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A Taste for Conservation

America's palate is shifting toward foods that are fresh, sustainable, and chemical-free. The chefs leading this culinary crusade believe that eating should be good for both the body and the earth.

By Gretel H. Schueller


From the upscale Chez Panisse in Berkeley to the casual White Dog Café in Philadelphia, chefs across the country are adding a new ingredient to their dishes: sustainability. By seeking out foods that have been grown locally, they are dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuels burned to deliver them. By choosing organic foods, they are minimizing the amount of chemicals poured on the earth. By serving food in sync with the seasons, they are supporting conscientious local family farmers and promoting a genetically diverse food supply. The result is nothing less than fresh, delicious, nutritious meals and a perception of wholesome foods that has shifted from granola to gourmet.

What's more, their customers are beginning to do the same at home. Organic foods, for instance, have far outgrown their niche market. In the United States the organic industry has been expanding by more than 20 percent each year since 1990, reaching annual sales of $9.5 billion today. Over a third of Americans now buy organic products, and they find them everywhere from farm stands and natural foods stores to Wal-Mart outlets. The majority of people who seek out organic food do so because—free of chemicals and higher in antioxidants—it's healthier for them. But good taste and a concern for the environment are strong motivators, too.

This change of heart and stomach couldn't have come at a better time: Within the United States "fresh"produce now travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles before reaching its destination—25 percent farther than in 1980—wasting valuable fuel and adding to air pollution. Annual agricultural pesticide use is at record highs, more than doubling, from 215 million pounds to 511 million pounds, over the past four decades. During the same time period the total acreage of cropland has declined. These pesticides cause $10 billion worth of damage to the environment and kill 72 million birds each year. A mere 10 to 15 species of plants and 8 species of livestock now account for 90 percent of the world's food production. This loss of genetic diversity makes the food supply even more vulnerable to pests and disease.

Professional chefs, by artfully altering the cuisine on their plates, have been able to promote a new social and environmental consciousness. As the nation's taste shapers—turning once exotic items like mesclun greens into fare as mainstream as iceberg lettuce—chefs often set the example for the food people put on their own dinner tables. Every day the cult of the celebrity chef is played out in glossy lifestyle magazines and on television food programs and Internet sites. And Americans, who now consume more than 30 percent of their meals away from home, are paying attention.

Furthermore, the restaurants themselves represent huge purchasing power. "We buy millions of dollars' worth of food each year," says celebrity chef Rick Bayless, winner of numerous distinguished culinary awards; host of the TV cooking show Mexico: One Plate at a Time; and co-owner with his wife, Deann, of two Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

Ten years ago Bayless helped found the Chefs Collaborative, which arms its membership of 1,000 restaurants and chefs with tools for making environmentally sound purchasing decisions. "We found that many of the chefs' organizations were not addressing the issues we were dealing with. Foods were being promoted that aren't sustainable," says Bayless. Unlike many professional culinary organizations—focused primarily on the innovative presentation of foods—members of the Chefs Collaborative started to examine where their ingredients were coming from and how to improve upon that record: Did sea turtles get trapped and killed in nets in order to serve that shrimp cocktail? What are good seafood substitutes for overfished species? The collaborative, Bayless says, is "answering questions that many of us had been asking for a long time."

Furnished with this information, these restaurateurs are taking their role as educators as seriously as the food they serve. Consider, for example, the Putney Inn, a historic farmhouse turned restaurant in southern Vermont, where 100,000 people each year—many on their way to view the fall foliage—stop to savor a meal. Even in this quaint, out-of-the-way restaurant, a small revolution is cooking.

For the Putney's customers, it starts with the menu. Page one outlines the inn's commitment to offer the "least processed products possible" and lists the local purveyors it supports—32 of them. The ingredients have actual origins: honey made right in Putney, cheddar from Grafton Village, and organic eggs from Brattleboro. Most of the food comes from less than three hours away, and at least half of it is organic. "Local farmers call me two or three times a week to tell me what they have," says Kevin Takei, the inn's executive chef and a member of the Chefs Collaborative. "They harvest it that day, and I get it the same day it's picked." At the end of every evening, innkeeper Randi Ziter makes the rounds in the dining room and talks to the guests about the food and where it comes from.

