Monday, July 21, 2014
The difficulties in serving local meats in a restaurant setting are many but certainly not overcome with some planning and changes in purchasing mindset. First we need to define local. What is an acceptable range for local? Some claim 50 or 100 mile radius but for a restaurant in NYC this may be difficult. There are farms close enough but the volume would be depleted in a day if most restaurants had a “local only” menu. So many restaurants have broadened to a regional area. Purchasing meats in NYC from the region might mean extending out to farms in Pennsylvania, western New York, New England, New Jersey, or even beyond into Virginia, Quebec, Ohio. The focus may drift from locality to the raising style of the meat and of course, price. Some of the prerequisites for “local” might be free roaming or pasture fed, maybe grass fed, or raised outdoors. Restaurants may require specific labeling such as USDA Certified Organic or NOFA, certified American Grass fed, Humanely Raised and Handled and more. Defining local is up to the restaurateur and the customer. Purchasing is another hurdle. Most small farmers that are raising meats in this style are selling their meats for top dollar in the local farmer’s market or as whole freezer orders. Many will not sell a subprimal cut let alone an individual portion cut. So how does the restaurant purchase? Some are buying the whole or half animal, breaking it down in-house. This presents problems of inequality in the types of cuts available. There is only so much Rib Eye compared to chuck cuts.
Some purveyors have jumped in to try to satisfy the restaurant needs and this area of purchasing is growing. Examples would be Debragga and Spitler selling all grass-fed beef cuts and burgers from their sources in western NY and featuring Mangalitsa pork from NJ as well as specialty poultry from small processors in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Another quality purveyor, Pat LaFrieda, is selling some local products and is adding more. These types of purveyors are servicing the very high quality restaurants in NYC and they allow a restaurant to purchase meat in the “normal” way without having to buy a whole carcass or pick the meats up themselves etc.
Another option is to buy from some of the smaller niche markets that focus primarily on retail sales. Places like The Meat Hook and Fleishers in Brooklyn or Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport, Conn. are selling cuts customized for restaurants. Many restaurants that sell local make a connection with a farm at a farmers market or off a website where they can make arrangements to either have it delivered or go and pick up directly. Restaurants typically want to feature the name of the farm on their menu so this connection can be very important.
Many NYC restaurant menus that are featuring local meats are not necessarily 100% local. Some will approach it with a few local items such as a local burger, local chicken or duck, local pork cured products but rarely will you see a local beef striploin or tenderloin steak. There are some but many tend to run these expensive cuts as a featured item as opposed to a regular menu item. Restaurants that feature local also tend to feature meats from a distance but raised in a style that will be appealing to the same type of customers. Meats that feature a specific name brand such as Niman Ranch, Creekstone Farms, Meyer Angus, Berkwood Farms Pork, Bell and Evan’s Poultry. These are examples of quality name brands that are certainly not local but are produced in ways that might have some of the same features that the customer is looking for in a local product. Heritage breed names, feed styles or lack of pharmaceuticals in production are features that many customers will seek out, in addition to local, when considering their purchase.
There are certainly plenty of restaurants featuring local meats but some are doing a much more comprehensive effort than others. A prime example is Gramercy Tavern where much of their meats are locally sourced. Perla is also featuring some local product and the chef has a lot of butchery skill in utilizing the whole carcass. Bill Telepan, owner of Telepan, does some local products and features lots of local pork on his menus. Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns needs to be mentioned here as well. They are strict about their local offerings and hold to their ideals that serving local is very important. But the truth of the matter is that many other restaurants claim they sell local but the menu reflects only a small portion of their meats are local if any at all. Many “talk” local but are not serious about using local products when it becomes inconvenient.
Some restaurants are approaching the local menu idea with a different idea. In addition to their regular menu they have a small selection of “nose to tail” items on a separate menu. This gives the chef the freedom to purchase a whole carcass and make all sorts of interesting alternatives. Bar Boulud features a four item nose to tail menu featuring Raven and Boar pork, Feast features Whole Hog Mondays. The term “feast” is becoming a popular way to present a “tasting” menu with a singular meat theme. Resto and Trestle on Tenth both feature unique party menus or “feasts” that are price fixed featuring whole carcass dishes. They require you reserve a few days ahead. Blue Hill offers a summer ”feast” and they showcase seasonality as well as location.
A good source for locating local meats is the EatWild website. They showcase a number of New York farms and the restaurants that are featuring their food.
The solution to serving local meat is multi-layered. Flexibility seems to be the key. Being able to feature the whole carcass, especially with beef and lamb, and using all of the variety of cuts is the best way to feature local. Pork is the easiest in that it can also be sold as cured and sausage products and poultry are easy because they are small enough to be sold as whole or cut up portions. Having the staff to break it down and use everything is crucial but also having a chef to think of enough dishes to use it all is also important. The alternative is to leave it up to the purveyor to sell local in typical restaurant cuts. This is a growing area and more places are getting into it. Companies are re-evaluating their products to see if they can cash in on the local movement. An example is Leidy’s Pork from southern PA. They are not a small company compared to others but they are also not a huge conglomerate located thousands of miles away. Olymel is a huge pork producer in Quebec that sends their products around the world, or Taylor Packing Co., a Cargill owned beef processor in western PA that slaughters 4,000 beef cattle a day, can they be considered local? These are the decisions that must be made with care in the restaurant