by Jim Slama
Conscious Choice, July 2001
There is a transformation happening in food production. It's a dramatic
shift in consciousness that is deftly undoing the damage of fifty years of
industrialized food. A new breed of food artisan is returning to the
simpler ways of producing delectable delights. Supporting these artisans
are some of the world's top chefs, who are increasingly dedicated to
locally produced organic food.
These food artisans are a unique blend of farmers, ranchers, fishermen,
and bakers. They mix an eclectic blend of old world food reverence with a
modern sense of marketing and panache to create savory food that is
produced in a sustainable and healthy manner. These craftsmen are popping
up in both rural landscapes and urban centers, spurred on by satisfied
customers who keep coming back for more.
There are many different ways in which food is shifting to sustainable
production. The booming organic food industry is probably the best
example. In the U.S., Europe, and Asia significant numbers of consumers
are turning to organic food for a wide variety of reasons. Many people
find that organic food is tastier, while others choose it to support
smaller, more sustainable farms. And most organic aficionados would agree
that farming without synthetic pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and
genetically engineered ingredients is better for human health and the
In the prevailing industrial model of agriculture, food travels on average
1,300 miles as it makes its way from growers to shippers to distributors
to stores and finally to consumers. The environmental costs of such a
system are staggering. The numerous steps in typical food processing
wastes tremendous energy through the unnecessary shipping and processing
of products. It is a ludicrous system in which food may be grown in one
state, shipped to another for processing, and to yet another for baking
and packaging -- all in the name of efficiency.
Industrialized farming practices are also environmentally destructive. The
system destroys wildlife habitat by promoting monoculture farming, in
which few crops are grown on huge factory farms. This type of farming
demands intensive use of toxic chemicals which poison the farmland,
aquifers, and surrounding waterways -- while jeopardizing public health by
exposing citizens to a wide variety of poisons.
For anyone who has eaten a juicy ripe heirloom tomato right off the vine,
the benefits of locally grown organic food are obvious: the taste is
beyond description. But a local organic system also is far more
sustainable and healthier. It can cut the time it takes to get food from
the field to the table by 80 percent or more -- dramatically lowering
energy and shipping costs. In addition, it promotes local economic
development and job creation by developing farming and processing
facilities that can be staffed by skilled workers.
Organic farms promote biodiversity through the planting of multiple crops
and creating an on-farm ecosystem with healthy soil, plants, air, and
water. This is accomplished by utilizing agricultural methods that don't
use chemicals that poison wildlife and native plants. In many cases this
food is produced by family farmers who have a genuine respect for their
land and their local communities.
In the past decade, the movement towards locally produced organic food has
been spearheaded in part by some of the world's leading chefs. Clearly
much of this has been driven by the exquisite taste of seasonal organic
food. In addition, for many chefs the social and environmental impact of
food has increasingly become an important consideration.
One of the first prominent chefs to use and promote locally produced
organic food was Alice Waters of the Chez Pannisse restaurant in Berkeley,
California. Throughout her career, Waters has been a vocal critic of
industrial agriculture while promoting sustainable options instead. In
1992, she was one of the first winners of the prestigious James Beard
Foundation's Chef of the Year Award, which gave her a national and
international platform from which to spread her message.
In recent years thousands of U.S. chefs have become active users of
organic food. In Chicago, chefs and restaurants such as Rick Bayless of
Frontera Grill, Michael Foley of Printers Row Restaurant, Michael
Altenberg of Campagnola, and Sarah Stegner of The Ritz Carlton have begun
sourcing and using local and sustainable options. And Charlie Trotter,
Chicago's hottest chef, is a strong supporter of organic food while going
on record publicly in opposition to genetically engineered food.
Charlie Trotter Takes a Stand
There isn't a chef in the country that has received more accolades
recently than Charlie Trotter. In 1998 Charlie Trotter's was named the
best restaurant in the world by Wine Spectator. In 1999 Trotter won
the James Beard Chef of the Year Award. In 2000 he won three James Beard
Awards including Restaurant of the Year, Best Cookbook, and Best
Television Show. The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter now runs
on 90 percent of the PBS television stations across the country.
With such a high profile, you would think that Trotter would be too busy
to focus on food activism, but that hasn't been the case. He is constantly
striving to find organic and sustainably sourced food at his restaurant.
"We use 80 to 90 percent organic food at our restaurant," says
Trotter. "It's the highest quality, freshest, and safest food
Trotter hasn't been shy in his support of organic. When a national
television news show interviewed him about the opening of his new Trotters
To Go prepared foods store in Chicago, the chef strongly advocated the
fact that his food was mostly organic. "The future of food is organic
and I am willing to speak out and support it," says Trotter "We
do everything we can to support local organic farms."
Trotters To Go is a great example of his commitment to being a food
artisan. In order to bring his creations to a wider audience, he launched
the store in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. "We strive to give
customers the freshest handmade food possible every single day," says
Trotter. "With a retail store we can broaden the market for such
products and satisfy the desire for people to eat this well at home as
well as in fine restaurants."
The menu at Trotter's To Go includes exceptional dishes such as Cardamon
and Tahitian Vanilla Bean Roasted Root Vegetables, Maytag Blue Cheese
Polenta, Lavender Honey-Rosemary Glazed Free-Range Amish Chicken, and an
incredible Chewy Chocolate Meringue for desert. "We try to reflect
the seasonality of food and help our customers to enjoy the freshness of
those locally produced products," says Trotter. "It is an
ongoing dance with farmers, producers, and also small food processors who
offer interesting products that can't be found in many other spots in the
area." These products include sauces from other renowned chefs;
interesting rice, pasta, and grains from small producers; an extensive
wine section; and even hulled hominy white corn grown by Iroquois Native
Americans on the Pinewood Cattaraugus reservation in upstate New York.
Trotter's food advocacy has gone beyond organic in recent years to include
warnings about the lack of knowledge concerning genetically engineered
food. Last year in Nation's Restaurant News, he penned a stunning
exposÚ of the risks of biotech foods.
Earlier this year Chef Trotter hosted an event at his restaurant that
featured Chef Alain Ducasse from France. Ducasse is the author of the book
Harvesting Excellence, which profiles American food artisans. He is
considered by many to be one of the world's top chefs. "Alain is an
incredible chef who really strives for perfection in all aspects of what
he does," says Trotter. "His commitment to sustainably produced
food is a testament to the manner in which the movement is growing."
Alain Ducasse is Harvesting Excellence
The organic movement is growing even quicker in Europe than it is in the
U.S. While some of this is due to Mad Cow disease and the fear of
industrialized food, much of the growth can also be attributed to Europe's
traditional agricultural system and its sustainable roots. Most Europeans
prefer buying locally produced foods -- it's an ingrained part of their
A walk through Parisian markets affirms the intrinsic relationship between
the city- dwellers and the food artisans who provide their fare. You'll
find hundreds of different cheeses which are produced in the same
handcrafted manner that they were generations earlier. Beautiful breads
are sold by the great-grandchildren of the bakers who developed the secret
recipe. And don't forget the black truffles which were likely found by a
fifth generation sow whose nose for the delectable fungi is unmatched by
any human or mechanical system.
For many culinary professionals Alain Ducasse is the leading chef of his
generation. His restaurants in Paris and Monaco are internationally
acclaimed for their food and wine and considered by many as two of the
finest restaurants in the world. Ducasse was brought up in the French
countryside surrounded by food artisans. He spent his youth amongst the
animals and in the fields. One day he might spend foraging for Boletus
mushrooms to cook with his grandmother that evening. The next could have
been spent watching the peas grow on the vine. "The relationship
between food and the environment it comes from is very important,"
As preparation for launching a restaurant in New York City, Ducasse began
researching top farmers, bakers, and suppliers in America. As a result of
the effort he created the book Harvesting Excellence to profile
many of these providers. It includes lush photographs and beautiful prose
that joyfully illustrate the ways of the food artisans. A chapter entitled
"Bread that Sings," for example, describes the odyssey of bread
baker Chad Robertson and his quest to bake exquisite handmade loaves in
his one man operation:
"Robertson takes particular care with each loaf. He regularly checks
the cooking status of his oven fueled by walnut and almond wood. When a
loaf is ready, he carefully pulls it from the oven, lets it cool for a few
seconds, and then brushes off the ashes by hand before resting it on a
shelf. A warm scent of nut and grain invades the space, testing one's
restraint not to tear into a loaf with bare hands."
The book also tells the story of the Chef's Garden, a seventy-five-acre
organic farm in Huron, Ohio. It is owned and operated by brothers Lee and
Bob Jones who have taught themselves to farm by listening to the land and
respecting nature's ways. Harvesting Excellence describes their
"'What we're doing is counter to today's mass-produced agriculture,'
explains Bob. The brothers worry only about the flavor, the color, and the
shape of the vegetable. 'Chefs are the artists, we provide them with the
paints,' asserts Lee. Indeed, their palate holds a lot of color. Carrots
are long and ball shaped, or white with a milder flavor. Turnips and
radishes wrap up the spring and open the summer. Squash, tomatoes, and
peppers develop brilliant ruby colors that match the sunset's spectrum.
Eggplants, grown in thirty different varieties, range from the small
golf-ball sized specimens to the green, the purple, and the marbled
"It is exciting to see so much food created in balance with
nature," says Alain Ducasse. "The organic food movement is
growing quickly in Europe and the U.S. Our restaurants support such
efforts and buy as many organic products as possible."
Michael Altenberg Wants to be 100 percent Organic
A new generation of chefs across the planet also are completely committed
to sustainably produced food. While they may not have the international
recognition of Charlie Trotter or Alain Ducasse, these chefs are a major
driving force of the local organic movement.
Chef Michael Altenberg epitomizes this new breed. His Evanston, Illinois
restaurant, Campagnola, is exemplary in its pursuit of organic food.
"We are nearly 100 percent organic now," says Altenberg.
"All our vegetables, dairy, meat, and grains are certified organic.
The only food which may not be organic are some of the European cheeses
that haven't been certified. But most of these are created by artisans who
are likely to be buying the milk from local farms -- and the cheese is
Altenberg's passion for organic has European roots. A decade ago he had
the good fortune to work at one of Italy's finest restaurants, Antica
Osteria del Ponte, where he was chef tournÚ and learned every station in
the restaurant. "It was such an inspiration. Chef Enzio Santin had a
garden in the backyard where we picked herbs and vegetables," says
Altenberg. "And going to the local poultry house to pick out the
birds that we would serve that evening profoundly changed my outlook on
local food production. The taste and freshness were permanently ingrained
into my passion for food."
The Italian experience ultimately helped to inspire the creation of
Campagnola, which means "person or style of the country."
According to Altenberg, "This name was chosen because it best
describes our interest not only in the kind of cooking to be found in
Italy's rural countryside, but in the harmonious relationship to the earth
to be found there as well."
Altenberg's dedication to serving organic food became even stronger when
he and his wife Patricia had to nurse back to health one of their sons,
who had childhood leukemia. "It was a devastating experience,
particularly when we learned that the disease was likely caused by
exposures to something toxic. We just didn't want to have poisons in our
life anymore -- particularly in our food. So at home we switched over to
all organic food," he says. "And after the experience with my
son, I realized that I didn't want to feed my customers something I
wouldn't feed my family." Their commitment has gone beyond food:
Campagnola uses nontoxic cleaners in the restaurant and even offers hand
soap made by Aubrey Organics in the restrooms.
Altenberg and his business partner Steve Schwartz developed their organic
commitment by creating relationships with a whole network of organic farms
-- most of which are within a few hundred miles of Chicago. The names of
the farms are poetic -- The Land, Swan Creeks Organic, Sustainable Greens,
and the Farms at Prairie Crossing. "We would rather buy local
food," he says. "It's certainly fresh and it doesn't have the
environmental costs associated with food shipped from thousands of miles
His largest local supplier is Kinnikinnick Farm in Caledonia, Illinois,
run by Dave and Susan Cleverdon. "We developed a relationship early
on with these folks and have come to really respect their operation and
dedication to farming the right way," says Altenberg. "It's a
very symbiotic relationship. We get great organic vegetables and regular
deliveries and they know they can sell large quantities of produce to us.
It's win-win." Campagnola has gone so far as to organize a farm tour
where restaurant customers are bussed out to the farm for a tour, meal,
and some great wine.
The food at Campagnola ranges from simple to exotic. And unlike Charlie
Trotter's and Alain Ducasse, the average ticket is well under $100 per
person. "Organic food can be affordable," says Altenberg.
"We offer customers simple pastas that can cost under $15 in our
Trattoria. Or if someone wants to splurge and get an eight-course meal
with fabulous organic wines they can have an exquisite, expensive meal. We
want to give people an option."
To supplement their farmer-direct food Campagnola also uses the
Chicago-based organic food distributor Goodness Greeness. They are the
largest distributor of organic products in the eastern United States and
supply Campagnola with Organic Valley dairy products, plus a tremendous
variety of produce that isn't in season due to the limited growing season
in the Midwest. "Goodness Greeness is our insurance that we
exclusively use organic produce," says Altenberg. In recent months,
Campagnola also has added an extensive organic wine selection to their
impressive wine list.
Ultimately Altenberg would like to see bigger networks of organic farms in
the region supplemented by greenhouses that could extend the growing
season. "Local is where it's at," he says. "If we could buy
all our food from great nearby farmers it would be ideal."
Let's hope his dream comes true.
Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, 212-265-7300
Charlie Trotter's, 773-248-6228
Trotters To Go, 773-868-6510
Charlie Trotter on Biotech Food
I applaud researchers' efforts to develop foods that will provide
solutions for feeding the hundreds of thousands of starving people around
the world. Yet, I think that care needs to be taken to see what long-term
effects genetic engineering may have on the ecosystem and human health.
Currently the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require mandatory
pre-market safety testing to determine the long-term environmental and
health risks associated with genetically engineered crops. The companies
themselves perform the science on these crops and are not required to go
through any mandatory review by independent auditors. Let's not forget
that many of these same companies spent decades convincing regulators and
the American public that DDT, atrazine, and other harmful pesticides were
safe to spray on food.
Under immense pressure in Europe, where all such food must now be labelled,
and in Japan, where the government now requires mandatory long-term safety
testing prior to allowing this food on the market, the genetically
engineered food industry is in jeopardy of collapse. Thus, the biotech
industry is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in propaganda to
convince the American public that their food has benefits.
Recent studies have only made my concerns about genetic engineering more
pronounced and strengthened my conviction that caution is critical. For
example, after planting strains of herbicide-resistant canola, scientists
have found that in subsequent years the weeds in those fields were also
resistant to the herbicides. These "super weeds" serve as a
warning that although man can successfully tinker with nature, it may
indeed have the final word.
Another recent test showed that modified genetic material remained in the
soil for two years after a field of genetically modified sugar beets was
planted. Not long ago pro-biotech scientists were saying that this type of
transfer was impossible, now they say it happens all the time, so no need
to worry. This concerns me.
The most frightening study was just reported in Europe where a zoologist
determined that the genes from genetically modified pollen have jumped the
species barrier and were transferred into the cells of baby bees. I find
this alarming, particularly since the genetically modified material is
designed specifically to invade cells. In other words, normal cells have
built in mechanisms to eliminate any foreign genes so gene exchange across
species is held in check as it has been for millions of years. Genetically
modified genes are specifically designed to overcome these natural
barriers and invade and change the gene structure. In a controlled
environment, this makes a wonderful experiment. In a complex ecosystem,
this could have a staggering effect.
If genetically engineered pollen modified the bacteria and yeast genes in
a bee, what is happening to us when we eat foods that are genetically
modified? And, once a single gene in your body is invaded and changed by a
genetically modified gene, wouldn't all the genes in our bodies then be at
risk? These are questions I would like to have answered before I ingest
any more of these genes. I advocate caution until we understand the
long-term effects of genetically engineered foods. And, I think we need to
ask ourselves, just because we can do it, does that make it right? --