Bobbye Middendorf

For the Love of Food

Aiming to build a healthier food supply and a more sustainable food economy, the Chefs Collaborative is initiating a focus on local, artisan, and sustainable cuisine. The Chefs Collaborative is a group of about 1,500 professional restaurateurs nationwide. According to its newsletter, it is "a network of chefs and members of the food community across the U.S. who promote sustainable cuisine by teaching children, supporting local farmers, educating each other, and inspiring their customers to choose clean, healthy foods."

"Since 1993 and the inception of the group, our goal has been to create a more sustainable food supply. By getting to know the farmers, we learned things that informed us as chefs and helped organize what we were doing as chefs," said Chefs Collaborative Chairman Peter Hoffman, owner and chef of Savoy in New York.

Over the past five years, there have been major strides in building those farmer-chef connections. The chefs of numerous restaurants nationwide are developing and nurturing local relationships with growers. (In some cases, the chefs are actually involved with the farming process.).

Collaborative members began asking where produce came from, and then began making connections with farmers. They learned the stories behind particular items like heirloom apples or tomatoes or squash, so that the produce they served was not a mere commodity. Rather, chefs were able to highlight specifics, sharing the exquisite taste, unique stories, and growing histories of local heirloom produce. Thus, they began enriching the content of their menus and educating their clientele.

Lately, the Collaborative's campaign to highlight organically grown local produce has moved beyond restaurant kitchens. In Chicago, the Collaborative is deepening its involvement with the Green City Market. Thus, they hope to create an ongoing venue for consumers and food service professionals, who will always be able to access sustainably produced organic produce. It is challenging to maintain a seasonal menu with produce in northern climates like Chicago's. But according to Ross Cooper, author of Bitter harvest: A chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods we Eat, "Chefs influence our food choices, and it is their responsibility to share their passion for sustainable, regional, seasonal food with other chefs, young culinarians, and the public." Thanks in part to these chefs, specialty items like mesclun mix are now more readily available inn Chicago than they were a few years ago.

Cooper's book highlights several innovative practices by chefs in New England and the Midwest. Rick Bayless has cultivated relationships with family farmers in Florida, California, and Arizona to provide his Chicago restaurants with produce from the partners' farms. At L'Etoile, of Wisconsin, chef Odessa Piper works closely with local farmers to store vegetables and dry fruits from Wisconsin's summer bounty. In Harborside, Maine, Eliot Coleman uses a series of greenhouses and layers of insulation from October to May -- and thus simulates the growing season of Georgia!

Seafood Solutions

As challenging as it is to deal sustainably with fresh produce, for the Collaborative, seafood is another matter altogether. Doug Hopkins, an attorney and ten-year veteran with Environmental Defense, offers staggering, disturbing evidence of the destruction we are causing to our oceans. "We are doing something wrong in the way we catch fish," observes Hopkins, "when an estimated 70 percent of the world's commercially-fished species have been fished to or beyond the [point] at which their populations can easily sustain themselves." In fact, according to Dr. Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the total worldwide seafood catch has been in decline since 1989.

Hopkins has identified several problems, from inadequate fishery management to too many boats going after too few remaining fish. Some industrial fishing practices -- especially regarding shrimp -- catch many non-targeted species, causing needless death and waste. Other practices such as trawling decimate the ocean floors and make it impossible for some species (like cod) to rebound. "We don't understand the biology of the sea and the species that we are overfishing. What we are doing are gigantic experiments," says Hopkins.

According to Cooper, "The ocean suffers from the same devastation as the land -- chemical pollution, overmining and overharvesting of resources, and unsustainable farming practices all plague the oceans as well... . Over the years, technology has advanced ahead of the ocean's ability to replenish itself."

Collaborative members realized that they needed to start thinking about seafood when they learned that 67 percent of seafood is eaten outside the home. Now these leading-edge chefs are taking a stand to make a difference in the consciousness of their customers and their seafood purveyors alike. Yet the movement to serve fish in a sustainable manner is just in its beginning stages. One initiative the Collaborative has undertaken, for example, is publishing a booklet called "Seafood Solutions: A Chef's Guide to Ecologically Responsible Fish Procurement."

Hoffman, one of the leaders of the sustainable seafood booklet initiative, says, "The booklet is designed to present options and tools. It is a way to organize information from environmentalists in a manner usable and practical for hard-working chefs." Hoffman recently outlined the contents of the booklet during a presentation at the Ritz-Carleton, where about eighty-five people -- chefs, seafood purveyors, and others in the food industries -- filled the ballroom to hear about sustainable seafood. Hopkins, Hoffman, Cooper, and Bayless all were part of the presentation.

"The first part of the booklet explains in clear and concise terms what the issues are. The second explores ways to begin organizing information in order to ask more intelligent questions. The third part begins a discussion of ways chefs are dealing with fish in their restaurants, stimulating a conversation and asking questions about what we are doing." The booklet concludes with a glossary and a list of resources, including suppliers of sustainably harvested seafood.

Though the booklet can't offer any perfect solutions, it does point chefs in the direction of sustainability. Given the complexities surrounding the issue of sustainable seafood, even this small step is critical to making the larger, long-term changes.

According to Bayless, "The goal of the Chefs Collaborative and its sustainable seafood booklet is to distill issues for chefs in a way that is both useful and simple. We want to show the simple steps chefs can take, acknowledging that every small step helps. The booklet will help them make better and more informed decisions." He continues, "When people are educated about what they are buying, when they are more informed, they will be able to make more conscious decisions."

One Fish, Two Fish

The Collaborative's education process centers on chefs being willing to take the time to ask specific questions of their purveyors of seafood. And as complex as the issue is, several experts suggested starting with just one type of seafood, and taking action. Hoffman, for example indicates that he has not yet attempted to deal with the issue of finding sustainable sources of shrimp. "That's next," he says.

Bayless, following the model he developed to access produce for his Chicago restaurant, has created an alliance with fishermen in Florida. Again, building this specific relationship allows him to support a small family enterprise and simultaneously access sustainably caught seafood. While admitting that the fossil fuel he expends makes this model unsustainable over the long term, he says that for the moment, it's answering a need in a complex situation.

Ultimately, the chefs who investigate and then undertake sustainable methods are poised for "the big win." As with organic produce, many of the most sustainably harvested fish are those with the highest quality and the best taste. Of course, as Cooper indicates, consumers will be the most powerful catalyst for change in the direction of sustainability. But the Chefs Collaborative deserves high praise for its willingness to give those consumers a little nudge, to get them going.

The Collaborative welcomes individual members who work in the food industry as well as others interested in promoting the group's mission and goals. To contact the Collaborative, call 781-736-0635; e-mail or visit their Web site.

Bobbye Middendorf is an independent writer and artist in Chicago.