It’s a good thing that I’m not a photojournalist. Let’s face it this is not a great photograph. What it does do quite nicely is encapsulate the general attendance of the Chefs Collaborative sustainable meat discussion that took place on February 15th at the Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, Cambridge.
On the left, hiding behind his coffee mug, is James Lionette, jack-of-all trades, local food activist, chef, small business owner …. On the far right of the photo sits Dick Dawson from venerable Le Cordon Bleu. Meanwhile, the men shaking hands are, on the left Adam Tiberio, a highly skilled butcher from New York, who has endeavored to re-establish the craft of animal butchery and local networks by opening an abattoir in New York City, and farmer Ted O’Hart of Brambly Farms who pasture raises, among other things, some of the cutest and happiest looking heritage breed pigs you are likely ever to see.
This well sums up the general attendance of the talk, 25-30 farmers, chefs, educators, graduate students, butchers, purveyors, buyers, journalists, and consumers, many representing multiple categories at once. Another very interesting participant was Jonathan Dietz of the startup FoodEx, a company currently in its beta phase, that strives to provide storage and shipping logistics to local producers outside of the normal network of food purveyorship. The discussion was lively, to say the least. And after a quick round of introductions and general project networking, i.e. the Dietz’ FoodEx, Tiberio’s abattoir, and Chef JJ Gonson’s Cambridge Community Kitchen (aided to conversation by the topic of charcuterie literally put on the table by Chef Michael Scelfo), we broke into smaller groups to best discuss and digest the topics surrounding production, use, and implications of sustainable meat.
I was lucky enough to sit in with farmer Ann Marie Bouthillette of Blackbird Farm, Chef Peter McCarthy of EVOO, Erin Carlman Weber, a graduate student at Boston University’s Gastronomy Program, and the aforementioned Jamey Lionette. While the conversation started off on the topic of the logistics of being a small scale producer, and of the skills so desperately needed among food professionals to be able to deal with more varied and labor intensive food stuffs, the theme quickly turned to the exclusivity of local foods. Spearheaded by Lionette, we hashed through how and why to get local products, specifically meats, into the market at lower price points, without taking away from the livelihood of those in the supply chain. So how did our conversations square with the group at large?
Our conversations were aggregated into the following points:
Five points from chefs/buyers to producers:
- Time: Many chefs want to order direct from producers but don’t always have time to track down separate suppliers for all of the different proteins. The lack of a centralized ordering and distribution system is a strain on time resources. Also with regards to ordering systems, it’s useful for chefs to have easy and fast access to product information.
- Storage: It’s more viable for producers to sell whole animals, but it’s not always feasible for many chefs. In small restaurant kitchens, there may not be space to keep all of the meat.
- Labor cost: Not all chefs have the skilled labor on hand to be able to break down whole animals efficiently. And many restaurants need such a high volume of just a few cuts of meat that having staff butcher whole animals isn’t the best use of labor.
- Consistency: For many chefs, consistency with regards to cuts, availability, and quality is really important.
- Cooperation: Because buying and working with local and sustainably raised meat is often more expensive and time-consuming, a business relationship that is flexible and transparent and functions like a partnership is important.
Five points from producers to chefs:
- Whole animals: Selling meat is much more viable for producers if buyers take the whole animal. Then farmers don’t have to worry about moving the lesser-used cuts, and chefs don’t have to worry about the butchering at the slaughterhouse being up to their standards.
- Help build the market: If chefs and buyers can help educate their customers about what it takes to raise animals sustainably, the market for sustainable meat will build. If customers understand the true cost of the food they’re eating, it becomes easier to pass on cost increases, as well.
- Farmers aren’t in control of the entire supply chain: The issues with too few slaughterhouses and not enough aggregated distribution hamper producers’ ability to provide the consistent volume and cuts that chefs and buyers need.
- Consistency: If there is any way for chefs to make up-front agreements about the volume and timing of purchasing, that helps farmers plan their breeding and slaughtering cycles and helps with the consistency that chefs are looking for.
- Cooperation: Because sustainably raising animals meat is expensive and time-consuming, a business relationship that is flexible and transparent and functions like a partnership is important. If chefs are open to different cuts of meat, frozen meat, differences in flavor according to season, etc, they will have an easier time sourcing sustainable meats.
In the end, after the official talk ended, the conversations persisted and among the card passing and friendly banter it was easy to realize that these truly are the conversations that need to happen to strengthen the avenues of supply for local and sustainable products, and and it starts with putting people together.
Be sure to check out www.chefscollaborative.org for a full pdf of the notes from the discussion and a complete list of attendees. And follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out about upcoming events. Also, Jen was busy Tweeting the discussion in real time, in the future you too can follow along: @chefscollab.