Sunday, June 22, 2014

Local Cheers and Woes

 I recently saw a special party menu featuring local beef tenderloin. Sheesh! A large party featuring over twenty beef tenderloins! That's more than 10 whole animals. What was the reasoning behind the menu idea? Many chefs today want to ride the next popular wave and create menus that will catch the customers desire to be eating what is on the cutting edge of the culinary world. The term "local" has jumped on to many menus all over the nation and beyond. Local seasonal vegetables, local free-ranged eggs, beer featuring locally grown hops, wines from local grapes all combined on to menus,
giving the customer a way to support local farmers. Meats are part of this puzzle and featuring local meats is absolutely possible and being done, even on the food truck level.
 So why did this menu irk me so much? My worry is that "local" takes on some sort of elitist tag when viewed on a menu. The last thing the local supporters and farmers want to see is their products becoming an elitist out of reach food source for restaurants.
 Here is a scenario. There's a chef running a nice bistro with and eclectic menu that they've created from experiences and travels. They look to serve local products. Why? In their travels to Spain, Italy or Hungary they found that the best food had was in small places that featured the food and wine from that area. Chefs there had a relationship with a local greengrocer or butcher and they bought through the age old practices of haggling and "working" each other for the best prices. The chef here wants to recreate that experience in the US. Do they want to put this local stuff on their menu because its trendy? The answer should be NO, they want to use the local products because they have a better flavor and they have a relationship with their farmer or purveyor.
 The hard part for a restaurant, especially when concerning the use of local meats, is two fold. First the price tends to be higher and restaurants are always struggling with profit margins. It is sooo tempting to look at the prices from a large distributor and buy pre-cleaned vegis or pre-cut meats that are ready to go and may have decent flavor. Second, buying meats from a local source often means buying a large primal or full carcass. A purveyor that sells cuts that are broken into small subprimals is most likely to not be selling truly local products or they are going to charge a fortune. They also most likely will not have enough of one cut available, especially if it is a small item such as a teres major, tenderloin, lamb loin or middle meat cuts such as striploin or rib eye. The" local only"butcher shops that I know can get top dollar for these cuts in their retail case so why would they want to sell to restaurants at a discount. My friend Kevin at Side Hill Farmers in Syracuse NY would be more than willing to let chefs know what cuts are available that are outside of the normal middle meat cuts.
 The point is if a chef wants to feature local they need to be flexible and inventive in their creations. It showcases much more skill as a chef to create a dish from a beef bottom round or lamb breast than from the middle meat cuts. These types of cuts, although, as local, they may still be more expensive than larger commercial meats, will be reasonable enough to make a good margin.
 So how would a large hotel or banquet hall present local? This may require some really inventive thinking but a chef might consider a grind product as part of the menu or appetizers. A chef might buy a half hog and make a myriad of different sausages that could compliment the meal, or provide a local burger on the lunch menu. A big operation might not be able to do the absolute local product but might consider a regional meat item. A casino in Connecticut could feature pork from a large plant in Pennsylvania rather than from a distant plant. This shows at least the spirit of local and could prove attractive on a menu. The definitions of local can vary from chef to chef.
 Personally, I think beef tenderloin lacks the flavor depth of many other cuts and it takes very little skill to roast it. To put "local" beef tenderloin on any banquet menu reeks of desperation of a chef that is trying to keep up with the "trend" of local without changing from their old mindset and in the end appearing as a food elitist, even if that wasn't the original intention.
Assorted meat dishes at The Cannibal in NYC from local sources
P.S. Local beef tenderloin sold at my friends at the Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport Conn. sells for $38. per lb!