photo by Orlando Weekly
Do those peas and carrots look local to you?
The restaurant world has been set into a tizzy by Laura Reiley's exposé
in the Tampa Bay Times ("Farm to Fable," April 13) on unscrupulous practices by restaurants who claim their ingredients are locally sourced. Reiley spent two months digging into the meat and produce sources of several Tampa restaurants, only to confirm what many of us uneasily suspected all along: They were bogus.
Restaurants, as I'm sure you've all seen, will often include the names of local farms in their menu descriptions, but how is the average diner to know if their eggs really are from Lake Meadow Naturals, or their pork from Pasture Prime, or their fish from Wild Ocean Seafood?
Three years ago, I called out a now-shuttered Indian restaurant
for their shady sourcing claims. Their menu listed a number of food purveyors and suppliers, including major distributors Growing Synergy and Local Roots, but there was something fishy at Raga, and it wasn't the Chilean sea bass tikka. A couple of phone calls was all it took to get to the truth of the matter.
“When I spoke to Rebecca Reis-Miller, CEO of Growing Synergy, she confirmed that Raga was not a restaurant they supplied to. Raga's menu also lists Tomazin Farms and Wild Ocean Seafood Market, whose products find their way into area restaurants care of Local Roots Distribution. When I spoke to Local Roots founder Emily Rankin, she too confirmed that Raga was not a restaurant she had any dealings with. Now, the fact that Raga actually lists Growing Synergy on their menu is damning enough, but when you notice Raga's list of purveyors appears nearly identical to the list on the Cress website, it makes you shake your head.” (Raga's approach to fine dining and local sourcing is off-key)
When visiting Boca in February of last year (the Winter Park outpost of the Tampa original which Reiley called out), we appreciated hearing the litany of farms our server said the restaurant sourced, but thought it odd said farms weren't listed anywhere on the menu:
“...we’d appreciate it even more if those local farms and providers (Deep Creek Ranch, King Farm, Winter Park Dairy, Lake Meadow Naturals, etc.) were listed somewhere on the menu.” (Boca makes you open wide and say "hmmm")
On occasion, a sourcing inquiry will be met with brute honesty, as was the case in our visit to the less-than-mediocre Braccia in October:
“Out of curiosity, I asked where they sourced their cod, expecting 'North Atlantic' or 'Pacific' to be the response. Instead, the server busts out, ‘It's from Sysco.’” (Braccia presents itself as a pizzeria with Brazilian leanings, but fresh-squeezed juice is the safest thing on the menu)
Until Reiley's in-depth feature published yesterday, restaurants had a field day with the "local," "seasonal" and "farm-to-table" buzzwords, and generated a lot of money as a result. But Reiley’s article has, effectively, called into the question our collective trust in chefs and restaurateurs.
Sure, some restaurants (Cress Restaurant, the Rusty Spoon, K Restaurant, to name a few) hold themselves to a higher standard and welcome the scrutiny, but others have gotten away with it because we’ve let them get away with it.
Simple inquiries, even a phone call or two, aren’t just the bailiwick of the food writer or critic. Anyone who gives a damn about the provenance of their food should hold restaurants to their word. (And if you don't care, then don't bother ... but you're probably paying too much for that salad.) Sure, a basic understanding of seasonality and what grows when in this state can help but, simpler than that, ask your restaurant server, or the manager, or the chef, and listen
to how they answer.
When inquiries are made and the heat is on, awareness is raised – and restaurants, particularly unscrupulous ones, will be held accountable not just by the few who write about food, but by the restaurant-going public as a whole.