Locavore Versus Organic Versus….
By Sam Pratt
Has local replaced organic as a prime selling point for the region’s top restaurants? Is farm-to-table a bigger deal to people than pesticide-free? And what about Animal Welfare approval? Rural Intelligence consulted with several of the area’s dining gurus to see where their—and their customers’—preferences lie, and what undergirds these food choices.
For years, many choosy diners preferred organic. Diners of Conscience would scan their menus with a microscope in search of salads and entrées with the organic label. Leading the charge since the 1990s in Dutchess County is Luna 61, originally based in Red Hook but since moved to Broadway in Tivoli. The highly eclectic menu at Luna is among only a very few strictly organic bills of fare in the region, right down to the beer selection—which includes standouts like St. Pete’s and Pinkus.
Owners Debra and Peter Maisel’s cooking draws from world cuisines, from Laksa noodle pots to tofu Sloppy Joe tacos (their pad thai is at left), and their dedication to delivering pure, vibrant meals has drawn (or convinced) many non-vegetarians, who find that exotic spicing more than compensates for an absence of meat. But to consistently deliver such diverse organic purity year round would be difficult on a strictly local basis. So for many years now, Debra says, they have relied on an organic food distributor based out of Northern California, making a trade-off between food miles and the guarantee of a non-GMO meal.
But now, from Allium to Zak Pelaccio’s Fish & Game, a growing number of area restaurants are highlighting their locally sourced products as much as, or more so than, their organic ones. David Wurth, chef and owner of CrossRoads Food Shop on Route 23 in Hillsdale, focuses on farm-to-table first, organic second: “I have come to see that local matters more than organic to my customers. My goal as a buyer of ingredients that will appeal to our customers is to purchase the best local products available.”
So while CrossRoads does mix in some organic ingredients, Wurth does so “not necessarily because they are organic, but because they have proven to be the best quality in their category. The organic label, depending on the product, doesn’t always mean it’s a better product,” he argues. “I know myself to be a very careful and picky buyer. I have relationships with a handful of farmers, not all organic, who I know to be growing and raising the best available.”
But while Wurth may prefer a lightly sprayed Columbia County peach to a pricier stone fruit from an organic grower, he feels it both more essential and more viable to offer organic meat and dairy. “Organic protein is another matter. A customer concerned about grass-fed organic beef, lamb, chicken or eggs will pay more for it, and I therefore can charge more. [And] the difference in the product is striking,” he adds.
As a chef, Wurth finds inspiration for his cooking in “the seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables grown locally. That I know the farms and farmers is a comfort and a joy. [Whether] they grow organically doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they’re local.”
For some restaurants, the farm-to-table trend seems driven simply by the ease and relative affordability of obtaining quality local products—whether or not they’ve been doused in RoundUp. But for most, it’s also a philosophical choice: a decision to help maintain the area’s agricultural heritage, and a desire to make “know your farmer” more than a slogan. A recent culinary exchange between the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley, reported here in April, witnessed many chefs touting the local origins of their special tasting menus.
Grazin’ Diner on Warren Street in Hudson instantly made a name for itself with an ironclad commitment to sourcing its ingredients locally, right down to the ketchup sides which accompany their burgers. But manager Andrew “Chip” Chiappinelli (below, roasting a pig) has a take on organic vs. local that splits the difference between the Maisel’s approach and Wurth’s.
“We use as many certified organic ingredients at Grazin’ as possible, and where applicable,” says Chiappinelli. “The beef, eggs, chicken, milk, and some of the pork all come from Grazin’ Angus Acres in Ghent, which isn’t certified USDA Organic, but would be in a heartbeat if we decided to apply. In fact, the fields where [the animals] graze are in fact organic, but as a whole the farm is better than organic. It’s not worth paying the government for a certification that you exceed.”
Many of the ingredients that Grazin’ draws from other local farms are, in fact, certified organic. Their dry goods—flours, sugars, salts, peppers, and spices—are sourced from New York State organic suppliers. But others—such as their providers of potatoes and onions—slot into that organic-but-not-necessarily-certified category. “If they’re not officially organic, I don’t care as long as they’re local and doing it right,” Chiappinelli says.
Grazin’s début in 2012 was also marked by their designation as the first Animal Welfare Approved restaurant in the entire U.S. When sourcing products from other farms (such as the cheddar, quark, and buttermilk they buy from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville), Grazin’ is relieved that “those items are also Animal Welfare Approved.”
But do customers really care? Chiappinelli says that “Since we’re known for specializing in this sort of thing, most of our customers are in-house because they’re looking for it. Some walk-ins expect it to be a classic diner. But my best estimation is that 75% of these walk-ins are excited about what we are doing or at least happy to try it, while 25% may be looking for an old-school diner with a $5 turkey dinner plate.” But he finds that persuasion and experience overcome many obstacles. “Once they’ve asked 10-20 questions about each of the items, they liked each of our answers, and they liked the food, then they become regulars.”
Further south in Hudson on 3rd Street, Pelaccio and his wife Jori Emde’s recently launched Fish & Game is taking yet another approach for the benefit of customers concerned about the welfare of the animals on their menu: they make a point of using virtually every edible bit of the beast… which means brave diners may find everything from tripe to brains on the set menu, at least from time to time.
By limiting the range of options they have to cover at each sitting, a set menu also helps Fish & Game “give an example of the bounty of the area,” says Pelaccio. It’s a vertical, rather than a horizontal, model. Rather than trying to source an entire trifold menu from Columbia County farms, they control the number of dishes to be prepared so that the kitchen staff can focus on quality, and prices can be kept at a merely expensive, rather than an astronomical, level. Dictating the six or seven courses each night paradoxically “gives us a level of flexibility to make changes day to day, based on what’s available,” Pelaccio explains. “So just like many of the products we buy, there’s an organic nature to our model.”