A Pissed-Off Tampa Chef Explains The “Farm To Fable” Controversy
Greg Baker, chef-owner of the Refinery in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon, and Austin before opening his James Beard–nominated restaurant in 2010. Baker, who was interviewed by Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley for her exposé of restaurants’ misleading of diners through false claims of locally sourced ingredients, expands on what’s at stake when it comes to the supply chain.
A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with Laura Reiley, a writer and restaurant critic for the Tampa Bay Times, running down a list of what was and wasn’t local on the menu of my restaurant, the Refinery. She was working on a piece called “Farm to Fable — At Tampa Bay Farm-to-Table Restaurants, You’re Being Fed Fiction” that’s sorta set the restaurant world on fire by exposing who lived up to their claims of using local sources, who made an oversight, and who outright lied. I was excited about this piece because I’ve known of blatant lies from some of the restaurants mentioned for years and been justifiable pissed, but couldn’t say anything — ‘cuz professionalism. The truth came out last Wednesday, and I was happy.
Then the PR machines of some of the restaurants who were hammered the hardest fired up. Rather than living up to the lies that they’d been caught in, they slathered on even more layers of bullshit. I was pissed all over again.
Then I read the comments. Never read the comments.
I’ve been anything from pissed to crushed to wanting to close my restaurant to being pissed all over again in the last week because the overwhelming response to the PR bullshit that was spewed was that customers didn’t care that they were being lied to — they just liked the food.
I’ll be honest right up front: I don’t use local sources for everything at the Refinery — I use as much local, sustainable produce as I can. I buy local, sustainable fish and shellfish; I buy local meats when the price and availability line up with what my customer base supports. I buy my grits and quail from South Carolina, when I put lamb on my menu it comes from Virginia, and my chicken comes from Pennsylvania. Why? Because I buy based on sustainable sources who provide the best product at the best price and most importantly, do things right. My other restaurant, Fodder & Shine, started as a failed experiment at creating not only a sense of place, but a sense of time. I sourced heritage breed pigs and cattle, wild catfish, wild frog legs, and organic heirloom vegetables that were found 100 or more years ago in the area — nobody wanted it. I’ve since rebooted the entire concept and use little to no local product because that’s not what my customer base wanted. I would have closed the doors by this time last year had I continued to try to cram my ethos down their throats. I say all of this to offer full disclosure on my own practices before I go any further.
So does local matter? Yes, but that begs clarification. I buy produce from a variety of local farms, some certified organic, some with organic practices but not certified and some that are conventional but utilize best management practices. As different as they all are, I know that I am buying produce that is fresh and nutrient-dense because of the short trip from farm to my cooler, and grown in a manner that doesn’t harm the environment. This is where “sustainably grown” comes into play. Organic doesn’t mean a damn thing to me if it refers to a lemon that was organically grown in Israel and traveled halfway around the world to get to me. Nor do I give a rat’s ass if something is labeled organic but grown in a monoculture. I’ve toured Big Ag tomato farms a couple of hours south of me while visiting with the Coalition of Imokkalee Workers; the type that Barry Estabrook wrote about in Tomatoland. I found myself in what was essentially a desert of tomatoes — no border land, no birds in the sky to be seen. I asked the meaning of a segregated tomato desert and was told “that’s our organic section.” So local doesn’t necessarily imply sustainability. That doesn’t mean that sustainability doesn’t exist locally to you, but you’re probably not going to find it in Big Ag growing operations.
“A restaurant screws two hardworking guys with families to support and continues to profit by making false claims. There’s no enforceability for asking people to do the right thing; it’s simply a question of morals and ethics and the presence or lack thereof.”
