Posts Tagged ‘Sourcing Locally’

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:


Posted on July 6, 2011 - by

Community Supported Fisheries: Changing the Way You Buy Seafood

Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by FishWise, a non-profit sustainable seafood consultancy that helps seafood businesses improve the sustainability of their seafood offerings.

Land-based farmers have been doing it for years—collecting cash up front from customers at the beginning of the season and offering a consistent supply of fresh, high quality fruits, vegetables and other goods in return. And now, at a time when over 85% of American seafood is imported, U.S. fishermen are also getting on board, so to speak, and offering seasonal seafood to the local community.

This type of arrangement, whereby fishermen sell their product direct to the consumer, is known as a “community supported fishery” (CSF) and they have blossomed on the East coast, particularly North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Now CSFs are slowly but steadily establishing themselves around the rest of the country.

With the influx of cheaper and often less sustainable seafood imports (some types of farmed shrimp, farmed Atlantic salmon and some tuna species), U.S. fisherman are working hard to establish ways to earn a maximum return for their catch. With a CSF program, fishers get a much-needed cash injection at the beginning of the season when they need it most and can increase their share of the profits by selling directly to local customers. Also, when fishermen can earn more for their catch, they fish less aggressively which can mean less impact on the local environment and safer conditions for fishermen.

Just as importantly, you as the customer get the opportunity to learn about new fish species that you may not normally purchase, come to appreciate the seasonality of seafood, and help support local fishers and families, many of whom have been fishing for generations.

If you are interested in learning more, The North Atlantic Marine Alliance has put together a list of community supported fisheries around the country from San Luis Obispo, California to Port Clyde, New England – check it out!

FishWise is a non-profit sustainable seafood consultancy that helps seafood businesses improve the sustainability of their seafood offerings through environmentally responsible business practices, such as policy development, employee training, sourcing assistance and point of sale information. This approach empowers consumer to make environmentally informed choices when purchasing seafood.

To learn more about sustainable seafood, visit or sign up for their mailing list.


Posted on February 17, 2011 - by

Diversity Demons: The Struggle to Eat Local

The discontent arrived in fits and starts. Mere days after arriving in Italy, I stood crestfallen at the market, valiantly searching for a bunch of cilantro. Piles of parsley surrounded me, a taunting, isomorphic reminder that I was far from home. The bulk bins were swollen with cannellini beans and lentils, but there was nary a sign of black beans. In the baking aisle, I combed the shelves for baking powder. Instead, thin packages with florid photos of cakes touted the ammonia-based leavening agent inside. Skeptical, I stifled my frustration and went home to yet another meal with pasta.

In June, I fell in love with an avocado. The supple, emerald skin beckoned from across the supermarket aisle and I could not tear my eyes away. According to the label, the avocado had been imported from Israel. In lecture that morning, we had discussed the concept of food miles and the merits of buying local goods. I ignored a nagging feeling of guilt and bought the avocado anyway.

But wait, I moved abroad to learn about classic Italian cooking, did I not? Why on earth was I longing for corn tortillas? With freshly made focaccia and grissini in every corner bakery, how was it that I could not shake my yearning for one good bagel?

Italy is renowned for the depth and sophistication of its native cuisine, but the strength of this staunchly traditional food culture comes at a price. Despite the persistent forces of globalization, there have been few inroads made in the availability of international food products, particularly in Italy’s smaller towns. This poses a conundrum for an international student body, accustomed to cooking and eating in a more cosmopolitan fashion. In a land blessed with over 25 officially recognized types of cured meats and 400 cheeses, what happens when all you can do is fixate on finding a jar of peanut butter?

As I reluctantly settled into a more provincial lifestyle, whispers began trickling through the grapevine, hinting that there was more to the town’s food offerings than meets the eye. Check out the Ortobra grocery on Corso Novembre IV, they murmured, you just might find what you are looking for. One banal Tuesday afternoon, I strolled into the Ortobra and proceeded to the back corner. There it was, a shimmering oasis of foreign and ethnic goods, shelves lined with everything from cardamom to tapioca balls. Quaker oatmeal! Coconut milk! Best of all, stacked above the cans of condensed milk, there were jars of German-made peanut butter. Suddenly, it felt as though a hole of my life had been plugged with a dollop of gooey, finger-licking paste.

Upon hearing my ecstatic news, friends at home gently chastised me with bemused grins. “I’d love to be eating locally where you are now!” they exclaimed.

The principle of food sovereignty advocates access to “safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate” food for all. What does it mean to have access to culturally appropriate foods as an American? At the risk of sounding petulant and demanding, it means I want everything. It means that without leaving my hometown, I can explore and taste cuisines from all over the world. It means I can appreciate a fine glass of Barolo wine, followed by a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and end with a fish taco in hand. It means that the world is rapidly growing too small for any society to close itself off and sustain an entirely indigenous food culture.

