Chefs rely on nature, local producers to help shape menu
Picturing farmers arriving at restaurant kitchens, their trucks laden with ripe red apples, multicolored winter squashes and snowy white cauliflower, feeds into our desire for a reduced carbon footprint and meals created from what’s fresh in the field. But even as more and more customers demand farm-to-table menus, restaurateurs often find sourcing locally a complex undertaking, requiring extra time, effort and flexibility.
At least once a week, Eamonn McParland, chef/partner of Render Kitchen & Bar in South Bend’s trendy East Bank neighborhood, drives to the venerable South Bend Farmers Market, a year-round market housed in a sprawling building near the St. Joseph River with a history stretching back more than a century. There McParland buys from growers such as Wolf Farms, Hetler Farms, Walt Skibbe Farms and a few others, based upon need. During harvest times McParland also relies on forager Leon Davis of Native Prairie Farms in Wanatah, IN, to keep his kitchen stocked with wild mushrooms, wild berries, greens and, in the spring, an abundance of ramps and morels. Fresh eggs come from Third Day Organic Farms and bread from the award-winning Bit of Swiss in Stevensville, MI.
by Forage & Foster
A Change of Taste
McParland and chefs like him are part of a shift in the restaurant industry to reclaim the specialness, freshness and flavor of local food that once was part of the American diet. Over the decades since World War II, seasonal, local food was replaced by national brands, low-cost mass producers and foods created for simplicity and ease of shipping rather than flavor and nutrition. But times are changing.
The National Restaurant Association asked American Culinary Federation chefs to predict menu trends in 2017, and the number one of the Top 10 Concept Trends was hyper-local sourcing. McParland is one chef at the forefront of this trend in Michiana. He sources 90% to 95% of the food on Render’s menu locally during Michiana’s growing season. That number drops to around 70% in the winter.
“You won’t find tomatoes on my menu in February or Brussels sprouts on my menu in July. Almost every dish we serve features local-sourced products and produce, such as our duck confit with sorrel aioli and green onion ash—the duck is from Maple Leaf Farm, the sorrel from Butternut Sustainable Farms and the green onions from Jelena Farms,” he says. “During the winter, we rely heavily on the South Bend Farmers Market. Many farmers still go to the market with the produce they are holding in storage and we leave the market with about 100 pounds of produce for the week. Things like lettuce obviously can’t be found, but we do our best.”
McParland says he has a good idea of when certain produce will be coming into season and also frequently chats with his various purveyors for updates.
“As soon as I know what’s going to be available I’ll plan ahead of time, testing recipes with grocery store vegetables,” he says about his menu development. “I try to focus on one key ingredient and build on that. When you plan menus based on the season, nature does some of the work for you. Most foods that pair well together are harvested at the same time, such as morels and ramps, tomatoes and eggplants, and apples and parsnips. I don’t feel like I do much deciding on what produce goes on my menu. I feel like the seasons decide for me. I simply choose the preparation.”
Supply and Demand
Jonathan Templin of Butternut Sustainable Farms in Sturgis, MI, supplies fresh produce to Render as well as other South Bend restaurants including LaSalle Grill, Tapastrie and Café Navarre. His largest customer base is in Chicago and includes Boka, Clever Rabbit, The Gage, Alinea, Roister and others.
by Eamonn McParland, chef/partner at Render Kitchen & Bar
Supplying restaurant kitchens is challenging for not only the chefs but also for small food producers like Templin. The farm has only nine acres and five greenhouses, so he is careful about who he takes on as a customer, preferring small restaurants that specialize in local.
“Every once in a while, if I can’t supply it, then I use a couple of small farms to help out,” says Templin.
Spring through fall he makes weekly trips to South Bend to deliver produce to his customers there, including Render.
“Jon supplies us with our microgreens and edible flowers, and he has the best tomatoes in the summertime,” says McParland. “His farm is at the very least partly responsible for the beauty of our food. He only operates for about nine months out of the year, so when he stops I get my greens and microgreens from Michiana Greens based out in Elkhart. What they do is pretty neat—they’ll bring the greens still living in the pots and I’ll pick them as I need them throughout the week.”
Commitment to Local
Some chefs, like Josh Thayer at Greenbush Brewing Company, take local to another level, actually going out and foraging ramps and morels in the spring. But sourcing food this way takes a real commitment to the land.
“Anytime you forage, you obviously want to think of next year’s crop,” he says. “For instance, I harvest morels as long as the season lasts but, like with other things you forage, you can’t take the whole plant and the dirt. You have to know what you’re doing and practice sustainability so that there will be more growing the following year.”
Greenbush retail manager Anna Rafalski says a regular group of farmers call at least once a week to let them know what’s available.
“But because of the unpredictability of what we can get, we usually use what’s available locally for making our specials rather than for the items we have on the menu,” she says.
One very local item Greenbush always offers is Fruitbelt Sparkling Fruit Tonic, which is headquartered down the street.
“That’s about as local as you can get,” says Rafalski.
by Pete Hasbrouck, chef at Greenbush Brewing Company
Render Kitchen & Bar
Making the Connection
Seeing a need to help match restaurants and producers, Brad Fuller founded Forage & Foster, a distributor of specialty goods for Chicago, Northern Indiana, Indianapolis and Southwestern Michigan. Fuller, a self-described food lover who lives in Miller Beach, IN, works to make ethically and responsibly produced foods more accessible to restaurants and suppliers that might otherwise struggle to source cheeses, meats and dry goods. Forage & Foster is part of an ever-growing food trend. According to research from the National Restaurant Association, 68% of consumers say they’re more likely to visit a restaurant serving locally sourced items than one that doesn’t.
Fuller has obviously found a niche. Two years ago, it was just him and Holly Christopher running the company, which meant starting work at 5am and not getting to bed until midnight. Now they have a whole team working on connecting restaurants and small producers such as Evergreen Lane Artisan Cheese in Fennville, MI; Jake’s Country Meats in Cassopolis, MI; and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup made by Journeyman in Three Oaks, MI. Greenbush Brewing Company carries several of these items in its deli case.