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Diner: Homegrown

Chefs and growers team up to give dining a local flavor

By Rebecca Lomax · September 19th, 2002 · Diner
  (L-R) Rob Wolfe, Erik Hyden and Scott Melvindish out their Wild Mushroom Lasagna at the Chefs & Growers Collaborative fundraiser.
Rebecca Lomax

(L-R) Rob Wolfe, Erik Hyden and Scott Melvindish out their Wild Mushroom Lasagna at the Chefs & Growers Collaborative fundraiser.

My love of homegrown tomatoes began early. My grandpa would pick them, bursting red, from his garden, slice them and sprinkle them with sugar for me. I couldn't resist the juicy, sweet snack.

As time went on, I switched from sugar, which sounds a little unappetizing to me today, to a sprinkling of salt. Each year I couldn't wait for August when the tomatoes would begin to sag on the vine with their ripe weight. Sometimes I would eat three or four a day just so they wouldn't go bad.

When I got older, I realized my grandpa had forever spoiled for me restaurant salads with waxy, flavorless tomatoes. I'd push them to the side of my plate mumbling something about "fake tomatoes." Why do most restaurants serve a tomato that looks the same year round and lacks flavor?

According to Scott Melvin, president of the Chefs & Growers Collaborative, restaurants fall victim to the convenience of one-stop shopping just like everyone else. It's easier for them to get their produce from one source: That means it could travel upwards of 500 miles from field to plate. Buying from local farmers markets or Findlay Market is an alternative.

The collaborative exists to remind consumers of that choice.

"Consumers have let the stores and chains dictate: This is what you've got. But then they get tired of a tomato that tastes like cardboard," Melvin says. "We're tying to get people more cognizant of farmers markets."

For restaurants, as well as for individuals, seeking locally grown produce instead of grazing from the shelves of biggs or Kroger takes more effort. It also costs a fraction more. And in years such as this, when it doesn't rain for half the summer, the choices are fewer.

So why bother? Not all of the collaborative's members do it for the same reasons. Melvin likes the diversity in variety, taste and texture that local growers can provide.

"Some people are involved because they think it's a better product: It's fresher, it's more wholesome. Some people are involved for more humanitarian reasons -- they're either vegetarians or they know the animals involved in this are treated humanely," Melvin says. "You get people who are concerned about chemicals. And you support the local economy, too."

The non-profit collaborative acts as a networking agent between restaurants and local food sources to facilitate the process. They are slowly influencing your diet, too. As connections increase between chefs and growers, there's more organic and locally grown meat and produce on menus in good restaurants.

Melvin's restaurant, The Heritage (7664 Wooster Pike, Mariemont), has worked with local growers for several years. "You can come here and eat something that was picked that morning," he says. They're not just buying local produce either, but also herbs, dairy products including cheeses and locally raised meat.

Melvin admits that it requires extra time and effort to buy local goods. "When I deal with Green-acres, all my steaks don't come in the same size, and my vegetables might come in with little bug bites on them because they don't use pesticides," he says. "It takes some educating of the customers, and it takes working with the cooks, too."

He's noticed the extra expense, too. "For me as a business owner, it's a little more expensive. But it's surprisingly not that much more. I think there's a concurrent rise in quality. Plus, I know what I have." There are enough loopholes in the organic laws to make Melvin prefer to buy from someone he knows.

The collaborative is a mix of chefs and growers with about 70 members. Their main public appearance is an annual fundraiser to showcase recipes developed by pairs of local chefs and growers.

This year's fundraiser, held in August at The Heritage, sold out for the first time. The poor growing season did not affect the quality of food at the fundraiser. The menu featured such pairings as Jean-Robert de Cavel and the Vista Grand Ranch to create Osso Bucco of Buffalo. The Heritage cooked up Wild Mushroom Lasagna using veggies from GW Farm.

The fundraiser is a good way to get local chefs and growers working together. The collaborative also has a hotline chefs can call to find out who's growing what and where they can buy it. Some of the proceeds from this year's fundraiser are earmarked for a Web site to replace the hotline. With a Web site, more than just chefs could log on and look for products for their weekly menus.

Melvin feels the practice of using local food suppliers is ready to take off. Maybe someday soon all restaurant salads will be safe for tomato lovers. ©



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