By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
A strawberry grown out of state in December versus a strawberry grown locally in June. It’s no question which fruit is superior in terms of taste. So what do you do during the winter when you’re a Michigan chef who focuses on seasonal cooking and local sourcing?
“Everyone asks me that question,” says Chef James Rigato, known for his contemporary American cooking with a Michigan focus at The Root in White Lake, Mich., and now his ever evolving menus at the recently opened Mabel Gray in suburban Detroit. “What you’re really talking about [is] field growing, that’s what you lose [in the winter] — the wild foraging, you lose field growing, but there’s still a lot of food production going on.”
In recent years, more artisanal food producers have cropped up, and these products have excited chefs like Colin Brown, the executive chef at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, Mich. The hotel recently opened Park 600 Bar and Kitchen, which features locally sourced products and craft cocktails; it replaced the upscale hotel’s fine dining restaurant.
“I’ve seen a big change in the last 10, 12 years with new products coming on,” says Brown. “Artisan producers are really coming to the forefront with great products in Michigan.”
Some of these products and producers include maple syrup, local bakers, and cheese makers.
But there’s no doubt the calendar affects the percentage of local products that are available. When it comes to sourcing, Josh Stockton, chef and partner at Detroit’s Gold Cash Gold, says, “We are probably 90 percent within 200 miles during spring and summer and about 50 percent during winter.”
“The challenges during winter is just the lack of as many available options,” Stockton says.
To address these challenges, chefs get creative and work with what they have. Winter means it’s time for cooking methods like slow braises and lots of hearty root vegetables, Brown says. Park 600 has a regular menu, but the blackboard is where the seasonal dishes are featured prominently and where he can be more flexible and creative. Recently, he featured a chicken pot pie with a Michigan craft beer, a halibut dish making use of fish that’s in season before it runs out in a couple of weeks, and a farmers salad with local beets and other local vegetables.
Stockton works with a farm with a bigger capacity. “We do buy a lot from Tantre Farm during the winter, as they are one of the few farms we work with [that’s] large enough to have a cellar program for late fall/winter,” he says. Cellar items allow them to continue to get quality local produce during the late fall and winter.
“The other challenge is just the time it takes to coax flavors out of the root vegetable that is available during the winter … tomatoes are great eaten out of hand, but rutabagas need a lot of time and love to be delicious, so you have to be willing to work with them.”
Finding a Solution
Gold Cash Gold also has their own urban farm, operated by fellow Corktown neighbor Labrosse Farm, which specializes in heirloom tomato ketchup. “We are doing the farm as a collaboration. Everything that is grown there is used in the restaurant. We began it this year in the spring, so we got a late start, but next year the harvest should increase a lot. We will be growing tomatoes, carrots, radish, a variety of herbs, and salad greens.”
Preservation is one way to make the growing season’s bounty last all winter. Rigato says last year at The Root, they had 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, which they used to make passata, a tomato puree. The passata is frozen in blocks and the restaurant is able to use local tomatoes all the way into February and March, Rigato says. “You try to build your menu around the seasonality when you can. When tomatoes are in season, you’ll have four or five applications on the menu and when they go away you kind of chill out and cook less tomatoes.”
At Gold Cash Gold, they’re “extremely committed to all forms of preservation … we have close to 200 gallons of various fermented items working right now, we do a lot of vinegar pickling as well… we like to use every part of the vegetable when it comes in, so we will roast the beets, make a spread from the charred skin, and ferment the tops and stems.”
While the cold months may make menu planning a challenge, all three chefs agree that where the food is coming from is important.
But it’s not just about being local, Rigato says. “To me, sustainability and natural farming ethics are huge.”
Stockton agrees. “If I have a local farm who uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides and a farm that uses open pollination and composts and cares for the land they are on, I don’t want to buy from both just because they are both local, I want to support the farms that treat the food with same respect that we do,” Stockton says.
Brown says while sourcing locally is important for the local economy, it’s more than that. “Nowadays, it’s important that food has a story. People are really interested where their food comes from and more people are more knowledgeable about food.”