The simple truth is that before “locavore” entered our lexicon, there was another word for people who confined themselves to eating foods produced near their homes: peasants. As the quintessential omnivores, we crave diversity in our diets and the pace of globalization means we are exposed to new and exciting foods at an unprecedented rate. I am certainly not alone. Already, consumers in developing countries have begun seeking a greater selection of international novelties. Italian wines in Brazil. Prosciutto in China. As palates grow more sophisticated, the demand will rise for the world’s finest truffles, authentic maple syrup, and fresh mangosteen. And why not? Maybe this cultural exchange will help bring us all closer together.

Is my kitchen filled with exotic condiments and imported cans? Yes. Do I encourage friends and family to shop locally? All the time. Am I a hypocrite? Perhaps. But in my opinion, traditional food culture is dead. Or maybe it never really existed, a romantic fairy tale valorized in modernity. Even in ancient times, wild game from Africa and spices from India traveled to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

Think about that the next time you reach for the soy sauce.

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Posted on February 15, 2011 - by

From Farm to Your Table: CSA Sign-Up Season

Sure, much of the U.S. is covered with dismal, soot-sprayed snow, and it may feel like we’ve entered Narnia (always winter, never Christmas), but guess what, a new growing season is about to begin!

If you haven’t already done so, this is peak season to sign-up for a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. What’s a CSA, you ask? It’s a subscription program to a farm. For a set fee that is paid at the beginning of the growing season, you will receive a share of the farm’s harvest for the rest of the year. Usually, this includes a basket of vegetables and fruits, but can also include eggs, meats, dairy products and honey. Your food will be fresh, seasonal, and local, and you’ll have the opportunity to get to know the farmer who produced your food.

Sure, you could buy local and seasonal produce from the grocery store, but CSAs are unique in a few other ways. Since shareholders pay upfront at the beginning of the year, you help the farmer with his cash flow and act as an investor in this year’s harvest. This shared risk means that if the growing season is good, you reap the benefits with more abundant produce, and if the Northeast is hit by tomato blight, well, you will not receive any tomatoes in your CSA basket. In addition, because you have little control over what is in your share, you will have to be flexible with what you cook. This can might fill you with dread or excitement. Personally, I am always thrilled to find an unrecognizable vegetable in my basket, and find that CSAs force you to broaden your horizons.

To give you an idea of what you might get, one week last fall, I received an acorn squash, a bunch of beets, three heads of red leaf lettuce, half a dozen jalapeno peppers, green peppers, rainbow swiss chard, red potatoes, a sack of green and yellow beans, onions, parsley, and broccoli crowns. The next week, I received red onions, apples, oranges, pears, bananas, a bunch of swiss chard, jalapenos, potatoes, a butternut squash, and a nice stalk of brussels sprouts.

The only downside is you will spend a lot more time washing dirt off your produce compared to store-bought goods. And in the interest of using up your groceries before they spoil, you may also find yourself considering such avant-garde flavor combinations as brussels sprouts with orange-jalapeno chutney. But that is a small price to pay.

To find a CSA program near you, check out Local Harvest.

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Posted on February 14, 2011 - by

Valentine’s Day: Green is the New Red

It’s Valentine’s Day. And though this may fill you with giddiness or groans, take a moment to step back and consider someone who needs more lovin’ from all of us: Planet Earth. So, whether you are celebrating Valentine’s Day with a significant other, friends or family, keep the following guidelines in mind for ecofriendly festivities that everyone can feel good about.

  • Think carefully about how you source your gifts. That means: locally grown, pesticide-free flowers, fair trade chocolate, conflict-free diamonds.
  • Better yet, rather than giving cut flowers that will shrivel in 2 days, give seeds or a potted plant that will grow and bloom for months to come, while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • Consider not sending a paper card. The 2.6 billion greeting cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high (Clean Air Council).
  • Bypass the cheesiness of Hallmark. Pick up a wedge of local, artisanal cheese instead.
  • Beat the crowds and harried servers at restaurants. Open up a bottle of organically produced wine, and make dinner at home.
  • Recycle and upcycle old materials into gifts. Bike wheel clock, anyone?
  • Or maybe your significant other doesn’t really need more stuff anyway. How about gift certificates (to the hair salon, golf course), tickets to a sporting event or play, or IOUs for a last-minute errand or cleaning the bathroom?

What (if anything) are you doing to celebrate today? Do you compost your dried flower cuttings? What do you do when you can’t eat all that chocolate?

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Posted on February 7, 2011 - by

What’s in a Food Mile? (Part 2)

Last week, I took a look at the myth of the food mile, and gave some reasons on why this number grossly oversimplifies the environmental impact of a food. Now what? The average consumer has no way of tabulating all the production and distribution knowledge needed to assess how green a food is; this would most likely require some serious research chops and access to academic resources.

