A certain number of chefs have set a goal for themselves of stopping to use fruits and vegetables that have traveled halfway across the planet before landing on their plates. For them, local food systems are not just a trend, but an imperative for preserving the planet.
We knew of French chef Arnaud Cotar when he was in London in the 1990s, creating delicacies at the ever renowned restaurant of Le Gavroche. As a French restaurant, the question of working with local food systems in the capital city was not even an issue, with many products coming from France, especially from Brittany.
Having left for the United States to become the Executive Sous Chef at the Blantyre Estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, it has now been more than 15 years since he has held the title of Chef and he has yet to cease working exclusively with the producers he knows personally and who are only a few miles away from his kitchens. It must be said that in the rolling hills of the Berkshire, at the midpoint between New York and Boston, the climate allows for just about anything.
Like all great estates that have had to respect models of urbanization, Blantyre has decided to keep its surrounding farms. This has left Arnaud with the time to talk with farmers and to create his menu based on the seasons, without transportation and, in particular, with waste reduced to a minimum. And yes, local food systems have this obvious advantage for guests to have only fresh products on their plates, ones that have moreover known little of the taste killing effects of a refrigerator. But local food systems are also good for the minimal carbon footprint they produce as they avoid the need for transportation.
Just 200 kilometers away, all of these subjects are on the daily menu of a fantastic organization called Farm Fresh Rhode Island. This group bases its work on a principle that is simple enough on paper. It is the idea that if local food systems are possible on a restaurant level, then why shouldn't they be for a city. With a little more than one million residents, including those of its capital Providence, the issue of local food systems has practically transformed itself into a veritable agricultural policy in Rhode Island. Production and distribution are addressed, but also health, the environment, and education, through cafeteria programs.
The organization has become incredibly powerful and well-regarded as a model for many mid-sized cities in the United States, but also in Canada. Among its founding members is Castle Hill Inn and its chef Lou Rossi who, as his name may suggest, has taken a dip into Italian culture with parents who were already restauranteurs. Having completed his studies at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, between Boston and Montreal, Lou realized early on in his career that the incredibly generous nature that surrounded him had rights and that dishes should take them into consideration. At Castle Hill Inn, you must get used to eating only that which the seasons have to offer. And if you are there for the first week of August, be sure not to miss the annual Farm Fresh Local Food Fest hosted by Castle Hill Inn, where farmers dear to Lou gather, along with the fishermen he works with, and many of the region's artisans.
And if we were to imagine local food systems as a religion, then without a doubt one of the popes would be Normand Laprise who has pushed the envelope the furthest. This country boy who grew up along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River in Saint-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska, a city of 2,000 inhabitants during the summer, has never been one to say that Montreal was too big of a city to be concerned with local food systems. Instead, he has made it a lifetime challenge since opening his first restaurant 26 years ago.
Three years later, in 1993, he took over control of Toqué! and the challenge continued, except that each service grew to 70 covers and that meant having not only fresh and local food products, but also quantity. Today, Normand has without a doubt the finest address book of farmers in Quebec, which surely helped him win the 2013 James Beard Award for the book he devoted to them. But as it turns out, Normand has yet to truly find enough of the quantity he needs and has had to join the even more exclusive club of chefs who have their own gardens.
In a recent interview for the magazine Fine Dining Lovers, the journalist asked Normand if, deep down, he would like to have a restaurant in the countryside. His long response was clear. Local food systems are a serious urban issue and it is really in Montreal where his mission is the most pertinent.