indeed, one underlying theme of the event was that the sustainable food movement is entering a second and, in all likelihood, far more difficult phase.
The philosophies have been ironed out, a nascent network of growers and farmers markets and restaurant buyers has been established. Now the challenge is to make it profitable and to make it scale.
Using good, sustainable ingredients is hard enough at the high-end of the restaurant industry, and many of the summit's sessions focused on practical ways to incorporate sustainable food into a low-margin business. Panel discussions addressed how to turn by-catch — "trash fish" — into dishes that are tasty and, even more important, salable. The Hogonomics session tackled "the tough but rewarding task of bringing high-quality, sustainable pork into your operations without losing your shirt or your mind."
It's one thing to buy some heirloom beans or locally grown greens and use them as one component of a dish. It's quite another to use such ingredients throughout the entire restaurant's offering. Bayless calls this having sustainability reflected "all the way to the bottom of the plate."
"I need 500 pounds of onions a day," he noted of his five Chicago restaurants. "And 50 pounds of garlic. It's the hardest thing. It's the thing that affects cost the most."
Only with scale — by cultivating a network of farmers who can produce sustainable produce in sufficient volumes — can prices become something chefs can work with across the menu.
"In our kitchen," Bayless said, "there is a constant battle to dig deep but keep food costs where they need to be."
Buying whole hogs from local farmers has strong appeal for sustainable-minded chefs, but it brings huge challenges, too. On Monday morning, dozens of chefs crammed into Craig Deihl's kitchen at Cypress to learn how he has managed to incorporate whole-animal butchery and charcuterie into his large-format restaurant.
Diehl admits he didn't have a master plan when he got started. "In 2005, we bought a pig," he told the group. "About six weeks after, we bought another. And then we committed to one every two weeks." And then suddenly he needed something to do with all that meat.
Selling the prized double-cut chops was simple, but, he said, "There's only so much you can do with shoulder. And the real problem is what do you do with the hams?" So, they started making sausage and curing and hanging the hams to age.
Toward the end of the demonstration, as all the larger cuts had already been carved off and put away in the walk-in cooler, Deihl began cutting deep into the leg to show how to fashion usable cuts.
"I can sell this," he said, lifting a thick triangle of meat. The onlooking chefs around the prep table nodded in agreement.
These sorts of techniques address the real operational challenges faced by chefs trying to follow sustainable principles, and together they are helping each other succeed. Once you get outside the confines of fine-dining restaurants, though, the future of sustainable food looks more uncertain.
Part of the problem is with the word itself. When asked what he saw as the biggest threat to 20 years of gains, Bayless pointed to a phenomenon he calls greenwashing or "oversaturation with something that doesn't mean much."
That oversaturation is now a reality. Smithfield, the U.S.'s largest factory hog processor announces, "Sustainability is integral to the way we conduct business at Smithfield Foods every day." The title bar of the website for Monsanto, the giant multinational maker of chemicals and genetically-engineered seed, declares it to be "A Sustainable Agriculture Company."
Like "green" and "eco-friendly," "sustainable" has become a junk word that can mean whatever people want it to mean, from environmental primitivism to slight cost-saving efficiencies.
When you get beyond the marketing buzz, the larger realities remain sobering. Michael Leviton, the Boston restaurateur and chairman of the Chefs Collaborative board, presented some bleak statistics. Six percent of our nation's farms produce 75 percent of our food. Two-thirds of adults are overweight, while diet-related diseases and food allergies have risen through the roof. There's a dead zone the size of Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to pesticide runoff from the Mississippi River.
But the real dilemma of scalability facing advocates for sustainable food is how — and, indeed, if — the fresh, high-quality, traditional foods can be brought back to the population at large.
"We've been hearing that sustainability is an elitist cause," Leviton told the gathered chefs. "And it is, to some degree."
