Know Your Farmers, Trust Your Chefs

It’s easy to target locavores for their sometimes elitist and naive world view when it comes to what and how people should eat. (And for the record, I’m not saying they’re wrong, just that they should get their heads out of their asses when it comes to preaching at people who can’t afford to make food a priority…) But it appears that there’s a whole new way to take advantage of the gullible foodies who think they’re saving the world by “knowing where their food comes from”.

CHOW has an article this week about vendors who show up at farmers’ markets claiming to be farmers but who aren’t. Journalists from NBC Los Angeles bought produce from an LA-area farmers’ market and then made a point of visiting the farms the food came from. Except that some of those farms didn’t actually exist.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the Toronto area MyMarkets attempts to weed out, requiring that all vendors be certified and that vendors sell only the food that they themselves have grown. This unfortunately rules out co-operatives like the Kawartha Ecological Growers (KEG), but does a good job of culling the people who would head to the food terminal and load up on imports and sell them as their own. CHOW’s got a list of things to look for to ensure that you’re dealing directly with the farmer and not some scoundrel reseller.

Harder to winnow out is when those same not-actually-local products are served in restaurants. There’s been a trend lately to give restaurants grief for long detailed menu descriptions that include everything from the cut of meat to the farmer who raised it, right down to the name of the animal, but maybe it’s not such a bad thing, especially when restaurants see dollar signs in jumping on the local sustainable bandwagon.

An article in the UK’s Daily Mail accuses some restaurateurs of “telling porkies” about their pork – and other menu items – by calling conventional meat sustainably raised, including incorrect references to the place of origin (some items in the UK have a special status), and in one case even claiming the pork they served came from a particular farm… which had never raised pork. Terms such as organic, hand-picked, and hand-raised are also littered across menus. Either the person creating the menu is grabbing at buzzwords without knowing their real meanings or they’re intentionally misleading customers into thinking they’re getting a local, sustainable product when they’re really not.

This is something that would be easier to pull off here in Toronto, where pretty much every restaurant claims to be serving local products. Obviously, some restaurants have more integrity than others, but customers would be wise to ask questions if they’re concerned. And build relationships, with both restaurants and farmers (here in Toronto, many of the same farms who vend at farmers’ markets also service our local restaurants), so you know the farm cited on those restaurant menus, and you know that you can trust the chef is giving you the real goods.

My favourite local food moment took place about a month ago when dining at Nathan Isberg’s The Atlantic. The server handed us the menu for the evening but immediately pointed out that they didn’t have the chicken. It was early in the evening, so we were a bit confused. “The farmer is running late and hasn’t dropped them off yet,” she replied. And sure enough, 20 minutes later, Mark Trealout of KEG walked through the front door carrying a big box of heritage breed chickens, slaughtered earlier that day.

Know your farmers, trust your chefs, but keep a healthy dose of cynicism to rout out impostors.