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Asking restaurants about sourcing?

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Hey Guys,
For those of you who like to eat responsibly sourced food, how do you go about finding out if your favorite restaurants source responsibly? If you simply call and ask, what have those conversations been like? I realize 'responsibly sourced' means something different to everyone. Some want local vegetbles or organic milk. Others want meat that hasn't been raised on a feedlot, others still care most that their fish is not on the endangered list. Regardless of your individual requirements, what have your experiences been like?

(I realize some people are not concerned with the origins of their food. I'm not as interested right now in discussing whether sourcing is important as I am finding out how people's conversations have gone with restaurants when they've asked about the issue).

Thanks so much guys.

JeremyEG

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  1. In my experience, such restaurants will go out of their way to let you know themselves. But it is all deceiving: for example, I buy beef from a 99% eco-sustainable cattle operation 3,000 miles away. They grow most of their own fed, compost, use no pesticides, let fields lay fallow, etc. The total cost per pound for fuel of this beef - to me - is under 20 cents. For me to buy as locally as possible, the environmental impact of fuel consumption would be much greater. Which is better? My beef essentially comes from feedlot cattle (although a very nontraditional, humane and drug-free feedlot), but it's not wholly pastured. Am I better to support as many local farms as possible, or one who can efficiently meet all my needs?

    Anyway, if you called me, I'd tell you all about the farmers around here we have grow for us - from herbs to corn and tomatoes and turnips. I can't imagine a chef who feels as you do would withhold anything like that.

    1. I've asked chefs in person and over the phone. Usually they're very happy to tell me where they get their ingredients. I'm a big fan of grass-fed beef and I like to know what my meat ate. Some chefs don't know, but the ones at high-end restaurants know their purveyors intimately. I live in southern CA so a lot of chefs have relationships with local farmers and are happy to talk about that, too. Out here many restaurants will credit farmers on their menus. It's not unusual to see "baby greens salad with McGrath Farms mache" or "Shelton Farms roasted chicken with spring carrots" on menus.

      1. I've been seeing the term "farm to table" used a lot lately to describe restaurants that source locally, and while I'm not sure if that's a standard term, I like the idea of the restaurant industry adopting some term to let potential diners know when they are a restaurant that has a commitment to local/sustainable/humane sources.

        I do buy my own meat from a local CSA, and do want to support local restaurants who are helping these types of farmers stay in business. When I don't see descriptions that say where the meats are from on the menu, I'll often ask the server if it seems like the kind of a place where I'd expect the food to be sourced "responsibly" (to use your term). They usually go check with the chef and come back with more information.

        I do have to admit that I can be timid about this, depending on the vibe of the place. I don't want to come off as a PITA, know-it-all diner. I sometimes worry that asking such questions might give the staff the impression that I'm overly snobby/picky and I'm going to be a problem diner. OTOH I really am interested in the answers, and I enjoy finding out about new local sources that I didn't know about.

        1. Many restaurants that go to the trouble of sourcing ingredients let you know about it by listing the vendors/sources on the menu and making sure the staff is knowledgeable and informed about the ingredients and sources. It is sometimes easy to find out just by calling a restaurant and talking to whomever answers the phone. The only time I've encountered resistance/attitude to answering questions about sourcing is in restaurants where they don't particularly care about sourcing and/or get most of their ingredients from food service. And if salmon is on the menu, I always ask if it's Pacific or Atlantic. Frequently the answer is illustrative of the restaurant's stand on sourcing.

          As an aside, I once ended up choosing to eat dinner at a restaurant while on vacation because I happened to be walking by earlier in the day when deliveries were being received. Not only was the chef receiving the deliveries, it was obvious he had a rapport with each of the vendors--all of whom were local. It was a fantastic dinner.

          1. pretty much what the op's have stated.

            There is a definite trend here in OZ to let the punters know where the food is sourced from. And depending on the rep of the restaurant, I'd believe them MOST of the time.

            For me, it also depends on the context. If I am grabbing a pizza at the local, I'm not going to be a localvore wanker by asking where they source their ham. If I'm buying said ham from a butcher, I will most certainly ask. And I wont buy if they can't tell me, BTW.

            If I am at a local winery, supping on a tasting platter, I'd expect the produce to be local. And yes, if in doubt, I'd ask.