Kim Severson of the New York Times participated in a panel session on "Restaurants of the Future" with author Michael Ruhlman and chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's. While in town, she also visited the Food Lion on King Street, where as many as 75 percent of the customers use food stamps, and filed a stark report about the hard food choices that reductions in the SNAP program were forcing low-income shoppers to make.
The summit's stated goal of "a safe and sustainable food supply for all" seems very far away. But they are beginning to talk about how to attain it.
"The next steps," Gary Nabham argued, "are going to be different from the one's we've taken." He declared the need to be more inclusive, to include people on the margins.
Michael Leviton echoed the thought. "We have a great opportunity to scale up sustainable food," he said. "The whole focus of sustainability must be this very challenge: how do we feed everyone?"
And that, right now, seems a very daunting task. How to take what is currently the provenance of a few small-scale farmers and selected high-end restaurants and ramp it up to stock the shelves of grocery stores and the menus at fast food joints? Can we take what are now rather pricey specialty goods and make them affordable enough to fit in the average family's budget?
The challenges are far larger than philosophy, rhetoric, or marketing. There are significant structural impediments to scaling sustainable food.
Last spring, I sat down with Nick Pihakis of the Jim 'N Nick's barbecue chain to chat about the efforts he and his company were making in this area.
"There's not really a mid-tier pricing," Nick Pihakis told me. "Everything is super, super expensive or super, super cheap." Where Pihakis wants to play is in the middle.
About eight years ago, he drove around the Alabama countryside with Bill Niman, the founder of sustainable meat producer Niman Ranch, in search of small farmers to supply Jim 'N Nicks with local pastured pork. He couldn't find any. The old small-scale farms had given way to the commodity-breed, factory-farm contract systems created by major processors like Smithfield. Even if farmers wanted to raise heirloom breeds, they couldn't afford all-natural feed, and there were no local processing plants to slaughter the animals.
Pihakis realized that he needed to take a step back. The problems were far larger than just finding a few accommodating farmers and giving them a customer. The problems of scale were structural, and every step of the production chain needed to be addressed: farmers, pigs, feed, processing plants, distribution centers, retailers, and consumers.
"You've got to get into the system to fix it," Pihakis says. "It isn't going to fix itself."
In 2012, Pihakis stumbled upon a processing plant in Eva, Ala., that had been built to process emu but, despite the owner's extensive investment, wasn't able to make a go of it. Pihakis has converted it into a hog processing plant, dubbed the Fatback Pig Project, and it began production back in March. It's now processing 1,200 hogs per week and has capacity for more.
Though initially processing factory hogs, Pihakis is working with farmers in the region to raise a special cross-breed of Duroc, Berkshire, and Yorkshire pigs and ensure they're raised using humane standards and all-natural feed.
"I don't think it will be profitable or be a money loser," Pihakis says, but that's not the point. "It will be part of the infrastructure that's missing."
If sustainability is going to have a chance, it needs to be able to support restaurant chains like Jim 'N Nicks. "We use four million pounds of pork a year," Pihakis says. Only at that scale can they give farmers a reliable market for heritage breed hogs and a means to make a profit. He believes that they need to get a few hundred farms back in the business to make it successful for the long-term.
Pihakis's efforts are just one example of people trying to address the structural requirements needed to scale sustainable food. Here in the Charleston area, Lowcountry Local First's apprentice program, incubator farm, and land-match programs are helping provide aspiring sustainable farmers to get into the business and make their farms a growing concern. GrowFood Carolina is building a marketing and distribution center to help local farmers get their produce into local restaurants and supermarkets.
They are important initiatives. The last thing we want is a two-tiered food system, where the elite diners have their choice of wholesome, delicious, and pricey food, and everyone else scrapes by with industrial dreck.
Can sustainable food proponents take the next step forward and make good food scale, or will history look back on the movement as the rear-guard action of culinary Luddites?
The next two decades will likely decide the question. Though chefs will play an important role in continuing to advance the cause, the key changes will have to occur not in the kitchens of high-end urban restaurants but rather on family farms and in processing plants, distribution centers, and retail markets across the country.