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Can Local and Organic Be Cliché?


A bowl of figs at the SFN dinner are worth a million words.

Sunday night I attended a fundraiser kick-off dinner for Slow Food Nation, hosted by Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and Peter Coyote. Held at City Hall in the rotunda (with hors d’oeuvres passed in the impressively thriving Victory Garden which is cranking out 100 pounds of produce a week, which then makes its way to the Food Bank), and catered by Paula LeDuc, it was quite an evening.

It’s interesting being at the epicenter of the sustainable movement in the US. Of course, sitting at tables decorated with fresh figs (what is it about figs—they’re like the mascot for the “delicious revolution”), we listened to Waters speak with her trademark breathless passion about the need to make “good food a right and not a privilege,” and Keller wax on about the butter he has made by Vermont farmer Diane St. Clair for his restaurants. Apparently when he opened Per Se, he asked St. Clair, ‘What are we going to do?’ And she said, “Get another cow.” (Which brings up the fact that Keller has a third restaurant in Los Angeles is in the works. Is it time for cow #3?) But it was the dinner conversation that piqued my interest—a conversation that might only be had here in the Bay Area where we have the luxury of taking good ingredients for granted.

Seated across from Oliver Rowe, the 35-year-old chef of Konstam at the Price Albert in London (who will be doing one of the Green Kitchen demos), the conversation veered towards the subject of whether or not it’s a chef’s duty to label things as sustainable and local on his or her menu. It’s actually a conversation I’ve found myself having a lot lately with chefs.

If anyone started the trend of namedropping farms, it was Chez Panisse. But today, the more committed to sustainability a chef is, the more they often view this kind of information on a menu as unnecessary, almost patronizing—something that shouldn’t need to be said, but should be assumed. In fact, more and more chefs are finding that the words, sustainable, local and organic to be so ubiquitous that they’ve lost their impact. Further more, if a customer wants to know where the restaurant’s food came from, they should just ask

I hear this argument. I do. But, from my perspective as a diner, I don’t particularly like feeling self-righteous either. When I’m out, I want to enjoy myself, not interrogate the server with questions like, “Ahem, could you please tell me if steak comes from grass-fed beef raised within a 100 mile radius that was slaughtered humanely? And while I’m at it, are those frites from a small, local, organic farm?” I don’t think that menus need to flaunt every little thing they’ve got, but they certainly can put a little note saying that the ingredients were sourced with care. It’s a nice compromise that leaves me able to get on with my meal, feeling confident that someone's looking out for my dinner, no questions asked.