From West Coast bastions of the organic movement to small farming communities in the heartland, diners around the country are becoming more aware that what we eat and where it comes from affects the world around us. This awakening comes thanks in part to green-minded chefs, who have become stewards of good food — good to eat, good for you, good for the environment, and good for the economy. With their farm-focused menus, eco-friendly practices, and strong ties to everyone from the farmer to the hungry diner, these foodie forerunners are the bright lighthouses who guide us to a land where a meal’s origins matter as much as how it tastes. Here are eight toque-wearing, torch-carrying culinary leaders, ready to inspire your appetite for carefully crafted cuisine.
John Stewart and Duskie Estes, chefs and owners, Zazu and Bovolo (Sonoma County, Calif.)
Husband-and-wife chef team John Stewart and Duskie Estes are less interested in what’s easily available than in what’s good and good for you. “We grow up to 30 percent of what we serve, and emphasize the local farmer,” says Estes. The committed environmentalist also uses whatever scraps she can’t compost as feed for their chickens, lays old cardboard boxes in the garden as a natural weed prevention, and uses sustainable practices to grow grapes for Zazu’s very own house wine. Stewart, on the other hand, focuses his attention on the multitude-of-patience task of creating salumi — cured, preserved pork, handmade in the Italian tradition. He uses only naturally-raised, free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free heritage breeds of pork, and the process (which he learned from Mario Batali) can take years. Recently Stewart and Estes went on a tour of butcher shops in Italy to learn more about the technique. At first, many of the old proprietors didn’t take the young American couple seriously — until John rolled up a sleeve and revealed his tattoo of a butcher’s eye view of a pig. “That was the pass code,” says Estes.
Kathy Cary, chef and owner, Lilly’s (Louisville, Ky.)
Kentucky is well known for its beautiful horses, its pure limestone water source, and the bourbon that is made from the latter. But ask anyone around Louisville, and they’d add one more thing to that list: Lilly’s. More than a source of delicious sustenance, Kathy Cary’s eclectic eatery is also a place of local-product pride. Having grown up on a nearby farm herself, Cary works directly with organic and sustainable Kentucky farmers—around 12 during peak season, including Duncan Farms, whose rabbit she crafts into croquettes drizzled with a sauce made from Woodford bourbon (there are almost 40 labels on the bar list). “I’m a firm believer in the dirt,” she says, “and planting the seeds and watching them grow.” With that in mind, she began Seed to Table in the early ’90s as a tribute to her farming grandmother and former sous chef, both of whom died within days of each other. Through the program, Cary teaches inner-city kids not only how to grow and cook their food, but also that what goes in the earth is as important as what goes into their bodies.
It ain’t easy being green in a concrete jungle, especially one that slows down for no chef. Marc Meyer, though, is willing to step back and make sure his American/Mediterranean menu features sustainable ingredients and that the restaurant itself respects eco-friendly practices. He has outfitted Cookshop with bamboo furniture and a recycled wood-beam ceiling and stocked it with eco-friendly provisions, like straws made from cornstarch. He also tips his toque to local growers by featuring them front and center on his menu.
Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk, chefs and owners, The Kitchen (Boulder, Colo.)
When Hugo Matheson says, “I’m not the most motivated person,” you truly should not believe him. Since he and Kimbal Musk opened The Kitchen three years ago, they’ve served three meals a day, seven days a week at the 80-seat eatery—an exhausting schedule for restauranteurs of any stripe. But the two are also committed to using the very best sustainable, local sources, and while it might save time to, say, condense suppliers, you won’t find either of them doing this. Anytime. Ever. Local sourcing is the driving force behind The Kitchen. But their commitment doesn’t stop there. They recycle fryer oil into biodiesel, use biodegradable straws and paper products, and get their electricity via wind power. Sure, taking these steps can add extra dollars to The Kitchen’s bill every month, but Matheson believes it saves so much more in the end: “The big question I always ask myself is: What is the true cost of food?”
Tony Maws, chef and Owner, Craigie Street Bistrot (Cambridge, Mass.)
They say you can never go home again, but after cooking everywhere from Singapore to Santa Fe, Tony Maws knew the only place he wanted to open his French bistro was back in his hometown of Boston. At the same time, sustainability and local sourcing were important. The result is a menu that changes daily depending on what ingredients are freshest, best, and closest to home, like organic carrots grown in sandy New England soil, which Maws insists are the most delicious on the planet. “I don’t spend money on pomp and circumstance; I spend it on, say, the best lamb you can have,” he says. His meats are all-natural and hormone-free, and about 80 percent of his wine list comes from small, sustainable vineyards. “There’s something really important about terroir and place, and we’re not afraid to stand on a soapbox and say we believe in that.”
Barb LaVigne and George Wilkes, owners, The Angry Trout Café (Grand Marais, Minn.)
Their proximity to the shore of Lake Superior allows Barb LaVigne and George Wilkes to get lake herring, trout, and whitefish fresh daily, and serve it grilled, fried, or smoked in this 50-seat spot, which has been serving diners since 1978. Their menu also includes locally raised pork, chicken, and sweet corn, as well as organic Minnesota wild rice, but the two source more than their food locally: all of their electricity comes from wind; their organic cotton linens are sewn by a local seamstress; and they are members of a community-supported agriculture farm. Says Wilkes, “We take a total view of everything that we use or waste.”
Dave Tallent, chef and co-owner, Restaurant Tallent (Bloomington, Ind.)
Being Midwesterners, chef Dave Tallent and his wife, pastry chef Kristen Tallent, were all too aware of the irony spreading across their home state of Indiana. You can drive for miles and see one of two things: acres upon acres of farmland, or strip malls featuring fast food. So when they opened their farm-focused eatery in 2003, they wanted to do more than make good food: They wanted to encourage local farmers to contribute. Their menu boasts locally raised produce, duck, lamb, and beef, and Tallent made a deal with area farms to keep growing and supplying him year-round by using naturally heated greenhouses. Those relationships have benefited both the restaurant and the growers. “Now they ask what I’d like and they’ll say, ‘I used to grow that and no one bought it…’ It’s pretty cool!”
Story by Amy Zavatto. This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2007.