“Cost is the elephant in the room,” said Derek Wagner, chef and owner of Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island. We were talking about the price differences between commodity meat and more sustainable choices, and chef Wagner, who uses only elephant-in-the-roomlocally sourced, sustainably raised, meats in his busy breakfast, lunch, and dinner service restaurant was lamenting the fact that there’s not often a frank conversation about just how much more it costs to make the responsible choice, and how as a business owner  he’s supposed to cope with that.

In this industry, making the right choice is often a balance of ideology and business economics, and proteins can be among chefs’ biggest challenges. Most chefs, when exposed to the sustainable alternatives to the pre-packaged commodity meat that comes from the big food companies understand, even with ideology put aside, that there’s a real gap in quality. As chef Bill Telepan, of Telepan in New York, points out the commodity stuff “is gross…I’m not going to go out and cultivate these great relationships with vegetable farmers and serve it with shit.”  But he admits that he has a loyal following and is in an affluent neighborhood so the decision to spend more on sustainable proteins is tempered by the knowledge that he can charge more for it without alienating his clientele.

So what’s your reality? Let’s be honest, we aren’t going to be able to give one answer for everyone out there. The answers are too varied and solutions are not going to come from a simple blog post. We’ve found from chefs that the answers come from real time connections with the others who are already working with sustainable proteins. This is why we put together our Local Networks and our annual Sustainable Food Summit–to provide chefs with the space to connect and share their knowledge and the knowledge of “experts.” That being said, we want to give you an example, and an example of someone you will be able to connect with this November at our Charleston Summit. So, let’s look at Craig Deihl, executive chef of Cypress restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and a featured speaker at our upcoming Summit.

At Cypress, Craig tries to serve as much local and sustainable meats as possible, including heritage breed hogs. On busy nights he’ll push out between 450 and 530 covers, so he doesn’t just rely on local, whole-hogs. He also buys in “parts and pieces out of Iowa from a smaller group of farmers that co-op together.” By Craig’s estimation, this approach is can be a key to any chefs being craig-deihlsuccessful in making the switch to sustainable proteins. Don’t feel like you have to go “whole-hog” (or cow, or lamb, or chicken). Find alternatives where you can either buy pieces from a purveyor or find other chefs that will go in on whole animals or bulk ordering with you.

The second key to making it work for chef Diehl? An earnest “investment in time and skill.” Cypress has an impressive and extensive charcuterie program. Craig figures that when he buys in a whole hog he can pay for it more than five times over on the center cuts alone, everything else that comes out of the animal, including his charcuterie, is how he makes his money. It wasn’t just about saying, “hey, I’m gonna make some sausages,” he had to invest time in money in developing skills and systems that would truly utilize everything and provide a premium product coming out of the curing room. For one thing Craig had to get “very good at making emulsified sausages, whether they be hot dogs, bologna, or mortadella,” which allow him to use a 50/50 ratio of fat to lean and also makes it possible to grind in trim that has a high quantity of otherwise unusable connective tissue.

The answer for Craig echoes what Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony had to say when we spoke to him about the higher cost of using sustainable proteins. He paraphrased the great Andre Soltner saying, “every restaurant is run by a combination of thrift and innovation.”

What’s the answer for you? We aren’t sure. Maybe you can find a nugget in the words here, but the real answers come from real connections with like-minded chefs.

Join us in Charleston on November 3-5th for our National Sustainable Food Summit. Here you can meet with chefs like Derek and Craig who are doing it, attend lectures and workshops that will help you understand how to take the next steps of sustainability in your kitchen, and you can even attend Craig’s breakout session “I Can Cure That,” to learn just how he makes delicious, money making charcuterie.