Food for All Seasons

Dave Owens is just one of a number of local chefs who have turned to organic food as a source of inspiration

Jun 21, 2000 at 4:00 am
Chef Dave Owens emerges from the kitchen of Cardwell's on the Plaza, wipes his hands on his high-necked white smock and heads for a table at the restaurant's edge. The sea of Italian raw silk and creamy linen parts for its young god, executive chef and partner of Plaza Frontenac's hottest restaurant. He sits down with his back to the diners, facing the beige-gold entrance to Neiman Marcus, and begins to chat about feces buildup.

"I don't know how to be really nice about it," he shrugs. "On factory farms, the animals are confined in small spaces, and they're in their own waste a lot of the time. They feed on a narrow spectrum of high-protein foods; they're stressed more often; they carry more stress hormones in their tissues. With foods that are naturally raised -- fruits, vegetables or animal products -- there's a big difference in taste, far more flavor." He laughs wryly. "The big reason people consume all this chicken is that it has no flavor, so you don't notice the lack!"

Owens buys local organic produce whenever he can, following the example of owner Bill Cardwell. "Some old guy would pull up outside the Clayton restaurant with a pickup truck of asparagus he'd cut that morning, and Bill would buy it all," recalls Owens. "It'd last a week, because it was so fresh." Cardwell was a local pioneer, but now many of the "better houses" are naming local organic growers on their menus. Seasonal local foods have become the culinary equivalent of Chanel's little black dress -- and Owens plans his own menus so seasonally, he gets teased for it. "Fall and winter are lower energy, slower movement," he insists. "You want richer, maybe even saltier foods, internalizing that energy. Spring and summer are times of growth, so you want things that are lighter and cooler -- asparagus, mushrooms, the first strawberries, fiddlehead ferns, little spring greens -- and then, when it's hot, cucumbers and melons and tomatoes." He waits eagerly for the local organic tomatoes: "They have a depth and a complexity; they're not sterile. And there are other issues -- you can get really good strawberries from far away, but they're one of the most chemical-laden foods around. So some of it is peace of mind, and sustainability.

"It sounds sort of crystallish," he adds, "but I think there's an energy to be had in consuming food that was grown nearby. People who've never felt their hands get dirty in the earth, who've eaten everything out of a box or a package -- there's a loss there. They're eating food that has no life left in it, and therefore it doesn't give any life back."