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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Week of Eating Locally -- and What I Learned

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 7:00 AM

Page 4 of 4

Nate Hereford, chef de cuisine at Niche. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Photo by Jennifer Silverberg
  • Nate Hereford, chef de cuisine at Niche.

Earnest echoes DeSmet's words when I ask her about things like coffee and salt. "Our challenge is unlike the New Orleans one in that we want to bring attention to local artisans," Earnest explains. "We're never going to have coffee and chocolate grown here. That's not the point. The point is that maybe you will think about going to a local place for those things."

I settle into my booth at Colleen's Cookies with a cup of Stringbean coffee and a handmade biscuit. Were it not for the challenge, I might have gone back to Starbucks. Earnest's plan is working after all.

By the time I talk to Nate Hereford, I've transitioned from thesis to antithesis and am making my way to synthesis. "That's the creative process," he says. "Whether it's food or music or whatever. We live in a society where we expect things to be easy, but it's not. This is challenging, but it's rewarding too."

Hereford, Yoda-like in his wisdom of local eating, has had more time to find his zen with hyper-regionalism than just about anybody in St. Louis. As chef de cuisine at Niche, he's been toying with what it means to eat local since 2009, when he and owner Gerard Craft decided to make the transition to an ultra-local menu.

"We wanted to showcase all of the awesome ingredients here in Missouri and Illinois, so we started out with sourcing things we could get within a day's drive," Hereford explains. "We just kept shrinking our zone until we got to the point where over 90 percent of what we do is from Missouri."

If my concept of eating local is extreme, Niche's borders on the absurd. Aside from a handful of pantry items like salt (they can't figure out how to source it from within Missouri either) and white vinegar, the restaurant's menu is entirely comprised of ingredients that are grown or raised within 300 miles of St. Louis. Hereford and his team make their own pungent vinegar substitute from fish guts. Tangy whey from their housemade yogurt approximates the acidity that a lemon might provide, and beets and sorghum stand in for sugar.

Hereford is sympathetic to my angst. "I'm not going to lie to you. It's hard," he acknowledges. "We asked some serious questions when we began, like: If we do this, do we lose our identities as chefs? As a restaurant? It's really hard. I remember talking to people in March and them telling me I wouldn't see [certain foods] for five or six weeks. I was like, 'Five or six weeks? I can't make it that long.' I had a panic attack."

As a culinary professional, it's Hereford's job to spend his days preparing food, playing with ingredients and wrapping his head around how to meet the constraints of such an onerous challenge. Going this far as an amateur home cook — without infinite amounts of time and money — would be impossible.

Hereford encourages me to push past my feelings of being overwhelmed with the challenge, noting that he feels the ingredient restrictions at Niche have benefited him professionally. "You learn when you back yourself into a corner," he laughs.

I was certainly backed into a corner, but I still didn't feel the creativity flowing — that is, until I made my trip to Bolyard's Meat & Provisions.

I accepted an invitation to my friends' house for dinner on the week of my experiment with the caveat that I would only be eating local foods. They were up to the challenge. They would pick up all of the accompaniments and staples if I would buy the meat.

That's when I head to Bolyard's Meat & Provisions, a local butcher shop opened in Maplewood last November by former Sidney Street Cafe chef de cuisine Chris Bolyard. It serves only humanely and sustainably raised meats from small Midwestern farms.

I have the idea of buying some Missouri-raised rib-eyes, until I encounter the benefit of chatting up the butcher rather than picking up prepackaged meat from a supermarket case. "Listen," the man behind the counter tells me. "I know you want rib-eyes — and they are great — but if you're grilling, you have to try our pork chops."

I'm not really in the mood for pork, but his enthusiasm convinces me to order a few chops. They're from the Circle B Ranch heritage breed Berkshire hogs that spend their days in Seymour, Missouri, foraging for acorns and, per Bolyard's website, getting their bellies rubbed by farm owner John Backes. (And to think I'd wanted to come back in my next life as a cat.)

When I get to my friends' house, the care shown to the pork, both in how it was raised and how it was butchered, becomes immediately apparent. We unwrap the package and gasp. There before us is the most glorious piece of pork any of us has ever seen: inch-thick and so marbled it looks like a slab of bacon fashioned into the shape of a chop. My friend has to dodge the flames from all the fat dripping off them when he lays them on the grill.

"I'm human. I go to the grocery store for meat every now and then," Hereford admits. "But I look at it — at the color — and it just doesn't seem right." Good meat may be much pricier, he notes, but when you buy the industrially processed stuff on a bed of styrofoam, "you're getting shortchanged."

To say that we perceive the value in our local pork during our dinner this night is an understatement. It is life-changing, the kind of food that makes you wake up the next morning wondering when you can have another bite.

And it isn't just the pork. My friend makes a kale-and-green-onion torte with Missouri hard-winter wheat flour and freshly churned butter (he had a churn from his daughter's school's Pioneer Week) that is as good as any side dish I could have asked for. The first-of-the-season asparagus is without the slightest hint of stringiness and, when paired with the pork, a Missouri Norton makes me rethink my disdain toward locally produced wine.

The only item we use that comes from further than 150 miles away is salt. And yet this dinner is one of the most delicious meals I have had in a very long time, challenge or no challenge.

"Think about what is important to you."

When I spoke with Earnest, DeSmet, Flood, Hereford and anyone else about local eating, the first question I posed was, "So how do you go about making the change? Where do you start?" Their answers were always the same — it's a matter of individual priorities. DeSmet worried that such a vague answer might sound like a cop-out, but a week removed from my self-imposed extreme locavore diet, I have come to appreciate why there is no clear answer.

If we think of local eating as aspirational rather than a strict set of rules, the question of individual priorities makes sense. What do I want my food system to look like?

Reflecting on the week, my utopian vision includes heritage pork, sunflower shoots and independent coffee roasters. For DeSmet, it's a place where people are competent home gardeners and cooks. For Hereford, it's an ever-expanding bounty of Missouri vegetables.

As for Earnest, she just wants people to find the joy in what they eat. When I last visit Local Harvest, she has recently received a delivery of first-of-the-season strawberries. I had previously eaten yogurt and berries nearly every day for the last ten years, only to give it up for the locavore challenge. Seeing the vibrant red beauties glistening like jewels on the produce rack felt like Christmas morning.

I had come to take my fruit for granted. Now, here I am, in awe of a simple box of produce.

That's what's important to me.

The St. Louis Local Foods Challenge kicks off this week, but it's not too late to join in the festivities. The brainchild of the Tower Grove Farmers' Market, the event asks participants to source as much food as possible throughout the 30 days of June from within 150 miles of the city. It costs $30 to enroll, but perks include a $20 credit for local produce and a card good for a free meal at Chipotle. For more details, see stlfoodchallenge.org.

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