Tomatoes in the Wintertime

At my restaurant, we don’t serve fresh tomatoes right now. It’s January. The only tomatoes we would be able to find would be pale, waxy imitations of those harvested in August.

We do serve tomato soup, however, something that I make in 25-pound increments for the lunch menu a couple times a week (if it seems like a lot, you are underestimating the American appetite for grilled cheese and tomato soup). I make it with a high-quality brand of canned tomatoes that we buy at the restaurant. We also use these canned tomatoes in some of our sauce bases and braised winter greens.

In the summer, when we can get fresh tomatoes, we use them raw and unembellished on salads, we melt them in slow-cooked sauces, and we add them as pops of texture in simple broths. We sing the praises of tomatoes by featuring them on the menu for as long as they come out of the fields. Customers have come to expect this bounty of tomatoes, this celebration of seasonality.

The American food scene is shifting, and we’re praising the restaurants that feature seasonal produce. Chefs are buying fruits and vegetables at the peak of their freshness and promoting them on their menus. Customers are beginning to get a feel for the cyclical dishes, the treats that they can look forward to. I love seeing a spring vegetable salad, a summer fruit tart, or a hearty fall soup. Eating seasonal produce is becoming more common in the modern food scene, and it is a return to a way Americans used to eat.

It’s easy to eat seasonally in the summer when there is such a bounty of produce. But now, as I open can after can of tomatoes in January, I’m wondering where our momentum ends. Eating seasonally does not involve only eating fruits and vegetables when they are bountiful in the fields. It also involves saving those bounties for the lean times. My grandmothers used to do something with their tomatoes, canning and pickling and mashing and preserving them for the winter. They did not just eat seasonally in the summer, but all year round. We used to preserve the bounty of one season to use it in the next.

Now, as we become used to eating fruits and vegetables in season again, what’s the next step? Do we return to preserving seasonal fruits and vegetables as well?

I think about the logistics. Let’s say a restaurant decides to process and can tomatoes, enough to get them through a winter. There are numerous organizational and financial difficulties that would pop up. Owners would need to have the flexible capital to make an investment in inventory months before making back their money. Preserving food is a specialty in the culinary realm, a specialty with miles of food safety regulation more than most. Restaurants would need to add more labor costs and more prep work, which would affect food costs and prices on the menu. The brick and mortar kitchen would need storage space for hundreds of pounds of canned tomatoes, stored at the right temperature to meet food safety standards. I don’t know many chefs from any sizable restaurant that could take on that burden, even for a single ingredient like tomatoes.

Then again, many chefs found it difficult to buy directly from farmers, at first, when the seasonal ethos started to creep into the restaurant industry. It was difficult to adjust the food chain, the new purveyor-chef relationship. And then people made adjustments. Middlemen came along, acting as warehouse or transportation intermediaries between small growers and busy chefs. Cooperatives started between farmers, allowing them to sell their small harvests as part of a bigger bulk sale. Chefs adjusted to the benefits and challenges of buying locally.

I can see the same potential for seasonal preserving. Perhaps middlemen will form another segment of the food chain, a purveyor that processes the food from farmers and then sells it to chefs. Farmers may form cooperatives and use shared kitchens to preserve food in the summer to sell in the winter. Chefs may adjust their menus to use frozen berries, canned tomatoes, and pickled radishes in the wintertime.

It’s not unlikely, and I already see talented and forward-thinking producers and chefs moving in this direction. The industry is shifting, as it always does. The way Americans eat is changing from many different angles and many different points of entry. Perhaps this is the next trend.

I’m hopeful. Because I don’t believe there is anything better than eating the tomatoes of August in the cold of January.


Sourcing Local Food

If a chef wants to make good food, he or she has to use good ingredients. That statement sounds intuitive, but it is difficult to convey exactly how much effort chefs make sourcing ingredients. Chefs spend an enormous amount of time searching out trusted purveyors, examining food shipments that come in, tasting samples from food company representatives, and checking out different markets. They spend time sourcing their ingredients because chefs know that good food starts long before they cook it in their kitchens.

We now designate some restaurant ingredients as “farm-to-table”, or “locally-sourced, seasonal” produce. Our new vocabulary comes from an old concept, spending our food dollars with small farmers and food producers in the local region. Many chefs advertise their buying habits on their menus or in their restaurant. “Farm-to-table” is a buzzword in the industry.

But what does “buying locally” actually mean for a chef? And when you know that a restaurant buys locally, what does that mean to you?

First, though a lot of lip service is paid toward the local food ethos, what most chefs are talking about, at the end of the day, is flavor. Many chefs certainly want to support local producers. And these chefs are actually supporting local advocates’ ideals, by putting their dollars into the local economy. But they are, first and foremost, concerned with flavor. Local, in-season food generally tastes better. Local ingredients make menus impress. Local products help them be great chefs.

