Farm to Table — When it’s in your face everywhere, does it still have the same meaning?
“Alice and Chez Panisse are convinced that the best-tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations.” — Chez Panisse
I’m not going to sugar coat things here; I fucking hate the phrase “farm to table”. I’ve heard it so many times from chefs and restaurateurs over the past few years, it’s meaning has come to represent total bullshit to me. Living here in Vancouver, every time I jump on Scoutmagazine.com, the city’s preeminent foodie website, I cringe whenever they promote a new restaurant opening. Why? It’s because I know almost every time within their write up the words, “farm to table”, “ethically sourced”, “locally foraged” will undoubtedly be found within. I believe it’s a total cop out from the chefs and owners of these establishments, as the phrase feels vague and cheap.
Understanding their ultimate goal I get, as yes it’s ideal to believe your food should be as nutritious and locally sourced as much as possible. But come on, do you we really have to preach the shit out of it to the point that I feel the need to write a long winded rant on it’s annoyance?
How do I the customer know for sure that what all these chefs and restaurants are doing is true? I don’t and I highly suspect most like me feel the same. I mean I certainly hope the food that ends up on my plate wasn’t harvested or grown by starving children in some far off land (*cough Starbucks), which would be awful to say the least. But seriously do I need to know the weight, age and size of the cow my steak came from? Do I really care?
There’s a place and point for the farm to table movement and it should be at the back of my menu and that’s all. If I want to read about all the farmers who grew my tomatoes tonight I’ll gladly do so and if I don’t then cool. This whole phenomenon feels tainted to me. My bullshit radar has been blinking for a while now and it’s caused me to believe some are probably cheating the system. The whole thing has been pushed to such a degree that not being a locally sourced restaurant essentially means you’re telling your customers that you don’t care about the earth.
As I’ve tried my best to keep a level head with this whole new phenomenon I’ve started to become intrigued by the concept and where it started. Was this a chef driven ideal or some hippie byproduct of Woodstock I’d yet only just started to understand. And again why does it annoy me so much? What I’ve come to understand is this issue is more than a few chefs looking to capitalize on an idea driven by smart and ethical practices. Humans tend to react before they act and in this case a reaction to something must have stemmed this movement. It’s easy to guess that with the advent of human technology our ability to manipulate and change our surroundings (ie. GMO’s, Monsanto) has definitely motivated us to push back in some way. An example of this I always love to illustrate is one I grew up on. As a kid my mother raised my sister and I on the belief that margarine was better than butter. It stayed soft all the time, had less fat and was supposedly just as tasty. Hell she wasn’t alone in this as most families of the 80’s and 90’s believed this. Why might you ask? I believe looking back on that time period now, margarine was new, it was exciting and it was easy. After World War II, the world, especially us here in the west grew up really fucking fast. We wanted fast food, cheap cars, toasters, microwaves, dishwashers, everything needed to be easy, and with that came margarine, a cheap alternative to butter. Does it taste as good as butter? Fuck no and it never will but that wasn’t the point, the point was it was different. But like anything else new, the margarine fad faded and we finally clued in over time that butter was and should always be the option. Do I know anyone who uses margarine now? Nope. But back in the 1980’s everyone did. And this is just one example of our society pushing back on a new idea. Looking back 30 to 40 years ago, margarine wasn’t the only novel idea to emerge from that era.
Back in 1971 when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, a small restaurant focused on sourcing and using the freshest ingredients, little did she know then how influential her tiny operation would become for restaurants going forward. Waters approach to cooking comes across as somewhat obvious to us now as she focused on a food economy of “good, clean and fair”, yet to those around her at the time it really wasn’t. As Chez Panisse grew in popularity so did her idea. By 1978, John Mackey was also on his way to starting the biggest and most successful organic market in the world, Whole Foods.
These two food centric marvels still stand strong some 40+ years later as they helped usher in the idea of connection between the farmers and the customers. As great as both became their core values resonated with everyday consumers eager to understand that their food once came from a place, a person and even an animal.
Buying a steak in a wrapped package at Safeway doesn’t tell me much, but having a listing of where the cattle was raised, it’s living conditions and so forth gave power to the consumer of which they’d never seen since the development of the modern day supermarket. A loss of connection had been had and both Waters and Mackey both tapped in to this missing element and saw that something needed to be done. To steal a quote from John Birdsall who wrote a few years back for the East Bay Express “Chez Panisse was a place organized around sincerity, the notched stick against which to mark the scale of other restaurants’ aims.” This form of sincerity proved invaluable for Panisse as it gave her leverage when quality might suffer. Simply put, if effort and care are the main objective, then oftentimes people will overlook the odd blip in the finished product from time to time.
I myself a frequent Whole Foods shopper have at times lamented that even with the best intentions Whole Foods can let me down on quality from time to time. Yet even when they do, by sprinkling so much farmer and locality sourced information for me to capture, I’m always left feeling they’ve gone above and beyond to give me a product I can take home and feel good about buying. Is this going to always be true? Probably not, but that’s the point. How I feel is what’s really important and I guess with returning to my initial rant about farm to table restaurants I understand the rationale. Owners and chefs have bound themselves to being as transparent with their customers as much as they can and by doing this, their hope is customers will see that within their kitchens someone cares. I get it, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t fucking annoying. I’m sure most of the farm to table restaurants preaching their ideals here in Vancouver are doing their very best to maintain these expectations. I guess I’m just sick of hearing about it.
Now here’s what I want to hear and I challenge any new restaurant to say this. If they do, I’ll be first in line the day they open.
“Hey you know what, I’m here to make money, so I’m going to say whatever the fuck I need to say to get you in my restaurant. If sounding like I care about growing my own basil and tomatoes will sway you into eating in my restaurant then I’ll do it. Because if I really told you that most of my food comes from GFS or Sysco, two large warehouse companies who sell me average GMO laden food, which by the way comes from all over the world then I doubt you’d give my spot a chance.” There I said it, so please do come in.”