Think Globally, Eat Locally
Area Restaurants Look Close to Home for Michigan-Made Foods
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An old concept is taking on new life: buying the freshest, most locally sourced products available. And the benefits go beyond taste to include healthier bodies and a healthier planet — even a healthier local economy.
This new trend has spread to many fronts — from consumers visiting farmers markets or “u-pick” farms to restaurants that feature regional, seasonal menus, perhaps paired with a glass of locally produced beer or wine.
The concept even got “official” status in 2007, when the New Oxford American Dictionary proclaimed the term locavore its 2007 Word of the Year. It was coined by a group of San Francisco women who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. These conscientious epicures, also known as “localvores,” are at the heart of the “slow food” movement.
You know a trend has “commercial potential” when a mega-corporation like Frito-Lay posts billboards and ads bragging about how many million pounds of spuds (472 million, apparently) bought from Michigan farmers go into its Lays potato chips.
On the Home Front
On the local front (of course), the term was tapped by Locavore Food Distributors, a newly established business in Detroit’s Eastern Market. So how did Locavore President Eric Hahn stake a claim to the name? “We got there first,” he says with a laugh.
Hahn tells an anecdote that speaks volumes about how the corporate “food chain” can make it difficult to source locally. While working in northern Michigan as a food rep, he placed an order for cherries for some local chefs. There, in the heart of the self-proclaimed world’s cherry capital, his distributor shipped in cases from Washington! That led him to start up Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City — a concept he’s expanded to the new Locavore business.
“The trend is to go back and buy more local, nutritionally dense foods,” Hahn says. “We’re able to offer restaurants a diverse product line, with access to different farms and growing regions throughout the state. The chefs we’ve been working with develop their menus around local foods, giving them an additional market appeal,” including the ability to trace where the foods come from, right to the name of the farm.
Hahn is expanding beyond produce to source free-range chickens, eggs, turkeys, buffalo, and even some grass-fed beef. And it’s more than restaurants. He reports the company is currently selling produce, including fresh Michigan apples, to more than 500 public schools from Detroit to Chicago. “That’s good news for our growers,” he says. “That’s a lot of apples — and it’s all local.”
A Case for Local
Proponents say local produce tastes better and has more nutrition, having been picked and delivered often within 24 hours, instead of being shipped hundreds — if not thousands — of miles. And with less fuel used for shipping, they feel it’s better for the environment, as well.
Select Michigan, a state branding program that promotes the sale of Michigan products, also touts the health benefits, claiming many fruits and vegetables can lose up to half their nutrients in just five days’ time.
And to top it off, the trend is good for the local economy. The Michigan Department of Agriculture estimates that if every household spent just $10 a week on locally grown foods, it would keep more than $37 million each week circulating in the state’s economy.
So is shopping fresh a new concept? Not really. Any respectable restaurant chef/kitchen manager has been up haunting farmers markets in the wee hours of the morning. But the idea is gaining more traction than ever. Here’s just a taste of what some metropolitan Detroit restaurants are doing to “think globally” but source locally.
Homegrown at Steve & Rocky’s
Ask Chef Steve Allen of the Novi eatery Steve & Rocky’s about the latest “trend” to source locally, and you’ll get a chuckle: “I’ve had a garden since I was 8 years old.”
But the self-proclaimed “hobbyist” has been tilling his own organic “micro-farm” for about 15 years, utilizing some of its bounty at the restaurant. “There’s nothing better than fresh and homegrown … ripened by the sun,” Allen says. His favorite crop: a particularly flavorful heirloom tomato called Brandywine.
“They’re ugly,” he says. But that brings up a major point: Most tomatoes found in stores are bred for looks and durability. “They harvest them hard … you can throw them around like a baseball … so they ripen as they ship,” Allen says. But “they forgot to breed in taste.”
Other items produced at his farm include winter squashes, beans, corn, peppers, and cukes — even a few turkeys — on about six acres in the Hartland/Fenton area.
All of Steve & Rocky’s fresh ingredients are shopped based upon seasonality, and carefully inspected upon receipt. The restaurant has cultivated a lot of local sources, including Gass Centennial Farms in Ray Township and other small farms.
“We’re not corporate or a chain,” Allen adds. “All the employees are made in Michigan, too.”
‘Celebrating Michigan’ at Forté and the Michigan Menu
In addition to what Forté bills as the “wildly popular Great Lakes Whitefish” on its regular menu, the hot Birmingham eatery hosted a “Celebrate Michigan” month last fall.
“What was most attractive was the price point [for customers],” says Chef Stephen Jalbert. “Three courses with wine (from Michigan’s Black Star Farms) was $29, and all the products used were from Michigan.”
The menu included such items as whitefish, braised lamb loin, morel-stuffed chicken, and desserts like ice cream from Northville’s Guernsey Farms Dairy topped with Sanders Hot Fudge or paired with a fresh roasted Michigan peach.
Jalbert doesn’t limit his Michigan sourcing to one month. “As chefs, we’d love to support local as much as we can,” he says. “I don’t know a chef in the world who wouldn’t prefer to do that. We have an obligation to our guests [to serve great food], and whenever it’s coming from here and we know it’s going to be great, of course, we get it.”
Jalbert has also teamed up for tastings with Buchanan-based Wyncroft’s winemaker Jim Lester, whose wines, he says, are “unbelievable.” Jalbert points out that the limestone in Michigan’s soil that helps produce wine is “exactly why we see such great stone fruits — peaches, plums, and nectarines.”
A ‘Local’ View
High atop the GM Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit sits Coach Insignia, the “crown jewel” of the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group.
From that vantage point, it’s a short trip to Eastern Market. According to General Manager Antoinette Whaley, Coach’s culinary team — as well as the other eight eateries in the Prentice stable — use as many Michigan products as possible from Eastern Market and other local farmers to “keep it in the local economy.”
Their world-class wine list also boasts a nice selection from Michigan wineries, including choice bottles from some of the state’s best: Wyncroft, Château Grand Traverse, Left Foot Charlie, and Black Star Farms.
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