Choosing food: Time to demand a more sustainable product

Editor’s note: Randall Smith has just finished his local foods-oriented cookbook, Farm Fresh Flavors, which will be released mid-August. I have asked him to have a regular conversation with our readers in his columns. Visit him at the Clock Tower, and you’ll find in your conversation he has quite a background. No stranger to local and organic foods, Smith has been involved with the Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) farm movement in Wisconsin. I look forward to his regular offerings of recipes and commentary, and I’m sure we all will enjoy his talks in print.—Frank Schier

By Randall Smith
Executive Chef/Director of Food and Beverage
Clock Tower Resort and CoCo Key Waterpark

Americans have a dreadfully irresponsible way of eating. It’s hardly news that it takes an outrageous amount of energy to produce a calorie for the average American. This results in unnecessary over-consumption of fossil fuels and truly unnecessary hunger in the planet.

I’ll be upfront: I’m part of this irresponsible enterprise. I have spent my entire life working in the industrial food system that Americans have become comfortable with. The operations I have been responsible for have all relied on this system to make money—to give the people what they want.

My hope is that I can teach some to want something better and help create a profitable way to give them that. We have gotten used to huge portions of unhealthy, chemically-laden, laboratory-contrived, oil-soaked food. Even “good” eaters find it hard to eat with a conscience.

And that’s the challenge I have. A challenge of advocacy to deliver the message that our foodways will not change until we start making conscious food decisions—until we consistently pass up great portions of meat and chicken and ask for fresh vegetables; until we demand that our cattle, hogs and chickens are responsibly and sustainably raised on feed nature meant for them to eat; until we stop expecting perfect, fresh tomatoes trucked from Southern California or Mexico to Rockford in January and learn to enjoy what our neighborhood can produce on its own; and until we rebel against food that takes enormous amounts of chemicals and antibiotics to produce and strips our soil of all nutrients.

As a chef, I would love to deliver a more sustainable product. But as a consumer, you have to be willing to demand it—and, let’s face it, pay for it.

One can do things to take personal responsibility for driving change. The first, easiest and most important is to cook more. Be responsible for the day-in, day-out feeding of ourselves and our families. Don’t let food scientists, chefs and professional marketers decide what you are going to eat. Learn a little about food that is grown, not manufactured, and learn how to cook it. You can’t take responsibility for your food choices unless you are actually making them.

I am not talking about converting to an all-organic diet. I am talking about just taking the first step and eating fresh food that comes to you without an ingredient label. I am equipped to show you simple, entertaining ways to do this.

The next simple act is to make restaurant dining decisions based on the availability of fresh local items on the menu; demand them, and pay for them. This is sometimes hard. In any town, on any Main Street, you will pass 50 restaurants where you could not make this choice. If you refuse to eat at these establishments and choose those that can deliver a dining experience responsibly, you’ve taken a small step toward positive change. In upcoming columns, I hope to give you criteria to make these choices.

You might ask, “Who the heck is this guy to talk about food choices?” I am the guy who has spent his entire working life helping you to make bad choices—bad for your health, bad for the environment and cruel to animals. I have worked in slaughterhouses and vegetable processing plants, I’ve sold truckloads of processed food, and I’ve cooked and served tens of thousands of environmentally-unsustainable and morally-suspect meals.

All that aside, I still love serving and entertaining people. My hope is that I can raise enough awareness to allow me to continue this work with a clearer conscience.

Randall Smith has been a working chef for more than 20 years. He is currently executive chef at the iconic Clock Tower Resort in Rockford and was formerly the executive chef at Hotel Mead, the finest hotel in central Wisconsin. He is 1999 Middle Wisconsin Chefs Association Chef of the Year nominee. He has written about using local produce for Farmers’ Markets Today and has been a tireless advocate for farmers’ markets, CSAs and local sustainable farms in Wisconsin and Illinois. He has traveled in Ireland, studying the integration of local foodways into food service, and has worked closely with the Central Rivers Farmshed, The Wisconsin Local Food Summit, and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. He is working on a cookbook geared toward cooking with ingredients from CSAs and farmers’ markets, Farm Fresh Flavors.

From the June 2-8, 2010 issue

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