In a world at contretemps, food may be the one thing that brings us together. It is so precious that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security even established The National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) in 2004.
It might surprise you that the “uniform” on the front lines of food sustainability in 2019 is likely to be a chef’s tunic. Their global society is certainly “elite,” with insights on food availability, quality and nutritional value that few possess. These abilities are equaled only by their genius in preparing food for optimum balance and beauty. They also work with food commercially at a time when grassroots groups have popped up worldwide with a shared vision of sustainability in fishing and farming. At the vanguard are chefs of every background with a common belief that food should be responsible, delectable and unhurried. That’s how “slow food” came to be.
The origin story is better than fiction. Activist Carlo Petrini protested the opening of the first McDonald’s fast food spot in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna nearly 40 year ago. He later wrote the book “Slow Food: The Case for Taste” which captured likeminded imaginations. Together with groups like Ethic Ocean it has evolved into a crusade to fish, grow, harvest and eat “better.”
The leading light for this wisdom inside Relais & Châteaux itself is Vice President and Chef Olivier Roellinger. Legendary as one of the few chefs ever to freely retire his Michelin Stars—three to be exact, for his acclaimed La Maison de Bricourt in Brittany—Roellinger now devotes himself to evangelizing for “ethical cuisine.” He believes that today’s chefs have a duty “…to be the precursors of the ecological food transition.” The meaning is elegantly simple: “Our clients come to eat a place, a nature, a culture,” Roellinger says. “The kitchen of the Relais & Châteaux chef must embody this through the filter of the cook's heart and hand.”
The movement is part “gastrodiplomacy” with cuisine as lingua franca. Its primary objective is reducing harm to delicate ecologies in the name of food. To this end, Relais & Châteaux is taking guests on “Delicious Journeys” that redefine taste through the lens of biodiversity.
Eating well in nautical Newport
Castle Hill Inn in Newport, Rhode Island, has for years set the high-bar in this mecca of coastal cuisine. Distinguished chefs have commanded its kitchens, and today that title belongs to Executive Chef Lou Rossi. This is one prominent regional chef who’s making a difference.
“We look at ourselves as stewards of this side of the ocean,” Rossi says. “We work with purveyors who share our ideals.” He’s proud of a partnership with Red’s Best Seafood in Boston, which preserves the old fisherman’s ways. They distribute through a program called Farm Fresh Rhode Island whose mission is “a New England abundant with diverse family farms and fertile soils, with locally and honestly produced foods and flavors at the heart of every table.”
Ironically, Rossi notes that much of the seafood caught in Newport’s pristine waters is shipped around the world. China is the world’s biggest consumer of succulent calamari from nearby Point Judith, for example. “We use only line-caught sustainable seafood in the dining room,” Rossi says. “I don’t call and order 30 pounds of salmon. They tell me what is fresh, and I create the dish around it.”
Rossi has “great traceability” in terms of which boats actually catch the fish he serves. “It provides a connection and a story for our guests,” he adds. “When they associate a family business that’s been fishing for three generations to their meal it brings humanity to it.”
Rossi’s family owned a popular Boston eatery when he was a kid and grew “huge quantities” of produce on their land. “We would harvest bushels of tomatoes every few days, but it never dawned on me then that this was a sustainable practice for restauranteurs,” he says.
After culinary school he made it big at Chef Thomas Keller's Michelin 3-Star NYC restaurant, Per Se, then returned to New England to work with Chef Casey Riley, who today is Chief Operating Officer of Castle Hill’s parent company. “Casey came from New Mexico, and local agriculture was a big component of his experience. He helped me connect the dots and understand the importance of building relationships with local producers.”
Rossi is proud of Castle Hill’s garden program, which already has a greenhouse and gardens and is doubling its on-site growing space in 2019, in addition to having a full-time horticulturalist on staff who works closely with Rossi in seeking perfect produce.
His travels to Italy in recent years have inspired Rossi to embrace simplicity in cuisine, and his 2019 menus reflect that. “There’s a lot of technique involved but it’s really all about the ingredients.” He’s incorporating more homemade pastas, grains and less proteins.
Guests are simply wild about it.
Garden goodness and Michelin magic
There’s a clever bit of dialogue in the 2014 film “The 100-Foot Journey” when an aspiring chef explains Michelin Star ratings in a way that anyone can grasp. “One is good,” she says, “two is amazing, and three…three is only for the gods.” While he’s never claimed to be supernatural, Chef Patrick O’Connell has been called “The Pope of American Cuisine.” It’s an apt sobriquet for a man whose playful wit hides a vision that forged the New American Cuisine.
There was a time not long ago when foreign embassies were the only purveyors of haute cuisine in all of Washington, D.C. That state of affairs changed radically over the years, thanks in no small part to O’Connell’s trailblazing Inn at Little Washington, which earned its third Michelin Star in 2018. The beloved chef is a past-master of sustainable sourcing, but not because it’s trendy.
“We were among the first establishments in North America to create, out of necessity, a regionally based cuisine,” O’Connell says. Before opening his first eatery in 1978 he had a small farm for produce and eggs—common in rural Virginia where self-sufficiency is the norm.
“It seemed to make sense to serve foods that were grown nearby and that were in-season,” he says. “But it wasn’t done for any other reason than practicality.”
O’Connell chuckles ever-so-slightly at the idea that sustainable, local sourcing is a now a culinary cause célèbre. “It has always perplexed me that it took so long to catch on,” he says.
This from a supreme chef and hotelier who has elevated “homegrown” to an art form. He has participated in “Food for Change”—the global effort where chefs highlight how far food has traveled and how it is raised. O’Connell has always done things this way. “Our resident farmer, Joneve Murphy, teaches gardening around the world,” he says. “We raised 10,000 pounds of produce on our land last year and each year we expand it.”
