Vinegar, honey and other ways of drawing local fans

Restaurateurs hunting for ways to put more local and sustainable choices on their menus found a bounty of suggestions at the National Restaurant Show last month.

Old hands at sourcing locally and sustainably shared their secrets for finding adequate supplies at an affordable price. Here are some of the tips they aired during the Show’s more than 70 education sessions:

Think fermentation: Local wines are an obvious choice for a restaurant that wants to feature artisan products from its area. But many places overlook the option of vinegars made from local grapes. Some regional wineries ferment part of their output as a way of diversifying their product lines, explained Jay Keller, chef-forager for Bon Appetit Management’s feeding operations at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Others might be willing to produce vinegar if they had restaurants already lined up as customers, he suggested.

Think outside the (entrée) box: Many chefs who want to feature sustainable foods get hung up on finding an appropriate seafood or meat. “Why can’t we give the vegetables some credit?” suggested Barton Seaver, Esquire magazine’s 2009 Chef of the Year and chef at Hook in Washington’s Georgetown section. Local or sustainably grown sides may be much easier to find than a protein, he suggested. In any case, giving more plate space to vegetables and grains can offset the higher cost of a sustainable fish or meat.

Partner up: Restaurants typically need more volume of local or sustainable fare than a hobbyist grower could ever consume. Keller recommended reaching out to local beekeeping clubs and consumer agriculture associations, the community farms where local residents pitch in to produce fresh food for their own tables. Their crops often surpass what they can use, he said.

Forget the mileage: For marketing purposes, some restaurants put a mileage limit to what they consider local. In truth, mileage isn’t a good gauge, said David Rand, the former forager-in-chief for Chicago’s green markets. Restaurants would be better served to think in terms of what’s fresh and in season. “It’s really about using what’s from your growing region,” he stressed. “Miles are really irrelevant.” So don’t rule out something because it’s from 200 miles away.

Extend the calendar: When fresh foods are available in your area, preserve what you can for use after the season ends. Tomatoes, for instance, can be canned or made into sauce that can be bottled. Other vegetables can be frozen, and some items can be dried. You can still tout them on your menu as being local.

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