Food Fight

Local Versus Global: In the Battle of Where Your Food Comes From, Who's Winning?

This week's cafe review takes a look at Dish Society, a cute new restaurant concept brought to Houston by an Austinite disappointed by the lack of healthy fast-casual restaurants with a sustainable focus. As part of Dish Society's mission, a large portion of the ingredients they use and the drinks they serve are sourced from local purveyors. The idea is to create a farm-to-table restaurant with the same service and prices as a place like Panera or Zoës Kitchen.

On the other end of the spectrum is a restaurant I reviewed several weeks ago: Artisans. When it first opened, chef Jacques Fox says he received a lot of flack from critics who didn't approve of his notion that the best food didn't always--or didn't ever--come from nearby. It's the French haute cuisine idea that food must first and foremost be stunning and incredible, regardless of whether the ingredients are local or seasonal. If Chilean sea bass is the best stuff out there, then by God that's what we're going to serve.

So who's right?

In some ways, both. And in other ways, neither.

While I have a lot of respect for the farm-to-table movement--and it is a movement, even though it's also the original way of dining--research shows that it's just not quite working. Big factory farms continue to grow and expand, outpacing smaller family farms that supply many of the local ingredients to restaurants that seek the farm-to-table ideal. Young people aren't embracing farming and ranching like they used to, choosing instead to focus on more stable careers.

Dan Barber, chef behind Blue Hill, often considered New York's pioneering farm-to-table restaurant, recently published a new book called The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food. In it, he writes, "Farm-to-table has failed to transform the way most of our food is grown in this country." He points to the moment when he realized this for himself while visiting the farm that supplies his restaurant with organic heirloom wheat.

He went out to the field and saw millet, mustard greens, kidney beans, buckwheat, oats and barley, but no wheat. When he asked the farmer why, the explanation wasn't as simple as he'd hoped. Each crop had a specific function for the soil, and together they created the optimum environment for growing wheat when it was the right season. Off season, the farm was filled with these other crops--crops that would all get ground up and become feed for animals, because there was no other use for them.

Barber writes, "I remember thinking: Oh my god, I've got this all wrong. I'd created a market for this local, heirloom emmer wheat, but I wasn't doing anything to support the entire system that sustained it...It just struck me as insane. I realized that, to support a farmer like Klaas, I needed to change my cooking. I needed to cook with the idea of the whole farm in mind."

Unfortunately, that's where farm-to-table restaurants often fall short. They source exactly what they want from local farms, ignoring the more obscure crops that might cause customers to balk. Millet? That's birdseed, right?

A restaurant like Dish Society isn't aiming to be 100 percent local, and since I haven't gone to some of the farms they source from (Atkinson Farms in Spring and Gundermann Acres in El Campo to name a couple), I can't say for sure how these farms are practicing. Maybe Dan Barber is largely getting his panties in a twist for nothing.

Still, sourcing some local food, even if growing it causes other food waste in the process, has to be better than the alternative, the Artisans model, right?

Economically, yes. Importing food is expensive, and all the planes, trains and automobiles involved aren't great for the environment. But many small farms--regardless of what country they're in--sell products to large distributors. By buying local, we're cutting out the middle man. Artisans believes that's a small price to pay for better quality and off-season ingredients.

In an article for The Atlantic, Barber points to a quote by John Muir as inspiration for a new way of thinking: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

You can't consider any ingredient--whether it comes from a few miles away or across the ocean--without thinking about what else had to be in place for it to exist. Barber suggests that the renewed fad of nose-to-tail eating needs to be applied to more than just animals; It we need to be eating the whole farm, too.

I'm not trying to argue that eating food from local farms has essentially the same impact as flying in food from all over the world. It doesn't. There's no way around the fact that Artisans' model, while delicious and interesting, isn't exactly sustainable. But if we're to believe Barber, neither is our current model of farm-to-table dining.

So what's the solution in this nihilistic conundrum? Until all restaurants start serving things like bycatch, filler crops and other "lesser" ingredients, Barber says we're just going to keep failing ourselves and mother Earth. He proposes somewhat radical dietary changes. Short of that, I don't have a solution.

What I can say, though, is the farm-to-table movement, though not outwardly successful, is taking small steps to educate people about where their food comes from. The more you know, the better you can decide for yourself whether you want local, heirloom tomatoes or imported caviar.

Taste-wise, neither is a bad option.

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Kaitlin Steinberg