Of course, there's still what Bayless refers to as the "lazy chef," who in winter orders a flat of strawberries, without a thought about the pesticides it's taken to grow them or how far they'll have to travel. But the tide is turning. "We're just one link in the food system, from the people who till the soil to the people who eat the food," says Bayless. But as these profiles of chefs Rick Moonen, Annie Somerville, Greg Higgins, and Nora Pouillon illustrate, they are a very powerful link. Their choices, like those of the customers they influence, can help preserve and promote an ecologically sound system of agriculture. "We're dedicated to making our country's food better," Bayless says, "for us and our environment."


For more information on how your own food choices can help save energy, safeguard watersheds, and protect wildlife, visit the Audubon at Home website at www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/ and follow the link for Sustainable Eating.

 

 

[ Seafood ]

Fish on the Line

By David Seideman

"His energetic style causes the masses to crave his seafood specialties," gushes the website Starchefs.com. "We call him King of the Sea." Conservationists may as well dub Rick Moonen savior of the seas. "I truly believe that to be part of eradicating a species from the water or anywhere is just plain irresponsible," he says. "And nothing I want to be part of."
Moonen, owner of Restaurant rm on Manhattan's Upper East Side, is a fixture on popular television shows such as Today and Good Morning America, as well as on the Food Network. New York City's toughest food critics shower him with stars. At the same time he has exploited his celebrity status to preach what he practices.

Moonen proclaims he serves sustainable seafood not just to maintain his future supplies but because it's good for the earth. After all, the U.S. government warns that almost 100 fish populations are overtaxed. The journal Nature reports the earth has lost 90 percent of its large predatory fish species, such as cod, flounder, and tuna. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that fish consumption will jump 7 percent by 2020.

Restaurant rm evokes a sleek mahogany yacht, with portholes on the kitchen doors and a raftered ceiling that looks like the ribs of a ship. For an appetizer, fresh East Coast oysters melt in the mouth. "Oysters are a great choice," Moonen says, a smile flashing across his intense gaze. "They clean the ocean." Indeed, oysters filter water and can be farmed at negligible cost to the environment. For an entrée, the seared Arctic char, topped with a crisp skin and served with roasted organic beets and red-wine–beet vinaigrette, is succulent. Moonen resists advertising the species' healthy population: "The concern is that if you send out a message that Arctic char is a viable alternative to farm-raised Atlantic salmon, guess what? In a very short time it would be gone."

"We wiped out the buffalo. It doesn't seem to ring in anyone's ears when we wipe out a species of fish. Eventually, people will get it."
Photograph by Craig Cutler

Moonen's Frisée au Salmon has a tender but chewy texture and offers a slight kick from being cured with bacon. The salmon is wild; the farm-raised variety causes pollution and lacks genetic diversity. Moreover, a recent study in Science found that it has an unhealthy concentration of toxins.

There are many other popular species Moonen won't serve, including Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and shrimp (except as a garnish on pasta). These species are overfished, they take too long to mature, they struggle from degraded habitat, or they're caught in a way that leads to the incidental kill of a variety of marine life.

But there is another species, long absent from Moonen's menu, that he could put back—if he still had a taste for it. Six years ago Moonen emerged as chief spokesman for the Give Swordfish a Break campaign, led by chefs and conservationists. Thanks to a public boycott and fishing regulations, swordfish has made a tenuous recovery. Being able to serve it again "gives some sort of completion to an effort," Moonen says. "You can say, 'You showed your concern . . . and here it is back for you to enjoy.' If everything is met with dismal finality, then people just get tired of it, and they stop getting involved."

 

 

[ Vegetarian ]

Field of Greens

By Jennifer Bogo

Annie Somerville and I weave between rows of lettuce—curly endive, butter, red romaine—their plump heads crowding one another under the California sun. "Aren't these great?" she exclaims, leaning down to rub a furrowed pink leaf between her fingers. "This is a variety of red oak. As it gets bigger, it gets darker and more intense looking. Vinaigrette gets caught in the crinkles."