The Inn lives harmoniously with the land, which is “the way” in this part of Virginia where greenhouses, chickens, and orchards are fixtures of the landscape.
“I was inspired early on by my Grandmother’s little homestead in Wisconsin with some fruit trees and a strawberry patch,” O’Connell says. “If you live in the country you gravitate towards self-sufficiency anyway, rather than drive 40 miles for eggs.” With a master horticulturist on staff, O’Connell has surpassed that strawberry patch, but the spirit’s the same. “We want our garden to provide sustenance and also be something people want to come and see.”
Saveur, sustainability and the sea
Chef Ryan Beaudoin is the gifted Food Forager and Director of Culinary Education for Ocean House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, where he oversees the Center for Wine and Culinary Arts (CWCA), one of the top culinary and wine centers in the country. In a stunning demonstration kitchen and dining space where guests learn by doing, Beaudoin has long taught sustainable practices that translate into five-star cuisine. He supports organizations like Ethic Ocean that advocate chefs being at the forefront of an ecological coup.
“Chefs have a significant influence on how patrons think about food,” Beaudoin says. “Anyone can enjoy a piece of fish and not know anything about where it came from, how it was caught or its impact on species and ecosystems.” Given a close relationship with local fishermen and small farms, Beaudoin knows that overfishing and industrial scale farming have wrought havoc in many communities. Now, he’s reversing the trend in his kitchen with the tools of his trade. “It is the chef’s role to source safe species and serve them with perfection,” he says.
With its unique year-long slate of guest programming the CWCA has become something of a phenom, drawing guests from far away. Its 2019 class lineup, new experiences and partnerships are part of a relaxed “curriculum” that adheres to the blossoming definition of ethical cuisine.
For example, Ocean House sources many varieties of shellfish directly from farmers and fisherman almost literally in its backyard. That’s good for the local environment…and their cold-water taste makes for the ultimate crustacean. “Bivalves are environmentally beneficial, filtering water to improve its cleanliness,” Beaudoin says, sounding like Bill Nye the Science Guy (he does that). “We have weekly tastings of clams and oysters along with educational experiences in the CWCA.” Enhanced experiences find guests accompanying Chef Ryan on guided tours where they can pluck oysters right out of the water at peak freshness.
“We’re privileged in New England and specifically Rhode Island to have an abundance of varieties of fresh fish and seafood available year-round,” he says. “We place emphasis on sourcing items during their appropriate seasons and limit the distance fish and seafood travels to reach us.”
In 2019 the CWCA is going even further with guest experiences that enlighten about the many aspects of ethical cuisine. Wine plays a major role in the CWCA’s sustainable philosophy. “We have also taken a more ethical approach to wine selection,” Chef Ryan says. “We’re supporting more wineries that operate under rigorous fair labor practices. This is just the beginning.”
Breaking bread in Boston
We often hear “nutrition” and think “diet” with a dotted line to obesity prevention, but that’s just one part of it. At the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, experts are also looking at nutrition and food sustainability as an imperative.
Hotelier and restauranteur Trisha Pérez Kennealy chairs The Friedman School’s Advisory Board. At her chic Inn at Hastings Park in Lexington, Mass., Trisha operates Artistry on the Green, the award-winning eatery within Boston’s only Relais & Châteaux hotel. It’s become famous for toothsome dishes and ingredients sourced from local artisanal producers.
“The Delicious Journeys concept is so perfect because what unifies Relais & Châteaux properties is a shared view of standards, and how to create the world’s finest guest experiences,” Trisha says. Her restaurant is known for excellence with regional, seasonal menus. A true believer in technology and science, she’s an even bigger fan of Mother Nature.
“We’ve been raised to think we can have any food any time regardless of the season,” she says, “but it makes no sense whatsoever to ship produce half way around the world when we have everything we need locally and seasonally. Besides, local and seasonal taste better.”
That’s clear when dining at Artistry on the Green. Whether tucking into fresh-daily eggs from a nearby farm or the cornucopia of produce grown by community suppliers, each menu revels in its season. “As an owner of a Relais & Châteaux property I have the pleasure, the luxury, the advantage of being able to promote my philosophy of cuisine and hospitality,” she says.
“The whole reason I opened the Inn and Artistry was to promote my passion for culinary education. We must teach our guests that good food in addition to being delicious, sustains us both physically and emotionally.”
Unchained medley of vegetables
Wondrous Winvian Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut popularized "seed-to-table" dining—an invention of virtuosic Chef Chris Eddy—years before it had any ethical appeal. He’s an admired advocate of a hyper-local cuisine reflecting the yield of this extraordinary place.
As a literal tastemaker, the gastronomical world expects vision and innovation from this man. He does not disappoint. “The definition of a lavish or princely diet should conform more with definitions of sustainability and regeneration,” Eddy says. “Local should be touted as truly luxurious, and something that has traveled thousands of miles should be deemed as something less than optimal.”
His zesty vegetable dishes have long captivated the culinary press, which is nice. But Chris Eddy has something other than fame in mind. “The most ethical cuisine is vegetarian and more so vegan for a variety of reasons,” he says. He also thinks about the ocean a lot. “The oceans are in peril. They do have a capacity to auto regenerate given reasonable conditions and circumstances. However, economic demand taxes resources immeasurably and makes recuperation a very, very slow process.”
Accordingly, he may not serve fish on June 8, 2019, which is World Oceans Day. “Let’s give the oceans a break and eat more vegetables,” he says. His famed working farm at Winvian, vibrant and ample, is ready to serve that cause…deliciously.