The Challenges of Sourcing Local Food
First Published in The Montague Reporter
Athol and Turners Falls—Ed Maltby, the soft spoken British accented Business Manager for Adams Farm, a family owned and operated slaughterhouse with a retail store, knows local meat.
“There is no legal definition of ‘local.’ Even in Vermont, you could be 15 or 30 miles from the border to be called ‘Vermont,’ and only need to be in the state for 6 months or a year or something like that,” said Maltby, who was kind enough to sit down for an interview, despite his prejudice towards the likes of me, a Sous Chef: “I don’t know if you’re really going to like this, but dealing with chefs is a nightmare.”
Certainly, he wasn’t talking about Chef Chris Menegoni of Great Falls Harvest, the quintessential establishment to be in a story in a Turners Falls based newspaper, featuring local food in restaurants, and the surprising disconnect between the two.
In a side room adjacent to his small restaurant, the future site of a local-food market, which now holds bits of furniture and kitchen equipment, Menegoni attempted to define local-food. “Local is a state-of-mind, it’s not just something that came right from your back door. It’s something that could be made somewhere else like Europe. Cheese is a wonderful example, let’s say it’s made with a very small flock of animals, maybe it’s a highland cheese or something like that, and there’s certain things that are just unique to that spot and when it’s done with the same concept—mindset—to me that is local. It’s not from here, it’s local—it’s a process.”
Menegoni has made the process of getting local food his living for the past several years, and he makes it seem easy; rather, for him, “It’s sometimes a phone call here or there,” but, largely, the food he serves just appears at his back door. And he’s glad to serve whatever he can use creatively.
“Dancing Bear Farm, that just came in today, he actually gave me fig leaves before. He wanted me to try them, it was like a test, because I hadn’t worked with them and he had heard that you could use them. He was pruning, so he thought, ‘somebody’s got to use these,’ and it was a lot of fun. It was an experiment. I never would have said, ‘Hey, I wanna use fig leaves,’ but now that I have, I’m saying when they’re around, I’ll use them.”
The tomatoes Menegoni was preparing for a salsa dish were from the same farm, and they were delivered because of a casual conversation which occurred the last time the owners of the farm were in for dinner. Menegoni mentioned he needed tomatoes, and that his own supply wasn’t enough, so there the tomatoes appear, a week later. “You put those vibes and information out there,” he said, and the food comes to him.
I was formerly the food purchaser in a restaurant with similar relationships, where three-dozen eggs would be traded for a coffee and a pastry, though the supply of these local sources could never have sustained even that small operation.
For the vast majority of area restaurants, though, it isn’t quite as simple. In fact, for high volume restaurants—those which serve more than 150 guests each day—the prospect of going local can be a daunting challenge, and one which can prove to be impossible in many regards.
“If we were twice as busy it would change things. A certain farm might not be able to keep up with that kind of volume. Maybe that means you go to two,” said Menegoni.
As the individual responsible for planning menus for The Delaney House’s “Learn to Drink Like a Pro” events, I know all too well how difficult it can be to create a menu and purchase ingredients for a local-only event, which The Delaney House hosted this past August.
About a month before the event, I started searching for the beef I needed. I was looking for 150 small steaks, or several larger cuts that I could portion myself. I went to Sutter Meats in Northampton, a specialty butcher that deals only with local meat, and left empty handed. I could have bought every piece of raw beef Sutter Meats had and still would have been short.
At this point, not knowing where to turn, I contacted the nice folks at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA, a non-profit headquartered in South Deerfield, dedicated to making connections between farms and consumers. They did some leg work, and emailed a list of about a half-dozen farms that may be able to provide some of the cuts I needed.
My colleague, Kammy Nghiem, spent several hours over the following weeks getting the meat we needed, which was nothing close to steak-quality beef—but equally expensive. Instead, after some careful trimming and preparation, I served roast beef.
Why was this such a difficult product to get? I asked Ed Maltby, the Adams Farm business manager. “We sell to a few [restaurants], not very many,” he said. “Most of the meat we buy locally, and there isn’t the supply to do it. Most chefs don’t want carcass, they want this number of cuts. We also don’t want to compete with our farmer customers, because some of those have good relationships with restaurants. We don’t want to interfere with that.”
The local fish I served for this event was Australis Barramundi, raised just a few miles from my home in the Airport Industrial Park in Turners Falls. Known also as “Australian Seabass,” a chef can’t just walk into the office at the fish farm and leave with forty pounds of fresh, local fish.
Due to similar non-compete relationships with their distributors, Australis recommends one of two buying options—Performance Foodservice of Springfield, MA, or Black River Produce of North Springfield, VT.
But, before the fresh, local fish can arrive at the back door of the restaurant, it must be shipped to Boston, where it’s processed, shipped back to Springfield where it will be loaded on a truck and shipped to Holyoke, along with all of the other stops that particular truck makes on any given day. When it finally did arrive, the box was marked “Product of Vietnam.”
While still a wonderfully tasty, completely sustainable and relatively inexpensive food source, it hardly seems local. As far as local meat is concerned, according to Maltby, “We deal with quite a few farmers—especially those that sell into the Boston market—that sell theirs as local meat, but they buy them from Pennsylvania and bring them up here.”
As one of just two USDA inspected slaughterhouses in Massachusetts, Adams Farm takes claims made by labels very seriously, “Here, if someone labels their meat on the package then they have to prove to us that it is that meat, it meets that definition,” said Maltby. “Most production definitions like ‘grass-based’ or ‘minimally processed’…they can only use certain language in certain ways.
So, again, we get some that come in and want the most ridiculous claims on their package, and we have to say, ‘No, you can only do this, this or this.'”
Further, he said, “Where there’s money to be made people will cut corners.”
But, is there money to be made with local food, in the farm-to-table movement? For The Delaney House event, the answer was, frankly, no. It was not busy enough to justify the cost and time that it required.
I asked Menegoni of Great Falls Harvest if being twice as busy was his goal, and he said, “Not twice as busy. A little busier would be good. But I don’t want to—you get too busy, and you lose focus on what you’re doing. You need to dedicate yourself to every dish.”
Then the question becomes, for the high-volume, bottom-line driven restaurants out there: is all of the extra work, from planning to purchasing to modifying preparation methods and substituting ingredients worth it? Do people really care?
Menegoni said, “I think a lot of people do. Unfortunately what happens is, people look at bottom line dollars, what you get for what you get, and unfortunately, it’s marketed really well that the food that is not produced in the best way is still okay, because it’s sold in the big stores.”
Also sold in the big stores is Blue Seal Brand kielbasa, a refreshingly simple-to-procure addition to my local menu from Chicopee Provisions. This Polish food made a great surf-and-turf appetizer, with Pacific Northwest smoked salmon mousse.
Finally, the produce for the “local salad” came from Joe Czajkowski Farm, of Hadley. Czajkowski delivers to restaurants and some large-scale operations such as UMASS Amherst and Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and has a large selection of produce, which is bolstered by other local farms.
The ultimate reason a restaurant would dedicate itself to the local food movement, all other headaches aside, is for the relationships fostered through a reciprocal revenue stream. As Menegoni said, without any pretentiousness whatsoever, “We’ve built good relationships with the farmers that come here and bring us vegetables and other things. They also come here to eat, which makes us feel good.”
And, I must say, it makes the rest of us look bad.