We are tasting our way around Green Gulch Farm, tearing off bits of aniselike fennel, pungent lemony chard, and peppery arugula as we walk. The farm, nestled along the coast just 17 miles north of San Francisco, provides year-round organic produce to the city's highly praised Greens Restaurant, where Somerville is executive chef.

Diners who think vegetarian restaurants have little more to offer than tofu and alfalfa sprouts have only to take in the confettilike stems of rainbow chard, the long, thin red blossoms of pineapple sage, and the lavender, silver and fuzzy, that fill the fields around us. "We just cook in the spirit of using really great ingredients," says Somerville. "And since we are a vegetarian restaurant, we're not thinking about what fisheries are being overfished or what the conditions are for livestock. In terms of resource use, our restaurant is really very light."

"It used to be hard to sneak things like beet greens on the menu, but people have changed. They have much greater awareness now. And we have helped with that."
Photograph by Elena Dorfman

There's no question that raising meat, fish, and fowl is far more wasteful and energy-intensive than growing food for a vegetarian diet. Compared with a pound of pasta, for instance, a pound of red meat is responsible for 20 times the land use, 17 times the water pollution, 5 times the water use, and 3 times the greenhouse-gas emissions. Animals' bodies also concentrate growth hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, passing them on to ours when we eat them. Many Greens customers are vegetarians, says Somerville, but many are also omnivores who come to the restaurant simply for a really good meal. If everyone followed suit, skipping just one meat-based meal a week, the amount of resources saved would be staggering.

Through Greens, Somerville shows just how easy, and delicious, that choice can be. Back in the restaurant's airy dining room, in the Fort Mason Complex in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a wall of windows provides a panoramic view of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. Late-afternoon light illuminates Somerville's face—well tanned from long days spent outdoors—as she ponders aloud her favorite food.

"I love Thai basil, porcini mushrooms, all the potatoes and onions," she says, with evident zeal. "The tender shoots of green garlic are great on pizza and pasta. And Meyer lemons are sweet, like a regular lemon that's been crossed with an orange." She leans back, ensconced now in a kitchen far away. "Poblano chilies have a smoky, wonderful deep flavor. They're good with plantains, which are also great in winter stews. And quince is a really aromatic old-world fruit."

People fill the tables around us as we talk. My gratin soon arrives, a tower of perfectly grilled summer squash topped by a golden crust, the heavenly aroma of sun-soaked vegetables waftingskyward. It is a perfect testament to the indulgence of eating food reaped straight from the earth.

 

 

[ Meat ]

High Steaks

By Angie Jabine

If you can't finish the meltingly tender flatiron steak at Higgins Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, you shouldn't hesitate to ask for the leftovers. Nationally acclaimed chef Greg Higgins wants you to enjoy every bite. He has gone out of his way to ensure that all of the foods in his kitchen—even the meat—come from local, sustainable farms. "To me these terms have become synonymous with quality," says Higgins. "I want my suppliers to be passionate people who love what they do, because I find their products are head and shoulders above conventional."

Take that flatiron steak. It came from Oregon Country Beef, a cooperative of 40 ranchers who manage their eastern Oregon rangeland in ecologically responsible ways and raise their cattle without growth hormones, antibiotics, or bioengineered feed. Higgins also carries as much grass-fed, certified-organic beef as he can from Jim and Ellen Girt of River Run Farm in nearby Clatskanie. The restaurant's pork-shoulder terrine—a robust yet mild preparation enlivened with tart, dried Northwest cherries—is made from pork that's been pasture-raised by Sara and Joe DeLong, organic farmers in St. John, Washington.

Higgins is in the vanguard of a steadily growing movement to support local producers who want to protect the long-term health of the planet. By the time the average feedlot steer is ready for slaughter, it has eaten 1,900 pounds of grain. Its herd has generated enormous amounts of waste, which, collected and spread over nearby fields, leaches excess nitrogen into the soil, streams, and groundwater. Pasture-raised livestock and poultry, by contrast, fertilize the land as they graze it, and don't require fuel-intensive tractors to harvest grain for year-round feed.

