You’ve probably seen restaurant menus fill up with claims of “farm-to-table” “farm-to-fork” and “locally sourced” in the last few years. But much like the trend of stamping “All Natural” on any product in need of a popularity boost, the farm-to-table movement has left many wondering what should be considered local food, and why we should care. NH Flavors got a chance to talk with Charlie Burke, President of the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection (NHFRC), to see what a standard for local certification can do for diners, farmers, and chefs.
NH FLAVORS: Where did the idea for the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection come from?
CHARLIE BURKE: Originally, Jeff Paige (owner/chef of Cotton) and Gail McWilliam-Jellie from NH Dept of Agriculture explored forming a “farm-to-table” organization to encourage chefs to source locally. This was in the 90’s, and chefs were still in the “lettuce-to-lightbulbs” mode of ordering off the big trucks, so nothing came of it. Years later, Gail asked me to organize the Farm to Restaurant Connection. I was growing and selling to restaurants, and I’m a pretty serious cook.
What has the response been like from farmers and restaurants the NHFRC has worked with?
Varied – often they recall the unpleasant contacts: “Chef told me in August he wants cranberry beans in two weeks!” “I brought beautiful peppers into the restaurant and chef got angry.” When did you take them to the restaurant? “Five-thirty on a Saturday night.”
Usually, chefs employed by non-chef owners feel that buying from local farms will raise their food costs and make them look bad (chefs get fired for food costs that are too high). They fail to see that local produce has less spoilage and actually does have better flavor, because local farmers grow for flavor, not shelf life.
Owner/chefs are far more likely to work with farmers, so it’s no surprise most of our certified restaurants are chef-owned. Once a partnership is formed between a chef and a farmer, loyalty grows, communication improves and both take pride in working together.
How can consumers help encourage initiatives like the NHFRC?
By patronizing our certified restaurants, asking restaurants what’s locally sourced on the menu. Letting staff know that they are more likely to go to restaurants which source locally, requesting NH beer and wine. If you’re told nothing on the menu is local, ask management why they choose not to support local farmers.
What accomplishment of the NHFRC are you most proud of?
Certainly, we are proud of the Certified Local program and have had inquiries from many organizations in other states. I believe we’ve made the public more aware of the importance of supporting local farms.
We were among the first to host “Growers Dinners,” special events with the entire meal sourced locally. They have become so common in New Hampshire that we no longer see the need to sponsor them ourselves. We are now considered a resource for finding local farms and agricultural products.
How would you describe the process of becoming “certified local”?
Straightforward. Our point system is posted on our website. We schedule an appointment and score the restaurant according to the point system, which is flexible, depending upon the venue. If they fall short, we never tell them they have failed and will continue working with them if they wish to improve. We have four levels: Certified, Certified Silver Level, Gold Level and Platinum. Currently, two of our restaurants are at the Gold Level.
Some food critics have dismissed American diners’ interest in locally sourced and artisanal quality foods as a trend. Do you think farm-to-fork is a passing fad or here to stay?
Just look at your generation. College students and younger folks are really into the local food movement. The majority of folks shopping at farmers markets are young folks with children, students and young professionals.
Mass-produced produce is frequently washed/processed in shared facilities, resulting in epidemics of food poisoning, such as happened a few years ago with California spinach. Sales of local spinach actually increased then. A chef told his patrons, “I know the farmer who grew this spinach and it’s safe!” People are realizing that most of the “gluten problem” is related to glyphosate toxicity and there is heightened awareness that big ag uses more pesticides and chemicals.
Awareness of the “multiplier effect” has grown, and folks know buying from local sources keeps money in the community, rather that going to corporate headquarters out of state.
Plus local food just tastes better!
Want to learn more about Certified Local restaurants? Visit the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection online, or search for Certified Local restaurants on NH Flavors.