There are more benefits of using local and seasonal food than just cutting food miles and CO2 emissions. Becky Paskin explores how restaurants can use it to their own advantage, for the sake of their business and the industry.
Sourcing food locally is not a new concept. Gordon Ramsay has been blasting the country through the power of Kitchen Nightmares for years for traipsing across the globe for food they could have grown in their back gardens.
In last year’s series the serial swearer ridiculed a Brighton chef for not using locally caught fish on his menu. “But you can’t get local fish round here,” replied the adamant young chef. Determined to prove anyone wrong, Ramsay marched the lad to a local fish market on the seafront. “Now don’t tell me you can’t get f***ing fish in Brighton, yes?”
Ramsay is notorious for forcing his locally sourced, seasonal ethos onto the chefs of his popular reality show, and you can see why. It’s great for the environment, consumers get better quality food, it’s fresher – but the British kitchen population is under the impression that using locally sourced food is far too costly, rare and just too much hassle.
If chefs just put a bit more effort into researching the ethos Ramsay champions so much, they would uncover the huge benefits it has for the local economy, and for their business, particularly during the current ‘food crisis’.
Earlier this month Horizons market analysts told restaurateurs to innovate or lose out to the pub trade. “Now consumers are feeling the crunch they are cutting back on discretionary spend – including eating out,” said Horizons’ Peter Backman. “When they do eat out they will be looking for value-for-money, reliable service, good quality food and something that offers them what they want, when they want it.”
A recent survey for Westfield London revealed that two thirds of diners thought it more important to eat local food than organic. The consumer population is more conscious than ever about what they put in their mouths, and restaurants struggling to pull in new customers during the recession should utilise this. It seems obvious for chefs to offer local food on their menus if their diners demand it, and industry body the British Hospitality Association agrees, stating that “it makes sense”.
“Chefs are very aware that local produce is fresher, tastes better and has much stronger menu appeal than unidentified produce from overseas,” said BHA Chairman Bob Cotton. “Customers recognise this too, so will be tempted to choose those dishes that have good, local ingredients. The menu is the means by which restaurants merchandise their dishes so if they can claim local provenance in much of what they offer, the more dishes they will sell - so it`s good for the customer and it`s good for the restaurant.”
But with so many restaurants jumping on the local bandwagon, how can an independent establishment stand out?
Innovate or lose out
It’s those restaurants that really embrace their produce’s ‘life story’ that are seeing the biggest return for their efforts. Tom Aikens for example papers his supplier’s details and background all over his walls and menus, giving diners the opportunity to really understand the field to plate process, as well as plugging his suppliers’ businesses.
Amanda Daniel, Local Food Project Officer for the Soil Association believes that this process of establishing relationships between farmers, chefs and diners will give everyone involved a broader knowledge of food and its origins.
“Selling food with provenance and being able to tell the story behind it is the key”, she explained. “Developing links with local farmers, growers and butchers enables this connection to be made and enables you to source high quality local produce that`s in season.
“Consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from and this is very evident from the continued success and increasing sales of box schemes, farmers markets and farm shops.”
Serving local food is therefore not only beneficial for the consumer, but for the chefs as well. With such a growing population of trainee chefs in our kitchens, restaurants can really offer a valuable experience by using local farmers to teach them about food.
Forage and hunt
Emily Watkins, Head Chef at the King and Plough, sources all her ingredients locally, from farmers and butchers, to cheese-makers, breweries, and foragers, and publishes their details on the back of her menus. When BigH went down to Chipping Norton to speak to her, she told us that although her menu is ever-changing, according to what produce her suppliers bring in, she tries to include all of every item in dishes from pork pies to ‘posh’ burgers.
Scott Goss at The Swan in West Malling, Kent, uses his local suppliers to teach his young chefs about different cuts of meat, types of fish, and which vegetables to expect in which season. Every other week he sends them off to visit cattle markets, abattoirs, chicken farms and also Smithfields and Billingsgate markets, to obtain products and learn more about the food industry. They even go out foraging for mushrooms in the afternoons.
“It’s all about knowledge, and with that comes confidence,” he muses. “A lamb rump does not come in a vacuum packed bag, it comes off the animal, and you need to know where it comes from, why, and how we cook it. If you’re not going to understand why you’re doing it, why put yourself through 16 hours a day? You need to know why you’re doing these things, or you might as well pack your knives up and go home.”
By engaging chefs through investing in teaching them the ins and outs of the food industry, restaurants could potentially expect to see a drop in their staff turnover, an industry problem that is currently estimated to be at 30 per cent.
Malmaison is just one boutique hotel chain that manages to implement its food provenance strategies across 12 outlets nationwide. Malmaison Group Executive Chef Ray Brown says their policy was originally intended to give chefs more independence, as well as setting the hotels up as market leading and innovative. But as time has drawn on, Brown has not only seen a massive improvement in the quality of the food his guests are being served, but has built long-term relationships with farmers and suppliers around him.
“The quality is 10 times better, the only real problem to start with is quantities and seasonality, but you can get produce from anywhere,” he enthused. “Going to farmers markets is also a good way to find suppliers and share your enthusiasm and passion. They then feed off of you and as usual one relationship leads to another, and then all of a sudden people are calling you to see if they can send their produce to you. To this day I still use a supplier who produces smoked salmon and have done for 18 years.”
Regenerating the economy
Farmers’ markets are one of the best ways to find top quality local food, build trade relationships by meeting suppliers in the flesh, and support the local economy all in one go.
The increased trade supports small businesses and community enterprises, encourages entrepreneurship, creates new jobs, and ultimately regenerates the local economy. And because there are fewer middlemen involved (as opposed to some wholesalers), farmers and small producers can retain a higher proportion of the end price of their produce.
“Supporting local producers encourages them to continue farming the countryside, growing and producing wholesome food with care and pride,” added Sue Thomson of FARMA, the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association. “It has kept some producers in farming when things otherwise looked very bleak.
“And there`s nothing quite like the first seasonal asparagus or strawberries of the season. Watching people shop at farmers` markets and in farm shops I think purchases are much more considered, so I would hope food is less likely to be wasted.”
So does Gordon Brown, who last month pleaded with the people of Britain to stop overbuying food in a bid to ease the global food crisis. But even though Brown, like his foul-mouthed namesake, is urging Britain to be more considerate and ‘go local’, should restaurants pay attention?
As we’ve been told, there’s no better time to innovate and with a hoard of consumers lining up for a taste of local provenance, the answer is, in the words of the serial swearer himself, ‘yes’.