Local, seasonal foods making waves at restaurants, cooking schools

Living on Earth

Cooking what’s trendy is one way chefs can get an edge on the competition, and these days – sustainability is on the cutting edge.

Dwayne LiPuma’s the head Chef at St. Andrew’s Café, in Hyde Park, N.Y. The restaurant is committed to using local, seasonal foods.

“We change the menu every season, but then we nit and pick,” he said. “Like all of sudden we can’t get any more butternuts, now we switch to pumpkin.”

He says being flexible is key because farmers are at the mercy of the weather and Mother Nature can be unpredictable. He recalls times where he’ll be waiting at the docks to pick up fresh food for the day’s menu and have to make revisions on the spot when the necessary ingredients aren’t available.

“It is very challenging as a chef to stay seasonal and to do farm-to-table. And that’s also what makes it fun,” LiPuma said.

St. Andrews is also a classroom at the Culinary Institute of America. Students serve as the wait staff, pastry and sous chefs. This working classroom gets produce from 30 farmers in the surrounding Hudson Valley — a lot of it. Some 20,000 pounds of Granny Smith apples, 98,000 pounds of yellow onions, and 780,000 eggs come through the door. 

LiPuma says eating seasonal food may be a fad at the moment, but it’s also satisfying. For example, he said, would you want to eat watermelon after skiing? Or goulash after a summer hike? Not likely, but flip them around and you’re eating delicious, seasonal food.

The lesson of seasonal, sustainable food has infiltrated the culinary institute’s classrooms as well. 

“We’ve really started to focus on how to be sustainable as a chef and how to focus on where we would procure our food and we were talking about it today in lecture  — how when you buy local and buy in season it ends up saving you money in the long run,” said sophomore Rebecca Hibay.

Professors also focus on how to keep an eco-conscious kitchen — from recycling used cooking oil, to composting food scraps. The school’s compost is given to local farmers.

The school also tries to grow some of its own ingredients in beds and gardens that dot the grounds around the school. It’s Andra Sramek’s job to keep those grounds tended in the growing season and to oversee the school’s recycling operation. When Sramek arrived at the Culinary Institute, the grounds were covered with rhododendrons, ferns and other ornamental plants. Slowly she’s been ripping them out to create an edible landscape.

“This is mostly celery, but we had some parsley in here, and we had swiss chard and so now we’ve got string beans and a pumpkin that’s being eaten by a woodchuck. We had, before the woodchuck ate them, beautiful okra,” she explains, as walking around the grounds. “The students,so many of them are like, ‘what is that?’ or they see the brussels sprouts and they’re like, ‘what is that?’ It’s this whole education thing going on also with the students.”

Students are encouraged to use ingredients from the school’s garden in their local meals.

“They’re just dumbfounded that here they are in their kitchen and they walk out here and literally one minute later they have this incredibly fresh parsley that they know came from here, didn’t come from California or Florida,” she said.

In the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey, local sourcing, sustainability and kitchen gardens all came out on top. And that’s meant cooking schools having to add skills and courses they’ve never taught before.

Melissa Kogut, executive director of the Chefs Collaborative, said in the past it’s been up to individual instructors to include those themes in their classes — but now it’s being implemented by administrators.

“At Johnson and Wales they’ve actually added a sustainability track, where students can take a number of courses addressing nutrition and sustainability,” Kogut said. And my thinking is that this is coming from the students who are applying. They want to have this kind of training.”

Kogut said most chefs cooking that way today started out because local ingredients just taste better. And it was only after that experience that they began to appreciate the environmental benefits of local sourcing.

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