Well, the locavore movement is certainly not dead yet. Even though you cannot prove that your locally-sourced foods are better for the planet, there are other reasons to continue buying from your region’s farmshed.

First and foremost, buying local means that your money stays local, supporting your community’s farmers, small businesses and industries. After all, the health of your local economy directly impacts you, your friends and your neighbors.

Secondly, you can get to know your local farmers, learn how their workers are treated, and investigate exactly how your food was grown. Not only is this a valuable knowledge resource, but it is impossible to develop the same human connection with a distant brand name and manufacturer.

Of course, like everything else in life, this argument is shrouded in shades of gray. Buying from a local farmer means that you may have passed up an opportunity to buy from farmers in underdeveloped countries. Access to international markets could dramatically improve the livelihoods of farmers in Latin America, Africa, and other major agricultural exporters. Mark Ashurst of the African Research Institute argues that it is important to support African farmers for ethical reasons. He notes, “Two thirds of Kenya’s horticulture harvest is exported in the holds of passenger aircraft that bring tourists home from Africa’s natural parks and beaches. If we are to avoid buying African vegetables, as local food activists advocate, we are penalizing some of the world’s most vulnerable people for the carbon footprint of holidaymakers.” Perhaps we should be looking at “fair miles” instead?

In the end, the best advice I can give is to buy mostly in season, from pretty close. Overall, it will be cheaper for your wallet, fresher and taste better to boot.

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Posted on February 4, 2011 - by

What’s in a Food Mile?

The milk that you poured into your cereal this morning, do you know where it came from? Was it delivered to your doorstep by hand? Trucked from a large dairy farm in a neighboring city? Packaged and flown across the country? Which of these results in the least amount of carbon emissions?

When it comes to sourcing our food, we are often told that it is best to eat locally to minimize the environmental impacts of food production. To illustrate this, food miles are one metric used to quantify how local your food is. Simply put, food miles measure the distance a food travels from its origin to your plate. So, an apple from a local orchard may have only 10 food miles behind it, but a frozen pizza could have been shipped 3,000 miles from a distant manufacturing plant. Moreover, the average distance that your meal travels before arriving to you has been rising. American consumers are buying processed foods more frequently, and demand seasonal produce all year long.

Intuitively, it seems like a food with lower food miles should be more environmentally friendly than a food from a more distant location. But is this really the best way to assess the environmental impact of a food?

A Red Herring

For all the attention that has been paid to carbon emissions from transportation, the truth is that they make up only a small portion (11%) of greenhouse gases generated over the lifetime of a food product. In reality, the bulk of greenhouse gases stem from production, with 83% of emissions occurring before the food even leaves the farm (World Watch). Hence, focusing solely on food miles is like mending the fence while the rest of the house is on fire.

For instance, it takes more energy to produce vegetables off-season in greenhouses than in warmer climates. Researchers in Sweden concluded that it was better for Swedes to buy Spanish tomatoes instead of locally-grown Swedish tomatoes, since the local tomatoes were grown in greenhouses warmed by fossil fuels, as opposed to the Spanish crops grown in open fields (Carlsson-Kanyama, 1997). Another example of energy-intensive processing is local produce that is kept frozen throughout winter versus a product that is shipped fresh from another place.

Not All Miles Are Equal

Meanwhile, the nuances of transportation methods throw additional kinks into the story. Trains are 10 times more efficient than trucks at transporting freight, which means you could truck a product 100 miles or move it by train 1,000 miles with the same carbon emissions impact (World Watch). In general, air transport produces the greatest amount of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by small road vehicles, large road vehicles, rail and sea freight (Pirog et al, 2009).

Let’s not forget the miles we add by traveling to and from the point of purchase. Local transportation by car and small trucks is highly inefficient compared to mass transport, and food systems that integrate bulk deliveries can be more environmentally friendly than farmers markets. One study found that driving more than 7.4 km (4.6 miles) to the farmers market to buy locally-grown food would produce more carbon emissions than purchasing from a large-scale box supplier that uses cold storage, packaging and transportation (Blouin et al, 2009).

Taking all these factors into account, you get some eyebrow-raising results when tabulating the true environmental impact of foods. Researchers found that one ton of lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-filled pastures and transported to the U.K. by boat produced only 1,520 pounds of carbon emissions, versus 6,280 pounds for lamb raised in Britain on feed (NYT).

Blast, it appears that serious investigation of the food mile reveals that it cannot be used to make a cut-and-dried case for greener consumption. So what should the time-strapped, socially-conscious consumer do? Stay tuned next week for part two of “What’s in a Food Mile?”.