He Said, She Said: Extreme Local and Seasonal Dining

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at the business of running a restaurant and sound off on some of the hottest topics in the restaurant world. Today, they tackle if it is feasible for a restaurant to offer hyper-local and seasonal cuisine.

Julia Heyer:

We all hear about seasonal, local and hyper-local cooking. (Hyper-local in NYC always makes me wonder why I would want this. Where did the vegetable come from? The small patch of grass between the sidewalk and Second Avenue? Why would that be something guests would covet?) Be that as it may, hyper-local, seasonal and fresh is certainly a trend and this week Restaurant Management Magazine online wrote about taking it to the next level. Now, Vin, we have given our share of opinions about proclaimed experts — be they mixologists, food writers or PR mavens. It is another “expert opinion” that renders parts of the article problematic and caused my eyebrows to approach my upper hairline.

A proclaimed finance expert with restaurant experience claims that “true freshness” requires clearing out of all produce and vegetables at the end of each night. Every night! Say what? Besides the obvious financial implications, we have prep and mise en place in restaurants for a reason, and not because most restaurants are trying to sell you old, dodgy, sad and limp greens. Do you think it reasonable to clear out your fridge at home every evening? How is this supposed to work? Please Jedi-Master of restaurants, tell me if there is some wisdom I may be missing that’d make that a good idea

Vin McCann:

Julia, your tone signals that you may be moving towards the dark side and away from the enlightened views of the trend-surfing food cognoscenti. Is it possible we have found another point of agreement? Those of us who have toiled in all kinds of restaurants from near-plastic fast food to farm-to-table temples of haute cuisine know that there are reasons we can’t trash the produce every night no matter what segment we trade in. For one, unless the farm is on the building’s roof or on that fertile patch between the sidewalk and the street outside the door, we can’t count on Johnny Appleseed to make the delivery early the next morning in time for the kitchen to prepare for service. Another relates to the inevitable increase in food cost that would result from such a practice. A conservative guess would place the hit somewhere between three and five points.

More importantly on the cultural value scale tipping in favor of sustainability, how does such a practice weigh in? This is a country that already wastes 25– 30% of the food it produces. Is the economist hoping for some positive externalities — a healthier rodent population and migrating the homeless to a vegetarian diet, or perhaps he has in mind an endless gulag of urban compost heaps? This idea fails on so many levels that it’s laughable, but in an industry that boasts pitch-black restaurants with blind servers, there’s an outside chance someone will pick up this notion. At the very least someone might make the claim that they discard the produce every night — kind of like some well known French chefs who in the past have claimed to be cooking without butter

Julia’s Response: 

You are right on food cognoscenti. I might add that it takes one to know one. French food without butter I can take — as long as it is tasty. I like good food and drink. I am just turning severely allergic to stupid marketing gimmicks. Presenting the daily harvest from the mini vegetable patch next to Second Avenue, then tossing those hard-grown greens out every night if not sold may not even be palatable in the pitch-black restaurant. Well, unless you are looking for deep red numbers. If someone picks that up as the next hot concept, let’s hope we don’t have to eat our words garnished with pet-fertilized radishes atop.

Vin’s Response:

I liked the cognoscenti touch (on taste and culture issues, there are already way too many out there. Now the economists are gnawing their way in). Good grief, where can a person go out for a drink and a bite without all the navel contemplation.

Julia’s Last Word:

Said the man who managed to muse on food, gulags, vegetarians, sustainable compost, the homeless, rodents and blind waiters all into one paragraph.

Vin’s Last Word:

“Tossed greens” anyone?

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