Word Distinction: “Organic” and “Natural”, Part III

Not that long ago, when you went to a restaurant, chances are you didn’t really have much of an idea of where the food came from.

It wasn’t exactly a selling point, except maybe when it came to fish.

Words such as “organic” and “natural,” which are the focus of our word distinction this week, probably weren’t on the menu. Fast food places and family dining venues pretty much offered the same fare daily. Burgers and fries for fast food joints. Pancakes or waffles in the morning and steak or fried chicken in the evening for family restaurants.

But, as of late, there’s a new movement in the restaurant scene. It’s called “farm-to-table.” Such places feature locally grown food, much of it produced organically. So your food is coming from a small farm, not a giant conglomerate that trucks it in from hundreds of miles away.

Summer crops from Suzie’s Farm, a small organic farm in San Diego

The concept isn’t easy to pull off. The restaurants are dependent on what the farms happen to be harvesting at that particular time because much of the growing is seasonal. So menus have to change constantly. You have to be nimble and experimental. And your customers have to be prepared to understand that a dish they simply adored a month ago might not be on the menu when they return.

The Linkery in North Park is a highly celebrated “farm-to-table” restaurant. San Diego Magazine named it the Best Neighborhood Restaurant for 2012.

But you won’t see the buzzwords such as “organic” and “natural” on their website. Instead, the restaurant lists its attributes as thus: “world class pastured meats • local produce from independent farms • local craft beer • local & world wines • fresh sausages made with love & righteous meat • since 2005”

Linkery Owner, Jay Porter

Owner Jay Porter points out in the interview below that “organic” food can be produced by industrial methods just as other foods are. His goal is to find farmers who use “pre-industrial” methods to produce their goods. That’s very labor intensive since the use of machines is limited.

And there’s no label for food made that way, he added. Not yet, anyway.

But when you go to his restaurant, you know exactly where the food has come from. He lists all the farms from which he gets the food for his dishes.

Here are his thoughts:

– – –

You’ve created one of the top farm-to-table restaurants in the nation. How did you come to realize that the time had come for such a concept?
It was more a matter of wanting to serve only food that I wanted to eat, and serving food to my neighbors that respects them as people who should be fed honest, well-crafted, loving food. When I got involved in the food system and found out how awful the ingredients are for the most part, it was pretty disheartening. I wanted to be proud of my work, and for our restaurant, that had to start by serving food from local farms.

Can you briefly explain what the farm-to-table concept is.
Farm-to-table means serving ingredients that never enter the mainstream food supply, they come directly from small, usually local farms without going through distributors. Done right, it forces your menu to be seasonally driven, and also means you will have the best possible ingredients to work with (which means you can make the best possible food). It also gives the restaurants a sense of place, which is very meaningful to me in a world where most restaurants are described as “concepts”, divorced from having to be in any actual specific location.

Vegetables by Season

We’re concentrating on word distinction this month, with the focus on “organic” and “natural.” I’m sure these buzz words are important to your restaurant. Do you think most of your clients know the difference, that “organic” is a label earned from the federal government for producing food free of pesticides and “natural” can be applied pretty much freely?
I really don’t know how much our clients know or care about that difference. Personally, I take the label “natural” to be pretty much a 100% guarantee that the ingredient is *not* produced in any natural manner, since that’s the only reason a producer would feel the need to put it on there! As far as organic, its meaning has been diluted a bit too. In both cases, what the marketer is trying to do is evoke a time before food was produced industrially. Most organic food is produced industrially, and that word “organic”, although it has a definition (and I certainly prefer to eat food without pesticides), is being used in a way that creates a false impression.

When we bring produce and meat into our restaurant, we are principally looking to work with farmers that use pre-industrial methods. That food will be more delicious, more nutritious, and have more soul.

There’s no label for this kind of production, so the only way you as a consumer are going to be able to know whether food you buy is raised with pre-industrial methods is to know the farm and farmers personally. Or to be able to taste the difference.

Is your staff often quizzed by customers about where the food comes from and how it’s produced?
Yes! People know that we, as a business, care a lot about where our food comes from, and about using only the best ingredients raised in the best way. So they ask. We do our best to make sure all of our team knows the answers, but our sourcing changes daily and if they don’t know something, our person might need to ask someone to find out.

Interior of The Linkery

Why did you make the choice to go mostly organic with your offerings?
You know, we don’t really evaluate ingredients on whether they are organic. We look for small farmers raising delicious food using pre-industrial techniques. This is going to create the best tasting ingredients and the food will have the best quality and best spirit. It happens that in San Diego a lot of this type of food is also organic.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that many of the food products at our grocery stores were Wonder Bread and frozen dinners and canned peaches. Were you raised on such products? If so, how did you dietary philosophies change?
Of course – I was raised in the suburbs in the 70s and 80s, that’s what we ate, like everyone else. My diet changed when I was in my early 30s and started traveling a bit, and went to countries where the food system hadn’t yet been fully industrialized.  The food tasted so much better – you could taste the ingredient quality – and I felt so much better after eating it. So I started eating independently raised food whenever I could.

Given your success in the restaurant business, you know a lot about food. But have you ever been confused by food labeling either on products sold at grocery stores on at mainstream restaurants?
You know, I don’t often buy labeled products at stores, except for very simple things like mineral water. Mostly we buy fresh ingredients with no labels. So there’s not too much to be confused about.  Even things we buy for home like olive oil, wine, soap and honey, we buy direct from producers or people who know the producers, so we know the production methods. In San Diego, you can find these small production items fairly easy, between the farmers markets, the Internet, and word-of-mouth.

As for products in restaurants, I can usually tell how the restaurant is operated just from the menu – it’s like a window into the operational side of the restaurant, if you know what to look for. That tells me what I want to know about the ingredients, rather than the words on the menu, which are of course at some places, intentionally misleading.

Pretty much any restaurant that’s using grass-fed beef is going to tell you, because there’s a big price premium and they’ll want you to understand why the steak is more expensive than you might think.  At the same time, there are also restaurants that are mislabeling corn-fed beef as grass-fed beef on their menu, either because they don’t understand the difference themselves, or their distributor is misleading them, or the restaurant is just intentionally lying. Usually I can make a pretty good guess as to whether the “grass-fed beef” is corn-fed or grass-fed by looking at other cues from the restaurant, but the only way to know for sure is to get to know the restaurant, learn what farm the meat comes from, research whether that farm really feeds its cattle grass, and so on. Most people don’t care enough to do that (and I don’t blame them) so that’s a reason there’s so much confusing and incorrect labeling.

Some cynics might say the farm-to-table trend is a fad. I’m sure you would disagree. Have we turned a corner when it comes to consumers becoming more knowledgeable about how to eat healthy or is more education needed?
I don’t think many people who switch to eating independently farmed food are likely to switch back to industrial food. The flavor and feeling you get from real ingredients are just so much better. But I think the market for farm-to-table food in San Diego is still very small, particularly in terms of people going out to eat (as opposed to the market for farmers-market/cook-at-home ingredients).

Our challenge as a business is to create experiences for our guests that make them passionate believers in the superiority of handcrafted, local food.

– – –

Thank you very much Jay. We were so busy talking about “organic” and “natural” that we didn’t mention your excellent beer selection. Indeed, the Linkery has been named “100 best places to drink beer in America” by Imbibe Magazine. Cheers!

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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