The “green” food movement has no shortage of buzzwords. Organic, sustainable, local, slow food, fair trade, hormone-free … It's a lot to process for green-going newbies. To help caterers navigate green waters, three experts long committed to the cause break down components of the eco-conscious catering business, with surprisingly cost-effective results.
LIVING LA VIDA LOCAL
“Farm-fresh to table” best describes San Francisco-based One Market Restaurant's local-food concept, according to Mark Dommen, chef and partner. And not only is it a philosophy, it's practical. Local organic products “have a far superior taste,” Dommen notes, and using them forces chefs to purchase seasonally, which is a cost-effective move as well. Dommen taps local farmers to provide ingredients for such dishes as his spring vegetable salad with asparagus, baby carrots and turnips. “The beauty of the dish is that the vegetables can change as different vegetables come into season,” he notes. In the summer, the side dish includes baby corn and less asparagus, and by winter, radishes and root vegetables replace asparagus. Dommen also likes Pengrove, Calif.-based Sonoma County Poultry's “Liberty Ducks.” He glazes his duck entree with a huckleberry reduction and garnishes it with local seasonal ingredients — anything from sauteed chard to poached rhubarb to vanilla-infused sweet potato puree. The three-course meal costs $70 a head when topped off with a Creamsicle-flavored Pavlova for the finale.
One Market has partnered with the Monterey Bay [Calif.] Aquarium Seafood Watch program and pledges to source only sustainable food, but Dommen admits, “I would never claim to be 100 percent local.” For example, he uses Alaskan halibut, which, he notes, “is not local, but it's West Coast, it's sustainable, and it travels a lot less than an East Coast fish.”
Chicago-based Shedd Aquarium is an excellent backdrop to educate the public on sustainable seafood. Bonnie Paganis, general manager at caterer Sodexo at Shedd Aquarium, describes sustainability as using natural resources to “make sure present needs are met without compromising those of future generations.” To do this, Sodexo does not serve overfished seafood or fish raised by methods harmful to the environment. “Sixty percent of the world's 200 most valuable fish species are already overfished,” Paganis notes. So Chilean sea bass and Atlantic cod don't appear on Shedd's menus. Instead, you'll find a Peruvian ceviche featuring U.S.-farmed shrimp and tilapia as well as Arctic char à la Veracruzana with a citrus-herb crust and lemon-caper sauce.
Good intentions aside, going green isn't known for being cheap. Yet Sodexo hasn't had a problem with busting the budget. “We have been making improvements over the last 10 years, and it has not adversely affected our profits,” Paganis notes. While organic food can be pricey, composting saves the company money by eliminating the cost of paying to haul garbage to the landfill. And Paganis is optimistic about the eco-conscious future: “I believe public demand will be for a greener world, and the prices will come down.”
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Food is one factor of the catering equation, but waste is typically part of the result. Not so at Chicago-based Greg Christian Catering. President, owner and chef Greg Christian runs a zero-waste kitchen to prevent landfill overcrowding. This means all waste is either recycled or composted — even grease is reused to fuel local biodiesel trucks.
While the kitchen conserves behind the scenes, conservation is key at the front of the house as well. Christian is a fan of edible centerpieces, which are replenished throughout an event; his centerpieces might include local cheeses surrounded by ivy and twigs, which can be composted. He also carefully logs food miles — the fuel-consuming distance food journeys from source to consumer — and often presents these statistics on menus. So the mushroom sandwich with the Fisher, Ill.-based Country Cottage Farm egg, Lake Geneva, Wis.-based River Valley Ranch portobello mushrooms and Monroe, Wis.-based Roth Kase cheese includes ingredients that have logged 34, 77 and 134 miles respectively on a menu that's $25 a head. In fact, Christian recently discovered his coconut milk takes 53 days to reach him. The product will likely no longer be in his kitchen a year from now, he says.
While the green movement can be costly, Christian notes there are ways around the extra expense. He recommends outlining green standards in RFPs. Christian suggests clearly stating: “Here's the budget, and I want 20 percent of the food purchased locally, 10 percent of the food purchased to be organic, and I want you to compost.” He adds, “You put the issue on the vendor, and you will be shocked as to how you won't spend more money for being green.”
Greg Christian Catering
One Market Restaurant