I recently had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion organized by Edible Columbus and hosted by Chef Bill Glover at Galerie Bar & Bistro at the Columbus Hilton. When I say it was a pleasure, I mean a pleasure of both the brain and the palate. The conversation was interesting and the food was delicious – a variety of dishes featuring Ohio-sourced produce and proteins that I might never have tried if they weren’t served to me, family-style, at a table full of folks I hadn’t met before that meal.
The panel was facilitated by Nicole Rasul – a writer for Edible Columbus who recently took on a new role working on sustainable sourcing for The Ohio State University. Participants included:
Bill Glover, Gallerie Bar & Bistro
Matt Heaggans, The Rossi
Seth Lassak, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing
Bryn Bird, Bird’s Haven Farms
Rob Phillips, RL Valley Ranch
James Anderson, Anderson Farms
Piper Fernwey, Bon Apetit Management Co., Denison University
Darren Malhame, Northstar Cafe
The discussion revolved around challenges and successes in connecting chefs and diners in central Ohio with locally-sourced ingredients. As a small-scale grower, most of the questions were above my pay grade. Over the Fence has run on a CSA model from the start and 100% of our produce goes to our supporters and to feed our own family. I have considered restaurant sales as something we might scale up to one day and have spoken to fellow urban farmers about their wholesale experiences, but hearing from some chefs about their desires and needs was illuminating. I realized that the impact we are making to the families we serve and those who follow our growing stories online is completely different than selling to restaurants, something I’m proud of and enough to keep us busy for the foreseeable future. So, don’t plan on seeing OTFUF produce on restaurant plates any time soon, though we’d love to get into the home kitchens of some area chefs.
As someone who was raised kosher, lived as a strict vegetarian for more than a decade, and now considers herself a qualitarian (I eat meat only when I know where and how it was produced), I really appreciated the discussion of locally raised meats. James Anderson, whom most folks know as the proprietor’s of Ray Ray Hog Pit but who also raises his own award-winning swine (read about it in Stock & Barrel’s recent portrait), proclaimed “I don’t grow hams, I grow hogs.” Chef Glover responded that hearing and considering the challenges associated with processing the best animal proteins available in Ohio he has challenged himself to buy, butcher, and cook with whole animals, using all their parts. I appreciated his comments about how this challenges him as a chef, an artisan of food.
While chefs know the best ingredients are local, and therefore seasonal, it would seem most of their customers don’t. Chef Heaggans reported that, on average, diners like to eat what they like to eat, where they like to eat it. In others words, if you are a fan of the hamburger at The Rossi (which I hear is excellent), that’s what you’ll order when you go there, 9 times out of ten. I totally get that. Take me to Tip Top Kitchen and I want the pot roast sandwich. Sadly, this ties chefs hands. In order to keep customers happy and coming in the doors, so they can pay their employees and their rent, they have to keep their menus consistent.
One way to transform the way diners make choices about what they order is through education. Telling people where their food comes from might inspire them to eat differently. Glover also told stories of visiting Anderson and Philips’ farms – seeing how they raise their animals and getting to know the men and their families. That background contributes to his appreciation for the meat they produce. Some would argue it makes them taste better. I would. I think the local stories we associate with what we eat, stories which Edible Columbus helps share, have real value and I hope to see more of them on menus and in economic impacts studies in the future.
Darren Malhame of Northstar Cafe said their menu is designed to allow for seasonally sourced ingredients without changing the diners’ experience too much. Ever notice, for example, that sometimes there is lettuce and sometimes kale on your Northstar burger? He suggested we need to think of a continuum of definitions for what it means to eat local, from Alice Waters and farmer’s markets to what’s sold at the large scale grocers.
While I’ve read Bryn Bird’s commentaries in Edible Columbus before, it was inspiring to hear her talk about her family’s vegetable farm, her perspective on how food policies are impacting local production, and her experiences working with Dennison University. Piper Fernway who manages dining services at Dennison, reported about how that school has increased its locally-sourced ingredients over the past few years. She and her staff have worked on various strategies to engage students in thinking about where their food comes from and working with local producers to find ways to get their products on more students’ plates. A few examples: merging local whole grain cereals and fruit syrups to produce an original, bright-colored, sweetened cereal students love and using a coloring page of a chicken to help students trace the parts of the animal they’ve eaten in a week, pushing them to get beyond the breast.
Edible Columbus introduced a new tool to connect producers and consumers of local foods. They hope Edible Connector will provide: “A new way for Columbus area farmers, growers, producers, chefs, institutions, food artisans, markets, consumers and others to connect and grow.” I’m looking forward to exploring the site further and seeing how it might help us extend the vision and scope of Over the Fence in the coming years to do our part to get more local ingredients into the hands, and stomachs, of central Ohioans.