With the exception of one farm, I deal with small, family-owned operations for my produce. The reason that I deal with small local farms is that in doing so, I’m supporting the local economy and local families and not having my money shipped out of state or country. It also means that it’s far easier to form relationships in which our success is mutually dependent. I do business with one multinational conglomerate with great pride, and I call them my “factory farm.” They produce a huge segment of the prepackaged lettuce in the U.K. and have farms there, here in Florida and in Spain — each location has a climate at a particular time of year that mimics an English summer — prime watercress-growing weather. Brits love their cress. The managers of the Florida operation were charged with generating a certain amount of capital from their location, so they started selling greens locally. As they are a company based in the EU, they’re held not only to USDA standards but to much more stringent EU regulation. Among other things, 25 percent of their land is left as wildlife habitat — borderlands that provide shelter for birds and other predators that eat insects in the fields, reducing the need for pesticides. Even above that, they provide not only housing for their migrant staff, but education facilities for the children of that staff. I can deal with sending my money their way, because they’ve brought sustainability to another level by ensuring that the human element of production is taken into consideration.
So for anyone who is still with me, you’re probably wondering why I’m so fucking angry. It’s because there are real-world economic consequences to lying about sourcing. Not for the liars of course, who got caught lying and have lied more to cover their own asses. I’ve been scratching by for six years on very narrow margins, living up to what I claim, while others have rolled it in by lying to their customers. That’s one thing. But people saying that they’re okay with being lied to?
Would you be okay if a grocery store sold you tilapia they bought for $2/pound and were passing off as $20 grouper? I’m guessing no, but I could be wrong. Assuming that I’m correct, why would anyone be okay with being served Guatemalan okra but getting charged for local?
Beyond my own bank account, there’s a much bigger consequence to lying about sourcing. “Branding” is a hot word these days; everyone’s worried about creating their brand, growing their brand and protecting their brand. One of the restaurants mentioned in Reiley’s article saw no harm in not paying their invoices to a seafood supplier for 90 days, then continuing to refuse to pay after being sent to collections. The restaurant in question continued to use the supplier’s name to promote their “localness,” even adding the honorific of “Captain” to one of the partners’ names just for an added kick in the balls. While all of this was going on, the seafood company was reduced to paying COD to their captains in order to supply their customers. Their cash flow, tied up in unpaid invoices, was so tight that they had to pull out of the Tampa market because they could only afford to buy fish to supply their home market of Orlando. In speaking to one of the former partners of the now-defunct supplier, “They pretty much brought us to the brink of disaster. We couldn’t ever really recover from that. But there they were, still using our name.” So a restaurant screws two hardworking guys with families to support and continues to profit by making false claims. There’s no enforceability for asking people to do the right thing; it’s simply a question of morals and ethics and the presence or lack thereof.
One of the aspects of buying local is being able to tell the story of the sourcing. One local shrimp company has taken sustainable seafood above and beyond what they need to do. They were key players in supporting an increase in the size of federally mandated Turtle Excluder Devices — TEDs, basically an escape hatch for sea turtles caught in shrimp nets — the end result was a decrease of turtle by-catch by over 90 percent while still maintaining a sufficient income for the shrimpers. Beyond that, their ideas regarding sustainability extend to the ways of life that surround the shrimp fishing industry, from the shrimpers to the net menders to the welders who repair the fishing gear to the small diners that feed a good chunk of the people engaged in these trades and industry. There are many stories out there about the decline of the oyster industry in Apalachicola and the end of a century-old economy and way of life. This company didn’t want to see the shrimp industry go the same way. Sustainability is a complicated beast. It applies in many ways.
This company controls 90 percent of the Florida pink shrimp market; MSC-certified and chemical-free, it is the real deal. Do they supply 90 percent of the restaurants claiming to sell Key West pink shrimp? Not even close. Nor is the majority of “Key West pink shrimp” even from this continent. Working as hard as they do to do things right while facing false claims certainly cheapens their brand and threatens the livelihood of their employees. There’s potential for copyright lawsuits in there somewhere, but it would take a lot of work. Again, they’re just relying on people to not be assholes. As with the ‘factory farm,’ I’m proud to work with these guys, because their story helps me tell my story with my food.
While locally sourced ingredients are certainly not the be-all, end-all, I really wanted to throw some facts out there to help people understand a rather complicated situation. I’m hoping that maybe just one person who was in the “so what?” category might be swayed by understanding the positive and negative economic impacts of serving local products or lying about serving local products. I’ll still be here, doing what I do.
Originally published at www.foodrepublic.com on April 25, 2016.