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Has the Word "Local" Lost All Meaning?

Photo: Mary Iampietro

Yesterday at the New York City Wine & Food Festival, chefs Dan Barber (Blue Hill), Tom Colicchio, Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter), and Partrick Martins from Heritage Foods USA were on a panel to discuss whether the term "local" had lost all meaning, but most of the conversation was spent trying to find a definition.

Alex Guarnaschelli recounted a story about how she discovered local produce: "I got the idea that if I pickled five pounds of beets that it would inform me somehow. That it would be like going up the mountain to talk to the oracle. When I went to the greenmarket and asked for five pounds of beets the farmer looked and me and said 'I have eight kinds of beets, what kind do you want? What is this just asking for beets?' and I had sort of an epiphany that I need to be cooking different. I went home with everything at the market that day."

For all the panelists, buying locally meant buying food with the most flavor which means, of course, seasonal and fresh. "I don't list the name of farmers on my menu. It is annoying to me," said Daniel Humm, whose menu is set up to quickly adapt to the market. Humm compared the current situation in the US to his native Switzerland: "In Switzerland, it's just how it works. There are farmers in every town. When I came to the US, I was disappointed. Farmers in the US didn't have a passion for product. But over nine years, so much has changed. It is easy now to find someone who cares."

The conversation turned to how the local movement can be expanded. Tom Colicchio said he believes that people need to be educated about good nutrition and demand it. On his recently-opened New York City restaurant, Riverpark: "People questioned why I chose the location of Riverpark so far from everything... in part it's because we're looking to actually grow food in soil. Majority of it will go to schools and educating kids about nutrition."

The enemies are plentiful: the supermarkets ("We have to wage war with the supermarket," sad Guarnaschelli), agribusiness ("The enemy is big agro," said Colicchio, "Big Food is dead men walking," said Barber), and fast food ("Fast food is not a lifestyle choice. It is a symptom of poverty," said Colicchio). Dan Barber, however, said that change is inevitable, believing it will happen in our lifetime. "The next wave of local is everything we've talked about and more," said Barber optimistically. "Foodies can rule the world."

—Mary Iampietro

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