Restaurants going local with house-made food products

By André LaRivière
May 25, 2012

 

Restaurants going local with house-made food products

The new ‘secret sauce’ is green

Though they’re not always as vibrant as those in fashion or technology, culinary trends often look to exotic or radical concepts to grab attention. For example, you may remember predictions some years back that 100 per cent of restaurant dishes were going to be either steamed, stacked vertically or cooked (and served) on hot stones. Thankfully, those trends didn’t pan out.

The sustainable foodservice movement currently has its colourful trends as well, such as insect cuisine, where farm-raised crickets and beetles star as centre-of-the-plate, low-impact protein. However, with ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ regularly topping the annual chef surveys of menu trends, and generating lots of interest from increasingly conscious diners, kitchens need not look far-afield for that next ‘hot’ attention grabber. In fact, the closer-to-home it is, the better… for everyone.

These days, an exclusive ingredient or product made on premises with local, sustainable ingredients – from a pickled vegetable sandwich filling to house-made sausage – can deliver both a measurable, sustainable benefit to restaurant operations and a ‘secret sauce’ value to the menu. It also happens to be a relatively easy and very affordable way to add more ‘green’ to the plate.

Reduces waste, adds value

Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun here. Making sausages and terrines, or condiments and fruit compotes, is a time-honoured culinary process to reduce waste and maximize food value. Some of the greenest of ‘local specials’ follow this tradition, particularly for chefs such as Vancouver’s Robert Belcham (Refuel, Campagnolo), who regularly purchase whole animals directly from the producer. For Belcham, a wide variety of in-house charcuterie is a mainstay of his regular menu.

However, restaurant concepts with less time and capacity for processing can readily add ‘local flavour’ with ingredients brought in specifically for that purpose. Examples abound on menus everywhere; for instance, the regular endive salad at Raincity Grill in Vancouver’s West End is garnished with a local organic blackberry gastrique, made in-house with seasonal berries and featured year-round.

And there are growing numbers of ‘hyper-local’ products appearing on menus.

Executive chef Scott Dolbee and his team at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler process their modest harvest of seasonal produce, such as strawberries and herbs, from the hotel’s roof garden into sauces and flavourings for a variety of sweet and savoury applications in the dining room and cocktail lounge.

An abundance of benefits

Nevertheless, the real break with tradition of these types of ‘secret-sauce’ ingredients is that they should never be a secret at all; a simple, or single, regularly-featured house-made local product can deliver a clear message to your customers regarding your support for local food systems and your community. A single item may seem trifling, but imagine the multiplier effect of wide-spread adoption of this trend; if only a modest percentage of restaurants – from neighbourhood cafés to noodle houses to sandwich counters – were to produce a ‘regular’ condiment, garnish or other house-made ingredient made with local, sustainable ingredients, growers and producers in most every region would benefit substantially from the regular business.

Other important numbers add up, too. A cooked (and frozen) dessert garnish made in season from local strawberries versus the ‘fresh’ air-freighted, off-season variety will reduce the CO2/greenhouse gas impact of that ingredient by a minimum 25 per cent, and often 50 per cent.

On the meatier side of the equation, things are a bit different. While there is much to commend in the popularity of hyper-local charcuterie and the revival of its associated skill set, to be measurably sustainable this culinary trend should also include a reduction in the amount of meat purchased, processed and served. Meat and protein remains the most environmentally impactful category of food production.

So, you can make the most, and least, of an in-house product by making it local, sustainable, vegetarian and public. It’s as simple and tasty as that.


About the author

André LaRivière is executive director of the Green Table Network, a Vancouver-based organization helping operators, suppliers and diners across Canada to put ‘sustainability on the menu.’ Find more information at www.greentable.net.

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