Posted on August 30, 2011 - by

Life as a Restaurant Forager


Image: Scallop and roe over polenta, courtesy of Print Restaurant

Today’s guest writer is Johanna Kolodny, the forager for Print Restaurant in Manhattan, discussing the challenges of sourcing local products and seafood for restaurants.

I’m the forager at Print Restaurant located in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Print is a busy operation, offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day of the year. We provide room service and catering for the adjacent Ink 48 Hotel, and we run Press Lounge, a rooftop bar with sweeping city and river views.

When most people think of a forager, they conjure up images of someone in the forest harvesting mushrooms or other wild edibles. I struggle with my job title for that reason. You should think of my job as forager in a broader sense of the term, as someone who gathers things. My primary responsibility revolves around sourcing ingredients for the kitchen. I collaborate with the chefs to source produce, meat, dairy, seafood, and added-value products for the restaurant and bars.

My goal is to bring the chefs as much product as possible directly from farmers, fishermen and food artisans, ideally from our region. I’d like to think I’m continuously pushing the envelope, steadily increasing my percentages. When necessary, I look beyond this region and apply the same principles further afield, looking for producers who follow sustainable practices.

The word “sustainable” is thrown around a lot these days. But to me, the essence of the word is not corruptible. It means having something last for the long term, by implementing techniques like rotational planting, cover cropping, traceability, and local animal composting. Non-sustainable practices include synthetic chemicals, tilling, and inputs like petroleum-based fertilizers.

I can’t know for sure that our farmers always follow sustainable practices, but at least I know where our food comes from and we’re supporting our local economy. I’m continuously expanding our network of suppliers, seeking out those individuals who have the same philosophies. Before making purchases from a producer, I ask lots of questions. To gather information, I have visited a number of the farms with which we work, and still have a few more to go.

One of the most challenging ingredients to source is seafood. Oysters, clams and lobster are on the easier side because it is possible to sustainably cultivate them through aquaculture. Fish are just tough. We use a handful of sources for our seafood: two standard distributors, Sea 2 Table (a direct fishermen to chef network), and a few regional oyster and mollusk producers. This year, we started working with a Louisiana shrimper, who ships directly to us. I’ve found it challenging to find fishermen in our region who will deliver. Furthermore, the chef feels his choices are even more limited by which local fish customers are willing to buy.

We rely on several reference organizations, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to determine what seafood is sustainable. But even such organizations and references are not totally reliable. There is such a grey area when it comes to seafood—the ocean is so vast and we know so little about it that we’re really taking a shot in the dark. If we wanted to save seafood populations, we’d cut back on our consumption drastically, no matter the species. But are we really going to run a restaurant without offering fish options? I know the powers that be won’t let that happen, so we have to compromise. All we can do is continuously ask questions and stay up to date on the latest data.

Our sources include Sea 2 Table, which works directly with the fishermen and makes sure they are not offering at-risk seafood. We have to trust that these for-profit companies truly have the health of seafood populations in mind. The chef also works with two more mainstream distributors. One is quite transparent about sourcing and concerned with the sustainability status of its seafood offerings. I believe the chef would not source seafood from someone he doesn’t trust, however the other distributor doesn’t have as thorough traceability like our other sources.

Ultimately, the chef doesn’t choose fish whose populations are threatened, and tends to rotate through a handful of different fish depending on the season. These days, he offers snapper, halibut, black sea bass, and salmon, just to name a few. There are numerous other fish that we would like to offer that are even more sustainable, however the challenge is in selling it to the customer. We can buy any fish, but if the dish doesn’t sell, then it’s a moot point.

In the next post, I’ll discuss some examples of these fish, along with the challenges of purchasing fish we want versus what the customer is willing to buy.

For more information on Johanna Kolodny’s work as a forager, check out the Print Restaurant blog: http://www.printrestaurant.com/blog/

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