"My top priorities are to be local and sustainable. I can't leave my purveyors hanging. I'm as important to their livelihood as they are to mine."
Photograph by Brian Smale

Though not all sustainably produced meat necessarily carries the certified-organic label, that which does guarantees antibiotics haven't been added to the animals' feed—a practice that has contributed to antibiotic resistance in people. The label also means that the livestock or poultry has been raised on feed that is organic, so both pastures and fields used to grow supplemental grain have been cultivated without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

What's more, unlike with the Washington dairy cow found infected with mad cow disease last winter, the herd and feed history of an organically raised steer is quickly traceable. The animal has also been slaughtered and processed separately from conventional livestock to avoid cross-contamination.

As a restaurateur—and as a realist—Higgins concedes there is not enough grass to sustain a meat supply at the rate Americans consume it, especially now that the protein-rich Atkins diet has become all the rage. And it's true that certified-organic, grass-fed products are more expensive—partly because of higher record-keeping costs and partly because of the economies of scale favoring big business. But when you consider the environmental benefits, and the fact that these animals are free of the chemicals that conventionally raised animals store in their bodies, the price seems well worth it.

 

 

[ Organic ]

Clean Cuisine

By Jennifer Bogo

Somewhere behind the rising columns of steam in Nora Pouillon's kitchen, tempura squash blossoms, oven-roasted sweet peppers, and slow-braised rabbit await finishing touches; shiitake-tofu stuffing, black-olive dressing, and cognac-mustard sauce materialize from the silvery flash of knives and whisks. Anyone first ushered into the softly lit dining room of Restaurant Nora, its walls elegantly hung with antique quilts, may find the epicurean menu unsurprising—if not for one notable detail: Everything, down to the herb aioli, is organic.

"People hear the word organic and think it means they have to be on a special diet, to restrain themselves, to eat beans and rice," grouses Pouillon in her native Austrian accent. "People eat the exact same thing here as they would in any upscale restaurant. To be organic is to be better for you and for the environment."

In 1999 Restaurant Nora, in Washington D.C., became the first restaurant in the nation to be certified organic, which means at least 95 percent of the ingredients it uses must be certified organic, too. Organic farmers—whether they're raising ducks or daikon—cannot add chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Nor can they produce foods that are genetically engineered or grown using hormones or sewage sludge. They can and do, however, build the long-term health of their soil, protect water quality, and foster ecosystems friendly to wildlife.

"People ask what they should do to eat more organically? Make a commitment to buy just one or two organic items. And then add another."
Photograph by Katherine Lambert

This is revolutionary in a country that uses more than 500 million pounds of pesticides and 21 million tons of chemical fertilizers to produce its food, and pollutes more than 173,000 miles of waterways in the process of growing it. And yet long-term studies have shown that organic crops can actually outproduce those conventionally grown, particularly during conditions like drought. Organic farming also requires 50 percent less energy than conventional methods, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and can help to offset global warming by locking even more carbon into the soil.

Organic farming, which substitutes labor-intensive management for the quick fix of chemicals, does cost more, but the price tag better reflects the true expense of growing our nation's food. "People are disconnected with where their food comes from," says Pouillon, her hands accentuating each point. "It doesn't grow in the supermarket. There's a person called a farmer that works really hard to grow the grain that is perhaps your pasta, or who milks the cows twice every day to give you butter."

Pouillon's passion has in no way slowed her success: She has been named Chef of the Year by both the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the American Tasting Institute. And in the nation's capital, where even minor change requires a lobbyist and an act of Congress, Restaurant Nora and its "new" organic cooking is making waves. Environmentalists, tourists, celebrities, politicians, CEOs, and, yes, editors add their names to the reservations list, hoping to sink their spoons into Nora's warm chocolate soufflé cake. The moment that rich, organic chocolate melts into a pool of homemade ice cream, they're sold. Pouillon can't help but laugh: "People always thought I was nuts, but now they have caught up."

 

 

 

© 2004 National Audubon Society


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