Notes from the Kitchen by Chef Dan Vernia - The Ravens Club
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Notes from the Kitchen by Chef Dan Vernia

I was recently asked by a student preparing a paper on local and sustainable foods to answer some questions about our efforts to purchase and feature these types of products on our menu. I found the exercise useful and challenging. I also thought the dialogue of interest to those visiting our website as it helps define the concept of heirloom cuisine and the extra effort that kitchens with this commitment require.

Here is the conversation I had with Claire Bennet, a high school student in Raleigh, North Carolina:

As a chef who cooks with local food, what is your goal (other than serving tasty food to your customers)?

I want to represent and feature what’s seasonally available and what we do best here in our region throughout the year. I believe this creates a daily bill of fare that‘s exciting and will keep customers coming back for new tastes. It keeps the staff sharp too, since we’re less likely to get complacent with a dynamic menu, and different techniques are required to maximize the flavor of the variety of foods available throughout the year.

Why do you think it is so important that the community supports locally grown foods?

Supporting our region’s economy is especially important in this area. Agriculture and food production activities can create new recession proof jobs for our residents. Food security also increases the more we move the source of our meals closer. It’s also just plain fun to have the farmers and artisanal producers close by creating a loose network of people who have similar interests and like getting together to support one another. It’s like when people used to gather around an occasion like barn raising, or a special harvest.

How does your menu change season to season?

The produce side of it is fairly straightforward in that it mirrors the growing season here. My favorite time is fall, as season extending hoop houses, etc. have made traditional summer crops available right through to mid-November. All of the great fall squash and root crops are available too, making for incredible range of tastes and texture.The winter and early spring really define us as seasonal cooks. Even right now our salad and cooking greens are grown nearby and there are plenty of cold storage items available. Sometimes I’ll take advantage of seasonal demand to leverage our cost, which can get expensive buying local and sustainable products. For example, the rancher I buy my pork from has a higher demand for the bone in loins during the colder months, so we switched from that cut to whole shoulders at a better price and we’ll probably change when his demand does. We are constantly featuring new products and reintroducing things we have used previously by having a bill of fare that includes many “du jour” items or categories. This way, I’m able to take advantage of something spontaneous if a great ingredient becomes available.

What is the furthest distance the food you cook with travels?

For items on the menu throughout the year, antelope from Texas probably about 2000 miles and shellfish from the Canadian Atlantic which is a little closer. Right now, of course, we do need to bring in some produce from the west coast. As we grow the infrastructure for year round growing that need will continue to diminish.

Do you buy your ingredients from local farmers who also farm organically?

Yes, and I prefer that, but some who are practicing organics have chosen not to be certified. That leads another discussion with advocates of each path having strong beliefs (look for this in a future post). It comes down to trust and that is where I focus my energy: in getting to know those I buy from.

What aspects of locally grown food do you think are most valuable to our health, economy, environment, etc.?

Locally grown food will not be any healthier for the public or the environment if it is not farmed using organic practices, except for the energy used in transporting food grown from a much farther distance.
The jobs created my increasing food production within a region are significant along with the security of being less vulnerable to national and global events that could disrupt that system which we have become reliant on.

In your opinion, is it more sustainable to buy organic food that has traveled a long distance to get to you or is it more sustainable to buy local food that has not necessarily been grown organically? Why?

That depends on your priority, for sure. My agenda is sourcing and cooking with ingredients that are sustainably raised even if they come from an outside area and would prefer not to use conventionally produced items even if they are grown in this area. Each week however presents its own opportunities and challenges in terms of getting an exciting blend of ingredients for our staff. I have more of a regional than local mindset and consider the Great Lakes our base for sourcing, without regards to lines on a map, which provides an average of 65% of what we buy throughout the year. Also, because the organic/local/sustainable food movement is still primarily retail driven and the supply system here has limitations ( example; lack of USDA approved meat processing facilities in our area), we will be looking to producers outside the region who share similar values and are offering unique products not currently available here. I try to be as responsible as possible in this area, knowing how to get items transported through the existing ground channels. As the farm to table movement continues to expand in the restaurant and institutional food nservice sectors these broader systems will become an equally important to supply the demand.