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Jul 7, 2006 12:32 AM

"Fresh, Local" - are these buzz words or truth-in-advertising?

Having just returned from a long road trip through many chowish and some disappointing non-chowish meals, I've had a recurring thought about some of the menus I have seen.

Has every chef become a farmer? The words "Fresh" and "Local" and "Seasonal" popped up with great regularity, often without a shred of actual possibility of this being fact.

Case in point, desserts on one freshlocalseasonal menu promised Meyer Lemon Sorbet, Fresh Apple Tart, Blueberry-Peach Pie and something chocolate. OK, I'll give the chocolate a pass but the growing seasons for Meyer lemons, blueberries, peaches and apples do not coincide. Nor are the climate requirements the same, Florida grows lemons while colder states grow apples. Since the restaurant in question was in Kentucky, I was further confused.

Is this as widespread as I fear? A marketing ploy designed to curry favor following a current trend instead of actual fact?

When landlocked restaurants feature seabass, scallops etc. with the promise of "Fresh" and "Local" I am incensed. Yes, I understand that airfreight has changed the way we eat but how does that stay under the flag of "Local"? How is New Zealand rack of lamb "Local" in Texas? Or grapes from Chile served in Utah?

I really hate to feel like a hopeless cynic but this phenomenon is dimming my belief in truth.

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  1. Since there is no government or industry agency regulating the use of the words "Fresh," "Local," or "Seasonal," it's really up to the consumer to hold the restaurant/chef accountable for what they advertise. The Coco's and Marie Calendar's chains both advertise "Fresh" and "Seasonal" strawberry pies, but the restaurants in Washington, Utah, Texas, and Okalahoma all use strawberries from California. Are they seasonal? In California they are. Are they fresh? As fresh as those in the area supermarket chains that also carry California strawberries. Are they local? More local than berries from South or Central America. Will I eat them? No, because I'm smart enough to know that a strawberry pie in Utah is silly (IMHO).

    I like to ask about produce, meat, even salt in restaurants. I'm especially impressed when purveyors are named on menus (like at Pearl in Great Barrington, MA, or per se in Manhattan), or when my server can answer specific questions about what's on my plate (like at Gramercy Tavern in NYC, and Bouchon in Yountville, CA). I have been devastated at restaurants where servers didn't know answers to basic questions and dismissed my inquiry as unimportant. I usually end up not going back to places like that.

    My favorite story is of a cook at the French Laundry named Matt who's neighbor had a fig tree abounding with beautiful fruit. He knocked on his neighbor's door and asked if he could pick some to use at the restaurant, and the menu that night at TFL read "Mr. Harvey's Figs" (name changed for privacy). Everyone asked where they could get the fruit. The answer was literally "down the street and around the corner!" That's my ideal of fresh, local and seasonal!

    1. There have been a few articles lately discussing that these have become buzz words. Some restaurants are true to their claims and some are not. Some restaurants consider 25-50 miles to be local or regional, others consider 200-300 miles.

      1. Michael Pollan describes this phenomenon in the supermarket as "supermarket pastoral." Pictures of cows frolicking in green pastures on milk cartons when the cows whose milk is in the carton are crowded in pens, "free-range" chickens that have access but never actually go outside. It is cropping up all over in restaurants as marketing. "Fresh" and "local" sells. Restaurant pastoral? Sweetie Pies bakery in Napa was selling "seasonal berry tarts" of blackberries and raspberries in March. Seasonal, but not that season. Of course there are places that source figs from down the street but I think we have to ask and call them on false advertising.

        1. The current, July 2006, issue of Gourmet Magazine has an interesting article discussing this very topic.

          2 Replies
          1. re: mary c

            I recently read the article..I agree although alot of restaurants do claim that they use local and fresh. I live in Ventura and have for about 5 years now and have seen this trend starting to grow immensly. I recently also did my own little study in town...went to two restaurants downtown that claimed this very thing. One restaurant while I was having place I had the heirloom tomato salad (these are always a bit pricey but always well worth it!) no farm name listed when I saw the Chef I asked the name of the farm they came from...he said "not 100%% sure"! The other place in town I tried which I must say was probably the best meal I have ever had...let alone in Ventura...was in Midtown...all over the menu was farm names...the serving staff even new where produce was from! I also actually see the chef there shopping at the farmers market every week! When I saw him I asked what he thought about the local phenomenon...he said he thought it was great as long as people do follow it. I was very very happy..especially at his restaurant when I tried his Heirloom Tomato salad...that I knew which farm he got it from (because I saw him buying them from the guy at the market) I almost didn't have enough room for dinner it was soooo wonderful!

            1. re: wannabechef

              I think "local & seasonal" is definitely a strong marketing tactic for many chefs and restaurants. If they actually support small growers and serve local produce that's great. It seems that there is a bit of chef peer pressure to shop at Farmer's Markets. Many restaurant reviewers ackowledge and commend chefs who go the extra mile to serve local produce. There are those chefs who recognize that this is a positive trend, but don't want to expend the time or energy to shop at Farmer's Markets, yet they still promote the produce they serve as locally grown.