Monday, April 11, 2011

Opinion = The Future of "Farm-to-Table"

I've been asking myself a lot lately about the future of the "Farm-to-Table" movement and what the effect of being labeled a "trend" means. It's scary to think that something so important to the American culinary scene could fall victim to being labeled as a trend, and therefore lose its impact. Nothing in the history of cooking in America has been so singularly transformative. 

   I've read several articles about the term "Farm-to-Table" and how kitchens across the country are latching on to it. It's not that I think it's bad, I just worry that it may be too much too soon. Some articles have recently pointed out the obvious fact that all food comes from a farm of one sort or another. I've taken these comments as the reporter's way of pointing out that there has to be more flesh on the bones of this concept in order for it to have any lasting effect. Others have picked up on the number of restaurants that are using the "Farm-to-Table" approach - hinting that it is more of a promotion than a philosophy. On the other side, there are incredible chefs in Philadelphia - Vetri, Garces, and many others around the country that are supporting local sourcing because for them it's the right thing to do, not solely a marketing tool, and the product speaks for itself. They're using their culinary voices in a way that guarantees a long life for local farms. 

   I've chosen to try to find other ways to help this movement grow through my use of the term "Modern Farm Cooking". The idea behind it is to promote the ongoing growth of what I see as nothing less than the future of American cooking. My belief is that we should be looking into the future to find ways to keep this movement firmly planted in the soil of cookery in the U.S.. "Modern Farm Cooking" is my small attempt to give this movement longer legs, and create new ways to utilize local farms while inspiring cooks to find their own ways to really support local sourcing in a manner that makes sense to them.

I'm by no means a loud voice in the world of chefs. I'm one guy, one chef. I support local farms because I've been in their shoes. I've seen the impact farms can have on communities, and what the failure of those farms can do to families. I'm the product of farming and ranching, and I've witnessed first hand what good things can do in the hands of the wrong people.

   For years my father ran a small horse operation in the Hill Country of Texas. It provided me with a lifestyle that shaped me, my work ethic, and my culinary philosophy. We farmed hay every summer, worked the Hill Country Circuit (a series of livestock and horse shows throughout the state of Texas) from morning to night, and lived humbly in our surroundings. After years of struggle, working hard began to pay off. People began to pay higher prices for livestock and ranching had become profitable. Ranching was on the upswing, and it seemed to have an unstoppable momentum. We were unaware of what was causing this rapid growth and what it really meant for our lives.

Enter the super-rich. 

   In the late 80's, celebrities and the wealthy latched on to the idea of owning a ranch. It became a form of street-cred for those that needed to macho up their image. As they began to buy up properties on an enormous scale, prices for horses, the land it took to raise them, and the equipment needed to keep an operation going all sky-rocketed- making staying in business harder and harder for the small guy. Eventually, the Hill Country Circuit disappeared, and gradually, so did the small rancher.

   I've talked at length with fellow chefs and farmers about what seems to me to be a double-edged sword. If we can't find a way to stabilize this movement and slow the bottle rocket effect, we could find ourselves without it soon. If we aren't successful in making this a lasting movement that truly changes the way people eat, that sews sourcing food locally into the fabric of our culture, and keeps big companies from patenting heirloom seeds, then all of the attention that this movement is getting will be for nought. What happens when big companies start to see that some of their valuable market share is leaving? They begin to use it as a marketing tool, and find ways to haze the line between what is authentic, and what is not. I'm beginning to see advertising slogans that point to farm-sourcing by large pizza companies, grocers, and food manufacturers - many of whom have nothing to do with local farmers, and would happily trademark "Farm-to-Table" if it meant more money in the coffers. So, how do we now find ways to accelerate people's understanding of what this movement is really all about, without burning people out on the message? It's a conversation I'd like to have.

   It's great that the term "Farm-to-Table" has put this movement in the spotlight. But, now what? How do we keep it there? How do we guarantee that this won't fizzle out? Who's to say that the next trend won't bump it out of the spotlight, making it less important for chefs to keep these practices going? I am becoming increasingly fearful that the current pace of "Farm-to-Table" is unsustainable, unless we find other ways to make it more meaningful and less trendy. I'm hopeful it does continue, but I've seen the results of what happens when a good idea moves too fast, and doesn't have the foundation it needs to fully blossom into what it should be.

Update: Read article from F&W Magazine

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