Local ingredients on the menu mean that the chef is committed to flavor. But the story doesn’t end there- it’s not just that the chef is buying ingredients from somewhere new, and they’re fresher. Buying locally also requires a commitment from the chef to adjust the way a kitchen typically runs.

A restaurant, with many moving parts, is a logistically difficult enterprise. There is a pipeline of expectations, starting with customer demands for a full menu, at a certain price point, every night. Stable menus, with fixed plates and fixed ingredients, make a chef’s life easier. With a stable, unchanging menu, a chef doesn’t need to track a broad inventory or print new menus with last minute changes. Line cooks don’t need to be as specialized, and food costs are generally lower. Many restaurants choose this model for their kitchens.

Local producers sometimes cannot fit into this mold of predictability. At a former restaurant, I remember a chef’s frustration as a pig farmer delayed and postponed a delivery of a whole pig, until he finally arrived at 4:30pm on a Friday. An hour before a busy weekend service, the sous chef was frantically slicing the pig down into cuts that we could store in our small cooler, until we had more time to properly butcher the cuts we wanted.

We never did business with that farmer again. The meat was wonderful, the fat creamy and flavorful, and we eventually made delicious pulled pork, bacon, and sausage. But the chef could not stomach an unpredictable vendor, not when he needed to buy product so regularly.

At my current restaurant, we work with extraordinarily talented and reliable farmers and small distributors. But even for the most professional, there are unpredictable storms, improper storage in outside facilities, early frosts, or family truck issues. Their small businesses cannot absorb disruptions as easily.

It’s a trend that repeats itself in many industries: large food purveyors compete on their reliability, cost, and uniformity, and small producers compete on quality and locality. Many chefs, pushed toward low food costs, rapid deliveries, or customer expectations for fresh tomatoes in February, find it easier to buy from large food purveyors. The chefs who do opt for local food must be flexible in their menus, and have the creativity and commitment to respond to unforeseen changes.

Local products also can be more labor-intensive to work with. The large food-system apparatus that transports food from faraway places to neatly refrigerated trucks is an efficient and terrifying machine. This machine delivers uniform, sanitized, well-packaged ingredients that are easy to prepare. Lettuce is clean and dry; meat is neatly vacuum-sealed. Heads of cabbage have no dirt between their leaves, the garlic can come pre-peeled, and all the eggs are uniform.

Farmers and local food producers, on the other hand, tend to deliver a different product. In my kitchen, we spend an enormous amount of time scrubbing, soaking, and washing produce that comes in from the fields, because it is literally dirt-y. We shell field peas and fava beans by hand, because some of the farmers we buy them from don’t own expensive shelling machines. We buy foraged mushrooms, using small paintbrushes to brush forest dirt off of their stems. Cooks must be a bit more specialized and thorough in all of their preparation. All of this extra processing, before we have even started cooking, adds to the kitchen’s labor cost.

Let me be clear: the quality of produce we get from local food producers is extraordinary, and the pre-packaged ingredients pale in comparison. Fresh, local, in-season produce is beautiful; it is what real food tastes and looks like. It is better for our health, it is better for our environment, and it is better for all involved. I am in no way advocating for the sterilized, mass-produced food that comes from large purveyors.

But I do want to point out that the fixed menus and the food and labor costs that we are used to expecting in restaurants are, in part, due to reliance on large food purveyors. Standardized, mass-manufactured ingredients provide stability, cost-efficiency, and uniformity. These massive food systems are the easy option for restaurants, and chefs, when they need to meet customer expectations.

When chefs buy locally, they are making a choice to do what is not easy. Buying locally comes with its challenges, namely, logistical stress and higher food and labor costs. Chefs who buy local food, not just paying lip service to the “farm-to-table” aesthetic but genuinely spending a large portion of their food dollars in the local food economy, are admirable to me. I want them to be admirable to the dining public as well. They are taking the challenging route, going against what the economics of a notoriously tough industry tell them to do.

These chefs are sourcing good ingredients, and cultivating relationships with the producers of good ingredients. And these good ingredients wind up on your table, on your plate, in your stomach. They do this even though it means needing to adjust a menu when the local distributor runs out of shishito peppers, and even though it means paying line cooks like me to brush the dirt out of locally foraged mushrooms for a couple hours a week.

These chefs are buying their ingredients consciously, for flavor, for local economies, and for the sake of good food, and they are making adjustments in their restaurant to do so. Buying locally changes the way restaurants are run, the kind of food we eat, and the experience customers have. Chefs are in the middle of the local food movement, examining the trout bellies, savoring their farmer’s fresh cherry tomatoes, and making conscious choices about what they put on your plate and why.