Kerry Alterio chef and owner of Café Miranda, doesn’t just have a Elvis fetish and a bawdy sense of humor; he’s got a passion for food. And not in a foodie/obsessive localist kind of way; in a “we’re fresh, we’re local, we’ve been doing that before it was hip” kind of way. In fact, this month’s Behind thescene sits you, the reader, right smack in the center of his kitchen, with his staff, his Head Farmer Anne Perkins and his friend the Fabulous Renee, so you can “hear” what real people working in restaurants talk about. The topic? the Elitism of The Food Movement, a round table rant taken from his Chef’s Blog. Their conversation follows:
Anne: I've run this farm that Kerry has owned for years in Owls Head [Head Acre Farm] and really got it going in 2009. We’ve got about 2,000 square feet of it fully developed with mostly summer and fall kale and chard, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom string beans and squash. Slowly, we’ve been adding more and more stuff. This is all about the locals, local people, local food and local products. It’s a great way to provide the restaurant with fresh and flavorful food that’s grown organically, but we’re not certified organic. He also has a great bunch of local partners to provide the stuff we can’t provide yet.
It’s actually a challenge as a farmer to grow for Kerry because I’d love to grow all the froofy basil blossom, the fine herbs and the beautiful garnishes; however, growing a baby chard or a baby lettuce or something cutesy like that won’t work because this is real, Italian grandma, heals-your-soul, heals-whatever-ails-you-on-a-snotty-winter’s-night kind of food.
Kerry: The miniature vegetables, the juvenile vegetables are fine because they’re young and tender, but we really make peasant food here — something that feeds your spirit and belly. It’s not “Ego on the Plate.”
Anne: Like I bring him kale, which is a dinosaur vegetable, because it’s been around forever. I bring it in and....
Kerry (yelling): …and I burn it!
Anne: No, no, I bring it in here and he caramelizes it, he transforms it into mouth candy.
Kerry: The food movement has a case of multiple-personality disorder: part flavor-fixated sensualist, part food-miles-obsessed localist and part small-is-beautiful fanatic.
Growing up, local food is just the way it was. In the ‘50s when Bird’s Eye and Encore perfected the freezing process for dinners you’d stare down at the compartmented tray, and there it was — that was dinner! The end result being that people kind of lost touch with how to cook. They don’t know how to take a raw carrot and make it into carrot cake.
Certainly, this local food movement is fabulous in this regard, but at the same time the people who need most of this food aren’t getting it. I’ve said it before that we need a "Trailer Park Initiative." What that is means getting this kind of food in the hands of the people who need it the most. The middle and upper class will always eat well. They’re gonna be fine. It’s the people who are pushing it to the highest calorie for a buck, buying the McDonald's sandwich who really need it.
Anne: Organic food can be a luxury, because it is so expensive to purchase at retail.
Kerry: Those prices are coming down and as more volume comes through the cost of production goes down but really, 10 years ago it was super elitist. Now, it’s getting better; for example, even Walmart is making a movement to buy organic vegetables.
Anne: The problem with the term ‘organic’ is that it is only a label. A lot of it is farmed in the Imperial Valley, all shipped here. Growing it here, you can reduce the cost of bringing it to the people. The transportation issue is a mile and a half up the road.
Kerry: So, we’re doing that. We’re buying tomatoes that are not quite ripe and ripening them up here but as soon as the local stuff is available. We use it. This goes back to the “Whattaya Got” theory. In Maine, that’s why we have chowder. In winter time, you had your root vegetables, onions, potatoes, salt pork, salt cod and dairy; hence, chowder. Every regional cuisine was based on what the hell was around at the moment.
Kerry: The other problem with the food movement is that a lot of its gets priced out of a normal person’s budget. What’s the medium income in Maine?
Anne: In Thomaston it’s somewhere in the low $40K for a family.
Kerry: Yeah, can you buy $4 per pound carrots? Hell, no. What you can buy is an Encore steak dinner that will feed five people for 10 bucks. We did a class at the Vo-tech school a couple of years ago called “Share The Table.” We did a meal by scratch in 30 minutes at two bucks a head. We had Brian Hill from Francine, we had James Hatch from Home Kitchen and five of us did it. I did a braised chicken dish with onions and peppers, tomatoes and pasta. Less than two bucks a head, totally healthy and competing with an Encore dinner. They were like, “Wow, you really can make something like this?”
To see Alterio’s Chef’s blog on this topic go to cafemiranda.com/chefs-blog
Restaurant rants will be a regular feature of Behind thescene in the future. If you’d like your restaurant staff to partake in another lively topic round table style like this, follow The Killer Convo.
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