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Great Information Shared at Chef-to-Chef Event at the Craftsman

March 25, 2010

40 chefs, restaurant owners, caterers, and school food service mangers filled the Craftsman Restaurant this past Monday, 3/22 for a workshop on finding and using using local food.  Over a delicious lunch of local pork lasagna with a side of  micro greens, chefs shared tips and advice about using local food in their restaurants. Heartland Food Network, a program of The Minnesota Project, with support from the USDA Specialty Crop Block Program and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, sponsored the event as a way to connect new chefs to local food and farmers.

The 10 panelists (chefs from Birchwood Cafe, Corner Table, The Craftsman, Lucias, and Sen-Yai-Sen-Lek Thai; the General Manager at St. Olaf Dining Services from Bon Appetit Management CompanyHidden Stream Farm; and Co-op Partners Warehouse) represented years of experience buying and selling local food. Topics included how to find farms, how to plan a menu based on seasonal ingredients, communicating with your front-of-house staff on the provenance of the food,  how to use local food on a tight food budget, and how to use seasonal items in a year-round menu.

Some major take-aways from the day:

  • Start small- pick a few products and get your feet wet. You don’t have to overhaul your menu or change menu weekly. You always use onions, meats, cheese, butter- start with these.  Also, start with 1-2 farmers, not 30-40 like some of the panelist chefs now use. It will be more manageable and successful.
  • Local ingredients are now available almost year-round. Meats, cheeses, milk, honey, grains, beans, butter and storage crops always available. Greenhouses extend the season event more. Co-op Partners Warehouse, a wholesale distributor that offers products from many local growers,  noted that potatoes and purple cippolini onions from WI were still on their local list.
  • Other ways to use local: get a CSA share or two- a great way to bring local in the restaurant. Or grow your own!
  • Worried that a local ingredient may be only available for  a short time? Try running the ingredient in a special for a week or as a side. Not sure what to do with kohlrabi or purple carrots? Put the kohlrabi mash beside your famous pork shoulder- customers will love it and look for it next time. Customers are savvy and adventurous- try something new!
  • The products will cost more- there is no way around that. Small farm’s labor costs makes them unable to compete price-wise with big corporate food companies. But, your customers will come back for the amazing flavor, freshness, and to support local farms. Also, you waste less because the products will last 2-3 times longer, as they were picked the day before you get them. In season, local products can be very cost-competitive with non-local ones.
  • The public awareness of the benefits of local food are at an all time peak- customers WANT good, fresh food from local growers. It may take a bit more work up-front to find the products and use them, but it is worth it.
  • Remember to promote the farmers you buy from on your menu, your website, and always communicate well with your waitstaff.
  • There are many resources to help you find farms: MN Grown Online Directory, Food Alliance Midwest List, Land Stewardship’s Directory
  • Local ingredients at an Asian place? No problem! Joe Hatch-Surisook at Sen-Yai Sen-Lek Thai uses brussels sprouts wok-fried in a stir fry sauce. Customers love it! Local squash goes into a dessert.
  • Local distributors and aggregators such as Co-op Partners Warehouse or Hidden Stream Farm can provide local food from multiple farmers – a “one stop shop” for chefs

Read a great summary piece from Heavy Table on the event.

For more information on the event including a list of speakers and attendees, please see Summary – Chef to Chef event

For a copy of the resource packet given to attendees that includes a list of farmers that sell to restaurants in the Twin Cities, a list of directories that list farmers in the state, a list of distributors that sell local food, please see Resource Handout Chef to Chef event

Heartland Food Network is planning a follow-up event in May of this year- it will include more farmers, and be held at a farmers market or other venue to create a natural “meet-and-greet” between chefs and farmers.

If you would like to receive updates about HFN events or are interested in finding local food for your restaurant or school, please contact Annalisa Hultberg at ahultberg@mnproject.org or 651-789-3328.

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