The Service of Food
Wednesdays have become my favorite days in the kitchen, as we harvest for wholesale on Tuesdays, and Mission Coffee is on our list for Stevens Point delivery. Last week, I arrived bright and early Wednesday morning, stepped into the walk-in cooler and was delighted to meet three wonderful boxes of fresh, fresh produce on the middle shelf where Polly had left them. Radishes, green onions, lettuce heads, kale and greens mix, washed and waiting to be served. Mmmmmmm. In spite of myself, I snapped a French Breakfast radish from the bunch and munched it, feeling the spiciness and culinary inspiration flowing through me for the first time since local carrots sold out in February.
The fact is, working with locally sourced foods is virtually all that draws me to foodservice in this capacity. If you’d asked me during my studies and Dietetic Internship, I’d have told you that I was going to be a community Dietitian, and that was final. If I did do foodservice, I thought, it would probably be with a school or institution where I’d make a hefty salary and some benefits to boot. A few years and farming experiences later, however, I find myself gravitating towards relatively small kitchens, where I get a significant amount of say in the food ordering and sourcing decisions, and still consider myself a community Dietitian.
Why? I have come to believe that small restaurants hold a powerful and vital juncture in a strong food economy; possessing the ability to buy, process and sell a significant amount of food, relatively unhindered by the red tape that comes with larger institutions. A farming community can be only as robust as its consumer community, and kitchens hold the rare opportunity to buy community-grown food, dress it up, and sell it, along with a story and some education about why local sourcing matters. Thus, we can move a significant amount of dollars locally through a community, while stimulating some inspiration on the part of the larger consumer mass.
For all of the buzzwords that restaurants could write about “Farm-to-fork,” and “Wisconsin-grown,” however, it seems odd that it should be that much of a surprise or point of pride. I can’t help but wonder what restaurants were like 50 or so years ago, before the corporatization and conglomeration of the food system. Maybe it was just a bunch of neighbors bringing their extra rhubarb and snap peas to a kitchen where somebody cooked them up nice and served them back to the community. Maybe there was a farm on-site, with chickens and pigs running around and eating the food waste and leftovers. Maybe they were “limited” by the seasonality of foods, and forced to eat the variety that research is now proving that our bodies need to function at full capacity. Maybe it was simpler and healthier.
All of this thought and wonderment was catalyzed by an interaction I had on Wednesday morning, looking up from the fresh green onions and radishes I’d been chopping for a Summer Pasta Salad. There was Marty, the building maintenance man, lingering by the counter. “Hey, is Russ around?” he asked.
“No, I think he’ll be here in a few hours if you want to catch him then.”
“Oh ok… I just wanted to let him know that I’ve got way more rhubarb than I know what to do with. I don’t know if you guys can take it, or would be interested or whatever…”
“We’ll take it; bring in as much as you’ve got. I’ll make some rhubarb crisp.” Hell yeah! I got on the phone and texted my mother to get her crisp recipe, before returning to my world of green onions and summer inspiration.
A few days later, I was chopping and freezing Marty’s crisp, colorful rhubarb stalks when Lisa, our Sysco sales rep, walked into the kitchen. “Oh man,” she gushed, “I remember when I was young at my Grandma’s… we used to just eat the rhubarb stalks raw, dipped in a little sugar!” I held up a stalk. “You want one?” She took it and headed out to the dining room, happy as a child in her Grandma’s back yard.
I followed her out to our post to talk business: how prices were going to be rising, due to the regulatory changes in the trucking industry. With more federal truck driving regulations, produce from across the country will be delayed; new drivers will need to be hired, and efficiency will be compromised — all of which will lead, of course, to higher prices for restaurants. That’s a shame, but also a necessary byproduct of dealing within a worldwide food distribution system, in which everything is expected to be available, all of the time. We went back and forth for awhile, as Lisa tried to sell me on this product and that product. I listened patiently, knowing with all certainty that there is nothing on that truck that can provide the level of satisfaction and wonder as Marty’s rhubarb or our radishes.
Through my time in kitchens, and as a professional food-ponderer, I’ve come to see foodservice not so much as service of food to people, but actual service to the food itself; glorious in its radical simplicity and vitality . Real food, grown in a real place, and served to real people.