Sustainability for everyone?

Butchering demo at the Summit

I had a great experience at the Chefs Collaborative summit earlier in October. I was a big fan of the seminars and demonstrations in particular. It’s exciting to hear the stories of passion from people who have dedicated their lives to the noble cause of promoting sustainable cuisine.

Overall it was a fascinating couple of days—although at times it seemed there were more questions than answers, more preaching than offers of real change. After spending some time reflecting on it, I started to feel that something was missing – namely, chefs. There wasn’t a great showing in terms of numbers. As I considered that lack of presence, it dawned on me that maybe I should have been questioning my own presence at the Summit.

How sustainable am I? How local is my product? The more I asked myself those questions, the more it started to come together for me.

Sustainability, while great and undeniably needed, can seem unattainable to most professional chefs. The expense of product, ease of ordering, and seasonal availability is not great. The chefs in attendance represented what are largely occasion places for most:  higher ticket venues with entrees running up into the thirty-dollar-plus range. At Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, MA, where I am the executive chef, we keep the price point low so we can reach many people. It’s a high-volume spot, and believe me, to be fiscally responsible and sustainable while maintaining your given concept is difficult for anyone.

So in terms of not a lot of chefs being at the Summit, in some ways it was understandable. Given the pitfalls and challenges of maintaining your commitment to sustainability, one could see why a chef would stay away – from both the conference and from that commitment. But if a chef or manager were able to hear concrete examples from others who are making it work in their restaurants, that opinion might change.

So, how do we make sustainability accessible for all chefs, so we can best maintain our businesses in the long-term?

So far I’m not convinced that anyone has found the answer in total, but it starts by making small changes.  Every little bit helps and if chefs at least asked the question of how to make their restaurants more sustainable and environmentally friendly, and shared answers and ideas with each other, then true progress might be made.

I hope that more chefs will attend the National Summit in New Orleans next year so that we can better learn from one another about how to make changes in the way we source food. In the meantime, I will continue to make incremental changes along the way. I’m always rolling out new items and adding as many local products as I can. I recently added PT Farms from Vermont to my vendor list. I’ll be using their grass fed beef for my burgers at Russell House Tavern.  This is an added expense that I’m not passing on to my guests but small sacrifices like this are just the beginning of being as loyal to the sustainable movement as I can.

I’m proud of the state of my menu right now; it’s at its highest level of sustainability yet. I just wish more chefs from different concepts knew it could be done.

***Special Thanks to Chef’s Collaborative for posting this post on their website…

Follow them here: http://twitter.com/#!/chefscollab

www.chefscollaborative.org

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2 responses to “Sustainability for everyone?

  • Mary

    I was at the Summit too (you ate my bacon candy) and I took a slightly different thought away with me. I’m in the process of opening a place up on the North Shore and so I’m trying to soak up whatever I can on this issue. I attended the “greening your restaurant” session and thought both Wil Gilson and Jose Duarte brought great info to the session.

    First though, I think everyone needs to define what “sustainability” is for themselves and their restaurant. My “sustainability” is not just related to the health of the oceans, or organic growing of produce, but to the economic health of our farmers and fishermen.

    One thing I would like to see more discussion on is how other chefs educate their customers, or handle the questions they get from their diners. I find that there’s a lot of confusion about this issue, especially the economics of food production. I can’t count the number of times someone has vehemently expressed to me how they want to eat “organic” but then in the next breath complained about how expensive farmers’ market produce is.

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