How to start sourcing local ingredients

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Restaurant operators who want to dip their toes into locally sourcing ingredients don’t have to do it whole hog, a foraging authority advised.

Valerie Broussard, forager for the W Austin hotel’s Trace restaurant, told attendees at the recent Southwest Foodservice Expo that operators can start small.

“The great thing about local sourcing is that it’s not all or nothing,” Broussard said. “You can gradually add. You can start with the menu you have now and then familiarize yourself with what’s in season. You can gradually swap out one ingredient. You can maybe start with one farmer who delivers during the week. … Don’t be intimidated by it.”

Local sourcing of ingredients hovers as a big goal for many in the restaurant industry. The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey of about 1,800 American Culinary Federation chefs found that local sourcing dominated the Top 10 trends for this year.

The “What’s Hot” survey put locally sourced meats and seafood as the No. 1 trend and locally grown produce at No. 2. Also in the Top 10 trends were sustainability in general and sustainable seafood in particular, as well as a high interest in locally produced wine and beer and “hyper-local items.”

Joy Dubost, the NRA’s director of nutrition and healthy living, said in releasing the report that, “Local farms and food producers have become an important source of ingredients for chefs and restaurateurs wishing to support the members of their business community and highlight seasonal ingredients on menus.”

Broussard has become one of the most high-profile authorities in local sourcing in the middle of the nation through her work at Trace, which she said is so named because, “we emphasize the traceability of the ingredients,” when buying locally.

Trace locally sources a variety of items, from produce and cheeses to grains and hot sauces. All provide small areas that restaurant operators can use to start sourcing locally.

“Local sourcing does take some flexibility and spontaneity on your menu,” Broussard said, depending on what’s available.

Many farmers will agree to plant produce to order to give a restaurant unique products, Broussard said. Smaller orders are also possible, she said. “I’ve never had a farmer deny me just a few pounds of something,” she noted.

Broussard offered suggestions for operators interested in starting to source locally:

Find farms. “Hit the farmers’ markets,” Broussard said. “Bring your business cards and collect business cards. … And don’t ignore the ones that are a little farther out. You may make some contacts with farmers who will deliver to you. They may already have a route.”

Attend conferences. Gatherings of growers can provide contacts for farmers in a local area, she said, and they're also opportunities for networking.

Use the Internet. Broussard said one of her favorite websites for finding products is LocalHarvest.org, where farmers themselves describe philosophies and availability of products. Others include EatWild.com and AmericanGrassfed.org.

Attend Slow Food events. Chefs attending local chapter gatherings are often willing to share sources, she said. “They aren’t secretive about it.”

The reasons operators may want to attempt to source some products locally range from economic (or keeping spending within own region) to customers’ appreciation that a neighbor grew the product, Broussard said. In addition, while the products may cost more, she said, they are often fresher, with a longer shelf life than vendor-supplied products, which means less waste.

She also suggested restaurateurs venture out.

“Visit the farms,” Broussard said. “I think farmers treat their land like their living room or their home. It would be a big red flag if a farmer said, ‘I’d rather you not come.’ It would be like they are hiding something. But I’ve never had that problem.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless