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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Chefs

Air Date: Week of

Tom Verde reports on a group of haute cuisine chefs in Boston who are demanding local, traditional and low-input foods for their customers.


CURWOOD: If you walk into many North American supermarkets these days, it's hard to tell what's in season. Midwinter or midsummer, you can always find tomatoes, grapes, and citrus fruit, and more often than not, exotic produce from mangoes to asparagus. All flown or trucked in from distant corners of the earth. But there's a price to this seeming abundance. Most of it comes from large growers, whose market power and ability to ship year-round squeeze out small local farms. Genetic diversity is lost as local breeds give way to species which have mass appeal, or which can stand up to long-distance travel. Then there's all the energy used up in shipping. These concerns and more have prompted a group of chefs to act. Taking advantage of their position in defining the standards of fine dining, they've made a commitment to support local, traditional, and low-input foods. Tom Verde reports from Boston.

(Stove-top sizzling)

VERDE: Among the various exotic Asian curries, chutneys, and Latin American style salsas served daily at the popular Blue Room restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at least one dish, prepared by sous chef Bridget Babson, stands out like a New England lobster boat in a Cambodian harbor.

BABSON: We've got a really nice shrimp and scallops that we grill and put over a Macomber turnip cake, which is from Westport, Massachusetts. (Laughs) And a lobster sauce goes over the top of that and a nice...

VERDE: The Macomber turnip is just one of many native ingredients chef-owner of the Blue Room Chris Schlesinger insists on using in his recipes.

SCHLESINGER: Well you know, capes, scallops, or oysters or clams from the area, I buy my tomatoes in the summer from a guy that grows in his back yard in Somerville. So I call it Garden Salad with Somerville Tomatoes. (Laughs)

VERDE: Schlesinger is one of several hundred cooks nationwide to recently sign on to the Chef's Collaborative 2000, an educational initiative of the Boston-based Old Ways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a food research organization. The collaborative calls for a reduction of the use of pesticides, healthier diets and less processed foods, and protecting the biodiversity of indigenous produce and livestock. This last issue is one reason why Schlesinger and many of his colleagues buy as many local products as they can.

SCHLESINGER: You're helping support people that are growing some of these antique shell beans that, you know, New England is known for. The Macomber turnip, things like that. So I think chefs can play a very active role in letting people know that there's a value put on local stuff.

VERDE: By supporting local growers in the US and traditional growers worldwide, the collaborative is helping to preserve the genetic variety of various crops and animals threatened by mass-produced seeds and breeds. Then, there's the argument that local food is fresher, and fresher food is simply better for you.

(Sound of kitchen pots)

ADAMS: This is our salad station, and as you can see everything comes in fresh. Fresh greens, fresh basil, fresh mint. Chicory.

VERDE: In the kitchen of Michela's Restaurant in Cambridge, chef Jody Adams supports the collaborative's principles, not only by using local produce but by being selective about the kinds of food she'll serve.

ADAMS: It's good, solid, close to the earth food that hasn't been touched by too much technology, too many pesticides, too many hands basically.

(Running tractor)

VERDE: Farmers like Steve Verril in Concord, Massachusetts, are benefiting from this industry effort. His fruits and vegetables are grown under an integrated pest management program, or IPM, that uses natural bacterial agents to combat insects as an alternative to chemical pesticides. The popularity of Verril's produce with many Boston-area chefs in the collaborative has helped rescue his farm from going under. Still, IPM farming can be more costly than using chemicals, and Verril has found it difficult to compete outside the relatively limited market of expensive restaurants.

VERRIL: I went into a local chain restaurant to see about selling produce, and talking lettuce in particular. They said sure we'll be happy to buy it from you if you can sell for less than a commissary does. And we can't compete with the lowest price in the market.

VERDE: Yet one of the principal objectives of the chefs' initiative is to convince major consumers - chain restaurants, schools, hospitals and institutions - that people want alternatives to highly-processed foods. And that these foods aren't necessarily cheaper. Old Ways President Dun Gifford.

GIFFORD: You can talk to the treasurers of these large institutions who are into money and costing, and prove to them that it costs more, not necessarily to the institution but to the system as a whole, to raise the strawberries in the central valley of California, put them in a can and ship them to Boston, than it does to buy strawberries locally where you don't have to put them in a can, you don't have to pay for shipping, trucks, insurance, gasoline, road taxes.

VERDE: Chef's Collaborative 2000 is one of several such groups to have organized in recent years. Chefs have spoken out on a variety of relevant issues, from a Federal seafood inspection bill to a movement against genetically engineered foods. Some may question the value of efforts by chefs at trendy restaurants like the Blue Room, but Chris Schlesinger believes that he and his colleagues may be more influential than people realize.

SCHLESINGER: The things that we're doing now are the things that are picked up by the mainstream 5 years from now. You know, Cajun food used to be cutting edge. TexMex was cutting edge. So I think that we're, we can provide a role and set examples, and so we can put the word out.

VERDE: For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Verde.



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