I gave a speech on the origins of the “locavore” or “farm-to-table” movement about 5 years ago. In it, I delved into the history of the term “locavore” itself – coined somewhere around 2004-2005 by Jessica Prentice in San Francisco. A woman who was committed to a challenge to eat food within her “watershed” and was then asked by the Chronicle to come up with a better term for the act of eating locally.
But the concept of “farm-to-table”, and the origins of “market-based” eating dates back to the 70’s. With pioneers like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Judy Rogers of the Zuni Cafe and many more. These women, and others like them, were often influenced by the tiny cafes and bistros of Europe where they saw chefs and owners shopping at local markets to source their specials and dishes…a sort of “a toute heure” or of the day approach to cooking (see what I did there…nice placement!).
They brought this concept back to the US, and helped to, quietly and slowly, start asking chef’s to ask themselves…what do I want to cook with. I believe, at it’s height in the early 2000’s, the “farm-to-table” movement in restaurants was well represented by spots such as Lucques in LA under Suzanne Goin, Primo in Maine under Melissa Kelly, and of course Chez Panisse, under several notable chefs. It had an almost cult-like worship of the family farmer at its core, menus with more mentions of farms then ingredient descriptions, and of course those gorgeous blackboards in house filled with the names of farmers and purveyors.
It was a magical time when chefs reached, and stretched, and worked to find the absolute best things they could to work with. Menus weren’t overly complicated but focused on showcasing simple, delicious, and local to their core. And it slowly, ever-so-slowly, woke up an entire group of eaters who said…”hey, this stuff is pretty amazing.”
Then, Walmart went farm-to-table, Chipotle went local, and Applebees put up their blackboards.
It was a tough moment in time – the movement sort of achieved what it was aiming for (forcing farm-to-table into the mainstream) and imploded at the same time. Because, fortunately and unfortunately, as it became something that diners sought out, the restaurant industry realized that it’s mantras had monetary value…and quite honestly, who was checking up?
The problem today is thus, there are so very many “farm-to-table” restaurants, cafes, bars, coffee shops, groceries…everything…and there really is no governance for them. So the movement that meant to recognize the real work of a few became the new “organic”…a term with a lot of monetary pull in the market and relatively little impact on the greater good.
In my own experience, farm-to-table was hard work. Pardon me, farm-to-table was damn hard work: get to know a whole watershed of farmers and develop a relationship with them to trust that you’ll honestly represent their family and their work, that sounds easy; get up and actually travel to farms and markets to source real market ingredients (not baldor, not sysco, not restaurant depot); actually tell a customer “no” when they ask for asparagus in April…sorry, it’s not ready yet, come back in a few weeks; actually not serve avocados, even if it’s the hottest possible ingredient – have you ever actually seen an avocado tree in NJ; and, be honest…you want to bring in Salmon from Alaska, citrus from Florida, prawns from Santa Barbara – tell people why and don’t just pretend like you “found” them locally.
In my own experience, that means “farm-to-table” was an exercise in actually doing a second job of running a restaurant – not just relying on easy delivery sources to get ingredients that you can be proud of. And, an exercise in honesty – the number of customers who know when you didn’t do the work…0! Only you can really call “bull-shit” on yourself.
So, after 10 years of waking up at 5 am for products and calling myself out, well, quite honestly, who wouldn’t be tired of themselves. Who wouldn’t want to say…just use an avocado already? Well, me.
It was exhausting.
And then, just for fun, just to keep you on your toes, while your drowning in a winter of rutabaga and trying to get creative with storage apples for the 4th month in a row – that is when there will be a small group of customers who will show up and try and tell you about the really local “fava” beans that some competitor is using, in February, in New Jersey. Really?! Come on!!
And then, tired and pooped out, ready to just relax and tune out, you turn on the TV and there is a commercial showcasing a “local” meal at some big box fast food spot – 3 courses for 3 people for like $20. Really?! Come on!!
And that is when you say…well, if you are me, you say…enough!
And that is when, quite honestly, you realize there is no more “farm-to-table”.
The movement has officially become a part of the dialogue of America – which was one of it’s original goals. But, I would be surprised as hell if Alice Waters, Jessica Prentice and Judy Rogers would all sit down for lunch and say…mission accomplished.
For me, the farm-to-table movement isn’t a marketing gimmick. The Localvore movement isn’t a buzzword. The No-Farms-No-Food mantra isn’t about quick and cheap.
All of these movements were supposed to be about taking a step back.
All of these movements were supposed to be about asking who, what, where, and when about our food.
All of these movements were supposed to be about honesty – in the methods of growing the food, in the methods of sourcing the food, and certainly in the methods of sharing that food with the consumer.
But, today, these are pretty much just words. Words used to market, to sell, to qualify, and to upgrade food. And, quite honestly, they are words that after 10 years trying to self-regulate them, don’t feel nearly as virtuous as they once did.
So, is there still life in “farm-to-table”? In “local”?
It is, at least, a question that I am not alone in asking.
And, even better, there are a lot of smart, hard-working, and talented chefs, farmers, growers, scientists, and more asking how to fix what’s broken, and putting in the work to do so.
A new path? Perhaps. But first, I am going to take a break. I am going to finish eating this avocado (from NJ) and then I’ll see what’s next.
I’ll keep you posted. xo Andrea