When John Lucchese was still active in the restaurant he and his wife started, he had a routine of heading to Middlebury every few weeks.
He’d buy eggs at one Amish farm. He’d get produce, particularly green peppers, from another Amish farmer. He’d stop at a small Amish store.
Along the way, he’d chat with the people selling him the items. I had a lot of fun going with him one day and watching him interact with these people.
There were more efficient ways to get the food. Food vendors would bring him anything he wanted.
But what he really wanted was the freshest food possible and he got that by visiting the farms.
He’d grown up watching an Italian mother pull items from a garden to feed a family. And as much as possible, he wanted to buy local too. When possible, he used it in the restaurant and his family continues that tradition.
The food world has gained plenty of buzzwords in the past few years: local, organic, hormone-free, grass-fed, gluten-free.
Those words get trendy and hyped.
The question is, in Elkhart County, where and how do they play out?
On a recent trip east, I ate at some restaurants that promoted their efforts to buy and serve local food. In Harrisonburg, Va., Local Chop & Grill House highlights when a menu item is sourced locally.
At Dish in Charles Town, W.V., the same push to promote that its serving local food is evident on the menu.
In Elkhart County, some restaurants are doing it and have done it for years, but don’t always tell you.
A garden behind Antonio’s Italian Restaurant, 1100 Goshen Ave., Elkhart, supplies the restaurant with much of its summer tomatoes, basil, arugula and other items. You can’t get any fresher or more local than serving a tomato picked 100 feet from the restaurant’s kitchen.
But owner Paul Cataldo and his staff are just starting to tell people that they do that. “We’ve doing it like that for years and just assumed people knew it was fresh,” he said.
Steve Kruse supplies Antonio’s, Lucchese’s and other restaurants with tomatoes, greens and herbs. Clay Bottom Farm east of Goshen supplies some places too, including Constant Spring, 219 S. Main St., Goshen.
Owner Jason Oswald goes out of his way to get local produce and meat. He goes to Shipshewana to get beef from Yoder’s Meat & Cheese Co. Jake’s Country Meats from Cassopolis, Mich., provides pork, as well as occasionally Blue Heron Farm.
Oswald said he doesn’t trust the conventional big food sources. Suppliers would happily bring him Colorado beef, California greens and mass-produced chicken.
But he buys from a farmer and can hold that person accountable.
The farmer likely buys from him.
And he can tell the customer exactly where the food came from.
Growing our own food is usually cheaper than buying it. Buying local food from someone else who grew it may not be because it’s less likely to be subsidized by federal subsidies and isn’t grown in the scale that industrial agriculture churns out.
But when you buy from that farmer, the money stays in our local economy. And it’s hard to put a price on the relationship where you can ask questions directly and have that peace of mind.
Not every local restaurant will choose to serve local food. But more are. Chefs like using local items when possible. “We try to do that as much as we can because it’s the freshest way,” Cataldo said.
The conversation about the buzzwords will go on. When is local better than organic? What merits being called “local?”
We’re at the point that a restaurant should be able to tell you the source of an ingredient. Transparency is the key issue, whether it’s a produce seller or a restaurant. I’ve heard produce vendors get cute about the source of a fruit or vegetable. I don’t want cute. I want honesty.
I’m on the board of the Goshen Farmers Market and we have long conversations about what constitutes local food and why it matters. But in the end, when customers come to the market looking for a local product, we have to set a standard.
Is coffee grown in Africa but roasted here local? It’s more local than Starbucks.
Is a loaf of bread crafted and baked here more local than other options? Yes.
We like bananas, seafood, proscuitto and chocolate. And we shouldn’t stop eating them. But finding and eating local foods strengthens our economy.
Eating at a locally run restaurant is different than a national chain. A locally run restaurant may or may not be serving food that was raised nearby. There are levels and layers to this.
But what’s happening is our local food system has progressed to the point that apples, chicken, duck, greens and tomatoes are all easy to get into a restaurant kitchen from nearby sources.
Iechyd Da Brewing Co. told customers when it was serving Blue Heron Farm pork during Elkhart Dining Days. The farm near Benton feeds grain from the brewery to its livestock and is supplying some meat for local restaurants and CSA customers who pay for a monthly meat bundle.
Local growers and restaurant owners are talking to each other more about possibilities. They don’t always develop as expected. Though Northern Indiana Aquaproducts is raising fish in Goshen, the tilapia hasn’t appeared on menus locally.
Not many local growers can regularly provide meat or vegetables to restaurants. Given our growing season and other barriers, it’s something that happens occasionally.
But what restaurant owners and chefs can do is tell people when something is local. They don’t need to fill a menu with buzzwords. But they can educate employees and diners when something is from nearby. The bison meatloaf Lucchese’s has had on special uses meat from Cook’s Bison Ranch, according to Chef Zach Lucchese. But he didn’t capitalize on telling diners that as much as he could have. The dish was great either way, but it made a difference to me when I knew that.
Restaurants of all types and people who sell food should be able to tell the story of the food. And as we do so, we can develop more and better options to grow things here.
That makes our food safer and fresher.
Most of the time, that means it’s better.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-296-5805, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via Facebook. His blog is at www.blogs.etruth.com/diningalaking/.