The food industry (much like most industries nowadays) is facing a moment that requires a paradigm shift both in terms of the way we produce what we eat as well as how we consume it. The not so recent, but increasingly more popular farm-to-table movement seems like an ideal solution to the most pressing problems of the food we consume, but is quite often more of a marketing tool rather than supported through restaurant practices. This article will give you an overview of how to implement farm-to-table in your restaurant.
The last one hundred years have been a turning point in how and what we eat. Mass consumption and respectively mass production have led to major changes in how food is produced and processed. While some innovations made cooking easier and products more affordable, others affected our society and planet in various ways:
- Antibiotics used in food production, synthetic pesticides and other chemicals have lowered our immune system’s ability to cope with diseases and in some cases increased the chances of getting sick.
- While the food industry giants are growing due to higher demand, small farmers’ income have been declining despite Europe’s subsidy support.
- For the food to get from its producers onto the consumer’s plate, it goes through a multitude of stages that use up resources and increase pollution. According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), the food production system is accountable for 90% of the ammonia emissions that decrease the quality of the air we breathe and 50-80% of the nitrogen load that affects the water quality.
- Mass production and consumption lead to higher amounts of waste. In Europe only, 88 tonnes of food are wasted annually, the equivalent of 143 billion euros.
What is farm-to-table?
‘The greatest lesson came with the realization that good food cannot be reduced to single ingredients. It requires a web of relationships to support it.’ – Dan Barber, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
Despite it gaining popularity nowadays, the farm-to-table movement started almost forty years ago, with the purpose of eating healthier, more sustainable food. Chefs like Alice Waters from Chez Panisse, Dan Barber from Blue Hill Farm and Christian F. Puglisi from Relae have their kitchens connected with farms that provide them with organic, high quality, seasonal produce.
‘For me, the best restaurants use the best possible ingredients in the most respectful way. Creativity is just a tool to exploit them to the maximum potential.’ – Christian F. Puglisi, Relae, A Book of Ideas
Their passion for food goes far beyond cooking – they wish to understand every ingredient, how it is produced, how it developed throughout history and how chefs can help preserve rare crops.
4 reasons why farm-to-table should be your business focus‘There is no doubt that when a radish is pulled from the ground mere hours before it is served, its freshness, snap, and spice are far superior than the next week or even the next day. A carrot’s sweetness, an asparagus stalk’s juiciness, and a tomato’s aroma will fade with time: it’s incredibly important to consider these factors when planning a menu.’ – Christian F. Puglisi, Relae, A Book of Ideas
1. It provides better, healthier, more nutritious food
Working with small, local farms rather than large producers ensures better, healthier produce. Chefs can better understand how fruits, vegetables and meat are grown, what chemicals are used (if any) and how these practices impact upon the flavour. It also takes less time for food to travel from the farm onto the table, which reduces the risk of food spoiling and ensures stronger flavours and higher nutritional values.
2. It enables collaboration between chefs and farmers.
3. It encourages sustainability through a virtuous cycle.
Farm-to-table supports the growth and development of farmers and local producers, thus aiding the local economy and helping development through local investments. Local farmers sell high quality produce grown using practices that have a significantly smaller environmental footprint than large food producers. That produce becomes the restaurant’s differentiator, and eventually reaches consumers’ plates, thus enabling them to eat healthier, tastier food. There’s a lot more to farm-to-table than just eating organic, seasonal and local food. Restaurants like Relae close the sustainability cycle by giving their waste back to the farmer to turn it into compost.
4. Consumers love it!
Thanks to increased awareness of health, social and environmental factors, consuming organic, responsibly sourced, sustainable food has been a growing trend. According to this PwC report, ‘being able to track food and know its whole journey from the farm to the consumer is as much an opportunity as it is a line of defence in good food safety management’. In Europe the organic food and drinks industry is predicted to grow by a combined 7% until 2020. The expansion of a niche industry such as the organic one is a proof of consumers’ willingness to pay premium for healthier, higher quality products and Europeans will soon benefit from a EU wide organic quality guarantee.
How to implement farm-to-table in your restaurant
Align your team towards a shared goal
Having a team that shares the same vision and goals as you, the restaurant owner, is often the most important aspect in change management success. You will need to clearly communicate why you want your restaurant to become farm-to-table and answer any questions your team may have about it with an open mind.
Understand local producers and produce
Farm-to-table isn’t only about finding a local farm and turning it into your main supplier. You will need to research what your country offers, get in touch with producers, understand who they are, what they do and why they do it. Some fruits and vegetables may strive in some areas better than in others. You should not only rely on a single producer, but research your best options for the type of produce you need for your menu. Look for producers who are likeminded and share the same vision for the food they produce as you do.
Be resilient and spontaneous
You will need to say goodbye to a fixed menu and adapt based on what your farmers have got for you. You may even need to adapt your seasonal menu based on the stocks that you receive. A couple of rainy days may ruin the apples you were expecting, but the farmer may bring you some beautiful and fresh mushrooms instead. Be ready to adapt your dishes based on farmers’ availability. This will also require a strong operational system that can sustain quick turn-arounds. You can achieve this by having an R&D team who experiment with ingredients and build new dishes constantly.
Stay true to your promise
If you claim your restaurant is farm to table, use only local and seasonal produce. Limit your menu to dishes that will not require exotic ingredients imported by multinationals from a different continent. Don’t panic! Instead of limiting the menu, this will encourage creativity, going back to the roots and rediscovering your local, traditional food!
Tell the story
Finally, tell your customers the story. Support your local farmers, document your journey and don’t be afraid to talk about how you became a farm-to-table restaurant. Storytelling should always be part of your marketing mix!
Farm-to-table is a great restaurant practice that will help you grow your business, all while making a positive impact upon your local community and helping the environment. However, before you take the leap and become a farm-to-table restaurant, don’t forget about the importance of building a strong strategy to successfully manage the change!