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Restaurant Show Tackles Sustainability

By Chuck Sudo in Food on May 21, 2007 3:30PM

2007_05_trubird.jpgThe National Restaurant Association trade show (we'll just call them the "good NRA") is still in full swing through tomorrow at McCormick Place. We went this weekend, took in some of the exhibits, marveled still at the sheer enormity of McCormick Place, and got enough Cholula samples to last us through the summer, or at least the next bloody mary, and our clothes reek of fried food.

The topic of sustainability was a recurring theme at the seminars on Sunday. The most star-studded one was "Local, Sutainable and Organic: America's Culinary Leaders are Changing the Way We Eat." Moderated by Aaron Noveshen of culinary development company The Cutting Edge, the panel included Louisiana chef John Folse, Rich Vellante of Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, Tru's Rick Tramonto, and Blackbird's Paul Kahan. Public awareness of organic foods has risen in recent years. Spearheaded by the successes of Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Wild Oats, traditional groceries and supermarkets have now started to stock organic produce, along with meats and dairy products raised on organic feeds. Even Wal-Mart's jumping on the organic bandwagon.

Most of the seminar, however, focused on local and sustainable produce. And though chef Folse brought a considerable amount of bayou charm to the panel, Kahan spoke most eloquently about the benefits and drawbacks of sustainability, and the incremental progress of educating his customers on the concept of sustainability. With Kahan's experiences echoed in similar fashion by Tramonto's own examples, it painted a bright canvas on how far the restaurant industry has come from buying everything from giant distributors like Sysco, and how far still the industry has to go to fully make sustainability a part of everyday discussion.

Kahan's commentary on the rise of factory farming and how it's adversely affected the way Americans eat was understated and to the point: "It's screwed up the way we eat." Folse and Vellante reinforced Kahan's point. Velante said, "Government policy affects what family farms produce. They chase the subsidies (government agencies offer)." Folse said that food grown from factory farms "isn't unique, or flavorful." When Noveshen brought up the subject of Wal-Mart entering the organic marketplace, the panel to a man expressed reservations, which led to a personal account by Folse about the moral and ethical dangers behind falsely marketing products as being organic or free of additives like rGBH.

Still, the major roadblock facing the restaurant industry as a whole toward promoting organic food and local sustainable produce is educating the customer. Tramonto conceded that while some of his customers are gathering knowledge, "there's still so much ignorance" about the subject of sustainability, and that even though he and his partner Gale Gand lead staff on field trips to local farms, he's "not getting enough of a push" from his customers about the subject. Vellante concurred that there "isn't an overwhelming demand" for sustainable produce.

Kahan emphasized the main reason behind practicing sustainability. "'Local and sustainable' means more flavor because the food doesn't have far to travel," and pointed to the prevalence of the city's farmers markets as an example of how to develop relationships with local farmers to give them a livelihood and eventually getting a price for product that's more than fair for both supplier and consumer. "Back when the farmers market started, there were only four vendors set up near the Chicago Theater. Now they're everywhere."

He did concede, however, to one drawback on buying sustainable local produce. "In the fall, my staff knows that I'm grumpy because the harvest is over and I have to change five menu items literally overnight. I'm making do with what I can get my hands on. In the spring, when the peas and ramps are coming back in, I'm much happier in the kitchen."