Upcoming Workshop Helps Chefs Put More Local Food on Their Menus

My first cooking job was at a small German diner on my hometown’s Main Street in Northern Minnesota. It was a hybridized place; we hand-pounded schnitzel cut from pigs the chef had raised, but we also served a dizzying number of filet-o-fish sandwiches. And when we ran out of green beans we opened up a jumbo can.

I remember a farmer knocking on the back door one day, carrying a lumpy paper grocery bag overflowing with fresh green beans. As the chef was shaking his head no, a few of us young cooks came up behind him and said, “We’ll clean them, chef!” The farmer, who was practically giving them away, handed them over. They were delicious, but the chef hated them because of the time it took his minions to top-and-tail their way through the bag.

This is the state of our union. In a weird twist of fate, it has become too expensive for restaurants to serve local food, no matter its actual cost. And in most cases, local food is a more expensive, which raises the hurdle even higher. 

When you realize that most restaurants in the middle swath of the state buy all of their ingredients from a single food purveyor, and that they never buy a local vegetable -- and if add to this the number of private homes that courteously receive the Schwan’s man -- you realize that rural food culture is at risk.

Local food is more available in the Twin Cities, thankfully, but many food establishments that can serve it -- maybe even want to serve it -- don't. That's where the Minnesota Project comes in.

This month, on March 22, the Minnesota Project's Heartland Food Network, in cooperation with The Craftsman restaurant in Minneapolis, will host a workshop for chefs and foodservice professionals that will help them find and use locally grown food in their businesses. The Craftsman’s chef, Mike Phillips, was one of the Midwest’s early pioneers in sourcing local food. He'll be joined by fellow chefs from Lucia's, Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai, Corner Table, and the Birchwood Café, as well as Greg Reynolds from Riverbend Farm, Lisa Klein from Hidden Stream Farm, Peter Abrahamson from Bon Appetit Management, Lori Zuidema from Co-op Partners Warehouse, and Jim Roettger from the Dairy and Food Inspection Division at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. This respected panel of presenters will help chefs link up with farmers, and show them how to budget and plan for the fluctuating prices -- and navigate the sometimes confusing logistics -- of serving seasonal food.

With all these influential people working on the cause, you’d think it would be only a matter of time before most restaurants serve local food, at least in the warmer months. (Our climate is a factor in our wish to eat local, fresh produce, of course.)

But if they’re still lagging, it’s not that the chefs don’t care about you or your tastebuds; most recognize the difference between a good tomato and a crappy one, but their hands are often tied. Usually, it comes down to money and convenience. Not only is it more expensive, in most cases, to buy local, it’s also a lot more inconvenient, especially for restaurants that don’t change their menus very often. For example, take that great Mexican restaurant with the awesome tamales. They need a case of tomatillos every week for their salsa verde. For the two weeks in August that they can buy them locally, but for $8 more per case, it would be hard to make the switch.

But consumers like you, who drive demand with every dollar you spend, will help make local food the more sensible choice for restauranteurs and institutions. And prep cooks, sharpen your paring knives; you’re going to be needed.

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Annalisa Hultberg, the Heartland Food Network Coordinator, Local Foods Program, writes with an update:

"The registration for the event is now closed. We filled up very fast! If chefs are interested in attending the event but didn't register in time, please e-mail me and so I can put them first on the list for the next event, this summer.
"I also plan to take notes and create a written summary, which I will make available to any chef who wants it. This should be available in about a month. If any chef is interested in learning more about how to buy local, in general, please call me at 651-789-3328 or send an e-mail to me at"

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Amy Thielen
worked in New York for 8 years, cooking with ches David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. She also developed recipes for
Country Living Magazine, tested recipes for Martha Stewart, and worked on two cookbooks. Now, she lives with her husband and son in Park Rapids, Minnesota, in a house so lodged in the woods that the wolves' howls are louder than her neighbor's barking dog. She teaches cooking classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, writes food stories for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and keeps a blog called Sourtooth.