July 2005 — Stu Stein has been buying ingredients directly from local producers ever since he started working as a chef in the late 1980s. “The French chefs I worked for in Chicago turned me on to it,” Stein says. “I was lucky to work with good people who were teaching me about what good product is. And it turned out to be local and seasonally available and not mass-produced and not corporate-farmed-type stuff.
“There’s now more of a choir to preach to — people who understand sustainability and organics and the non-factory-farming-type product. But I still come across people who haven’t gotten it yet.”
Out of that early formative experience in Stein’s career as a chef, a broader vision of the benefits of buying locally began to emerge, a philosophy that he explains in a cookbook he published last year, The Sustainable Kitchen: Passionate Cooking Inspired by Farms, Forests and Oceans. The fruits and vegetables he was buying locally were not only fresher and better. He could also ensure that they were grown in a more environmentally responsible manner than produce grown on vast, chemical-saturated, mono-cropped factory farms. And by buying directly from the producers, he not only could reduce the need for fuel that is consumed in shipping produce from afar, he could hand payment directly to the farmer rather than having most of it siphoned off by the processors, packagers, shippers and marketers who stand between the producers and consumers in the mainstream marketplace for food.
After leaving Chicago , Stein worked as a chef in France, Atlanta, Washington , D.C., and Kansas City before landing in Oregon in 2000, the home state of his wife and co-author, Mary Hinds, who is also a chef. At each stop along the way, he has cooked in restaurants that shared his emerging philosophy of sustainable cuisine. In Kansas City, for example, he worked in the early 1990s at Café Allegro, run by restaurateur Steve Coll, who had been cultivating local sources of supply for years. “He was doing it for his restaurant in Kansas City at the same time that Alice Waters was doing it at Chez Panisse,” Stein says. “He was instrumental in starting the farmers markets in Kansas City and working with CSA [community supported agriculture] farms back in the 80s. I was able to build on that.
“So it’s out there, even more so now,” Stein says, referring to local sources of supply of top-quality produce. “But it takes a different mindset from a chef’s point of view. And it does take a little more time. But I believe the rewards are well worth the time and effort it takes to go out and search for local sources.”
At least a certain segment of the public is now more attuned to the wide-ranging virtues of locally-grown cuisine, he says. “There’s now more of a choir to preach to — people who understand sustainability and organics and the non-factory-farming-type product. But I still come across people who haven’t gotten it yet.”
He was recently surprised to encounter some of the uninitiated when he did a book signing at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon. “When people picked up the book, some of them asked, ‘What’s sustainable cuisine?’ And this is at a wine event. In Oregon.”
Even some people who are advocates of organic food don’t understand the broader concept of sustainability, he adds. “There are huge organic farms in California that grow nothing but carrots all year long, and that’s not sustainable.” Buying seasonal produce from local growers is key to the concept of sustainable cuisine, Stein explains.
Edible Landscaping Adorns Estate
After working for four years at the renowned Peerless Restaurant, in the Rogue Valley in Ashland, Ore., Stein moved to the King Estate Winery outside of Eugene in 2004. Most of what he serves in the estate’s restaurant is grown on site in the estate’s vineyards, orchard and garden. “It’s 1,000 acres, all certified organic and sustainably farmed. We’re composting and rotating crops, so we’re resting land. In a year or so, we’ll be bringing in livestock to complete the cycle,” he says.
With a farm of his own right at hand, Stein has been able to experiment with ingredients that he had never used before, such as some unusual lettuce varieties – and flowers. “We grow flowers all over the estate for aesthetic purposes. But many of them are edible, like nasturtiums. I never really used a lot of edible flower-type things before. I’m not here to put a gorgeous bouquet on the plate.” But he’s learned that, used sparingly, flowers can add a layer of complexity to the flavor of a salad without overwhelming it.
Over the years, Stein has been encouraged by the growth of the local foods movement – and by evidence that it is beginning to have an impact on the mainstream food marketplace. “Farmers markets have done nothing but get larger and are happening more often,” he observes. “Even though Safeway and Krogers are huge, national chains, someone at the local level in those companies apparently is seeing an effect at the cash register. They are putting up signs next to some items in the produce section saying that they are buying it locally.”