            My anger at the Food Wankerazzi is well documented, but if I am "fine dining", I'd expect the local products to be noted a la " Rack of Rutherglen lamb with roast local root vegetables" or "Port Phillip flathead tails and Toolangi potato roesti". or if ingredients were Australian sourced, but out-of state, I'd expect to see "Tasmanian Salmon on wilted Asian greens"

            I'd draw the line at expecting the origin of anything other than the main ingredients to be noted!!

            I don't ring and ask beforehand, (because that smacks of being a pretentious pillock), but I would expect my waiter to be able to answer questions on sources, and for me to choose accordingly.

            1. I have always found restaurants to be very forthcoming and informative about sourcing.In the years before "social" and environmental issues there was a sense of pride in the in answers.Most are pleased and flattered when you ask,"wonderful ?_?,where did it originate".Quality products like recipes are usually a sense of pride.

              1 Reply
              1. re: lcool

                I often get a mixed response, particularly if the food is not sourced well. Lately, I've had restaurants get a little defensive and defend the overall quality of the food before finally admitting that local sourcing would be too expensive. Most have been great though.

                I even had one 4 star place here in NYC tell me 'I bet some of our meat is farm raised but who knows?.' Granted, this was the hostess over the phone but I have a little trouble paying $200 a person for dinner from a place that doesn't seem interested in at least finding out the information.

                I do love when menus say the names of the farms. I remember reading a column in the NY Times where our food critic said he was annoyed by that and didn't need know if the eggs were harvested by hand by an old lady or something like that but many diners do like to know the story behind the food.

                I'm enjoying reading all these responses.
                JeremyEG

              2. I do a lot of asking, since I only eat responsibly raised meat. My experience has been much like yours and other posters - if it's been specially sourced, the restaurants are generally proud to share that information, but if not, they give me a bizarre look or annoyed responses.

                I'm also a big fan of restaurants that put this info on their menus - I'm currently looking for places to eat on an upcoming trip to Toronto, and several options have clearly spelled out their sources, which makes my decisions easy. But I've also found that some restaurants, particularly in smaller, less "trendy" cities, do locally source food and purchase meats from small farms but don't list this info on their menus. These chefs/restauranteurs seem the most excited when I ask about their sources, perhaps because it's important to them, but not to the majority of their customers? Anyway, I've enjoyed conversations with several people over this particular aspect of their craft, which makes the snide comments I've received at other places worth it in end.

                1 Reply
                1. re: RosemaryHoney

                  Well said. It's amazing to me that some restaurant owners are snide or offended when asked about sources. Shouldn't that be a normal human instinct? To want to know where something comes from that one is about to consume?

                  I do understand when chefs get annoyed when customers need to know every detail of the dish. ('Will the parsnips be in little pieces? Is the sauce going to be thick or not?') Sometimes it's best to let chefs do what they do best. But questions about sourcing don't seem to fall into the same category even though many restaurant owners act like they do.

                  Thanks for your thoughts.
                  JeremyEG

                2. If a restaurant is using organic, locally sourced ingredients, ethically preferred or other high cost items, It is in their interest because they can charge more.

                  1. In my area the restaurants make mention of it, either in ads, menu, notices or verbally.
                    I have seen a huge increase in this over the last year especially. The level of awareness in the population at large has grown enormously since the success of several books on the subject over the past several years.

                    Some menus have more words documenting the pedigree of the food than describing it!

                    I have also found this sort of information by going to CSA and local farmers sites, they sometimes list what restaurants they supply.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: meatn3

                      "The level of awareness in the population at large has grown enormously since the success of several books on the subject over the past several years."

                      this is true! years back when i would tell customers that this or that ingredient was organic, the customer was apt to ask "what's organic?"

                      now, in the same interaction, the customer is apt to ask "and what does 'organic' mean ***to you***?" LOL

                      i'm no obama (great orator), so i hope my impromptu verbal replies are up to snuff and that i don't stutter too many times :)

                      to the op: if the establishment/chef is proud of their/his/her sourcing, someone will be glad to tell you all about it, perhaps in more detail than you really want to know. seems like these days, some folks want to know every detail, and others (like the reviewer referred to above) don't really give a rip. writing menus has become a difficult tightrope walk between not wanting to be too opaquely vague on one hand, and not wanting to come off as pretentious and holier-than-thou on the other-- but i'm so happy that people are beginning to care, and more and more are actively putting their money where their mouths are-- supporting small, sustainable, local, food producers.