COAST: Which came first, chefs seeking out local, sustainable or organic options, or the public’s desire to see these items on the plate?
Cathy Pavlos, LUCCA Café: I believe that the emphasis began with a small group of chefs who remembered growing up on farms or with farming families and had experienced better-tasting food as kids. My grandfather was a commercial farmer in Huntington Beach when I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, and I didn’t eat a store bought tomato until I was 18 years old. That taste was quite a shock... and not in a good way. I think that the first emphasis here was on food tasting better, and “cleaner” food clearly tastes better – the sustainability part came later.
Greg Daniels, Haven Collective: When we first opened Haven it was picking and choosing “what’s the best product we can get” – then, as we evolved, it became about ethics, too. We arrived at a place where we wanted to make sure everything that came through the door was humanely raised. I think there’s a very clear correlation between what chefs have done to promote good food, which has translated into the public desiring the same. Much of it began 14 years ago with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program promoting awareness of overfishing, and chefs responding by seeking out alternatives. We love eating and serving great products, but we don’t want to knowingly destroy a species either.
Mitch Gillian, La Sirena Grill: I really feel that the great chefs of this world have always been seeking out the best possible ingredients. As far as the public is concerned, it seems that they’ve only recently become aware of the importance of sustainability and other options, because the huge food corporations have kept them in the dark. Really who had heard of a GMO five years ago besides the people making them?
Andrew Gruel, Slapfish: What we’ve learned from our customers is that they don’t want to emphasize sustainability until they can really feel the evidence of that value on the plate. However, when I look at the different ways that tuna is caught, the more sustainable method leads to better taste. Our goal has become to teach people that sustainability tastes better – not through being militant, but by the undeniable proof of good-tasting dishes.
COAST: “Locally sourced” seems to be the phrase of the moment. Where do you see that trend headed?
Patrick “Paddy” Glennon, Santa Monica Seafood, Culinary Liberation Front: A chef trying to make extremely fantastic food is going to work as closely to the farmers market as possible so that they can get items that were fully ripened on the vine. The flavor is outstanding and that’s what the real chefs ultimately prioritize.
Cathy Pavlos, LUCCA Café: We’ve always tried to purchase locally grown produce. We’re currently working on a second concept, slated to open in Newport Beach the latter part of this year. It’s called Provenance and it features its own 1,300-sq-ft. organic, raised-bed kitchen garden right in the courtyard of the restaurant. It is a return to my roots, I guess. This will be a Napa Valley-inspired concept, but as hyper local as you can get. In addition to the crops on the ground, we have designed a 70-foot-long vertical green wall surrounding the property where we will grow many of our crops in specially designed planters. We hired Kathy Agresto, the master gardener who did the kitchen garden at the Montage and at Park Ave. The menu will change every month, and it will be driven by the garden. This is not a common practice in Orange County, though, interestingly enough, it is an urban concept. You can see a lot of restaurants in New York, Boston and San Francisco with their own kitchen gardens, either on the roof, or tucked into an alley behind the dining room, completely surrounded by a dense city block. And of course, you see them in Napa and Sonoma. Not only am I getting back to my roots, but I am getting back to Orange County’s roots as well. This county was rural when I grew up here, I was in the 4-H club and I (humanely) raised hormone-free market lambs and rabbits. The only way for us to go forward as a food society is to go backwards as individuals. I didn’t invent “Farm to Fork,” but I sure lived it as a kid. We didn’t know that we were being trendy, we just thought we were living with the land.
Greg Daniels, Haven Collective: I believe sourcing local is very important, as we want to support agriculture around us, both for the economy and for the environment. So many times, people are buying tomatoes that are being shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, and conversely, the tomatoes being grown locally are being shipped that far away from here. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Mitch Gillian, La Sirena Grill: My major focus right now is to find more GMO-free ingredients, continue supporting local farms and to try to find a small spot to grow some of our own fruits, vegetables and herbs. It’s hard to find those items grown in Orange County, believe it or not. Maybe someone will knock down a tract home somewhere, but until then, I’ll have to look for a roof to garden on.
COAST: Is there anything you want to add about organic vs. local vs. sustainable, green washing, or product sourcing in general? Are your sourcing decisions based more on a desire to manage global resources or simply because you want to serve the best product, or both?
Jason Quinn, Playground DTSA: When we began, we had a choice to make about whether we would emphasize local, sustainable and organic, or whether our focus was just getting the absolute best products. We chose the latter, but because local, sustainable and organic often taste better, those two notions tend to overlap.
Cathy Pavlos, LUCCA Café: Europeans have been practicing sustainability for a very long time, and it begins at home, not in a restaurant. These are countries that have experienced long and painful histories of scarcity. Here in the U.S., we have been mostly immune from that (well, with the exception of the Oklahoma dust bowl... and did we learn?). At the end of the day, I want to serve the best possible product that I can. It’s a no brainer that the best possible food is generally slow, or local, or at least food that not a lot of hands have touched and harmed. I am not so sure that my motives are morally or globally driven. More, I think, it comes from a deep respect for the land, and having grown up rural with the kind of aggie ethic that only a farm kid raised by parents who endured the Depression can have. In the end, for me, it all has to come from the heart, or what’s the use?
Greg Daniels, Haven Collective: Sourcing is based on a variety of factors. I sleep better at night knowing that every protein being served in any of our locations was humanely raised. If something comes through the door with IBP (Iowa Beef Processors, one of the world’s biggest meat packing companies) stamped on the box, we turn it away. There’s just no reason to use cheap meat. As Americans, we’ve become so accustomed to paying so little for our food, and we should really focus more on the quality of ingredients we’re putting in our bodies. Sometimes these things cost more, and they’re worth it. Of course, this makes green washing a danger. It’s out there. You have to be sure you’re well informed, and rely on great chefs to source these ingredients at the establishments you frequent. Ask, and most reputable establishments will take your opinion under consideration when it comes to the quality of meat they’re serving.
Mitch Gillian, La Sirena Grill: Be wary of where your organic items come from. Places like South America do not hold the same standards for organic as in the U.S. and Europe. There are a lot of farms in the U.S. awaiting organic certification that are producing amazing products that cannot be certified organic, but they are being produced in that manner. Buy food that is grown close to you (within a hundred miles); it’s fresher off the vine, it tastes better and it leaves much less of a dent on our fragile environment. As far as my sourcing decisions, they are plain and simple: They are based on the seasons.