Local Chefs And Farmers Give Their Opinions On Organic Food At Restaurants
Think back a decade ago, walking through the aisles of say the Publix produce section, back to when things were a lot simpler.
Maybe tucked away in the corner, under a proud green banner, you'd find a few organic strawberries or apples, marked up high, maybe even past the price point where it even made sense.
Now, walk into that same store and you see those green organic labels everywhere, stamped on heads of cauliflower and wrapped around English cucumbers, sometimes barely any more expensive than their pro-pesticide cousins.
Go to restaurants, meanwhile, and organics are still a generation behind what we find in the supermarket. Can you, if you try hard, fill one hand with local restaurants that use only organic items?
If you're willing to pay extra to make sure what you eat at restaurants began its life at an organic farm, read on. We spoke to our local experts about what to ask, where to go and how to know when everyone at a restaurant is lying to you—and yes, it definitely happens.
Organic In Moderation
It was, for his legions of fans, good news in the dining world when Dean Max returned to South Florida in January.
Technically, he had been here all along, as a resident of Fort Lauderdale. But Max, who made a name for himself in the last generation at a series of local restaurants, including 3030 Ocean, didn't have a local place for a few years. Instead, he had his attention on seven restaurants elsewhere, including the Bahamas and Grand Cayman.
In January, Max returned with Even Keel, a raw bar and fish house in north Fort Lauderdale. Max is known for helping bring the farm-to-table movement to South Florida, but at Even Keel, you won't find a long list of organic items.
That's because Max says it's simply not worth the extra money to pay for organic foods when it's not going to increase the flavor. Citrus and butternut squash, for instance, do not see improvement with the organic treatment, he says. Instead, he hunts down organic items like chicken, carrots and tomatoes—things that improve by non-pesticide farming.
“We try to buy organic when it makes sense. It's based mainly around flavor for us. Because flavor is the key,” he says. “A lot of farmers put money into organics, and then some farmers put money instead into seeds, and that's going to produce better flavor.”
It's also unrealistic, Max says, to expect a restaurant to choose unripe or underflavored produce simply because it's organic. Instead, diners ought to look for restaurants that use organic items smartly, where the produce is picked simply for its quality.
We try to buy organic when it makes sense. It's based mainly around flavor for us.”
When Jodi and Darrin Swank started the Loxahatchee farm that bears their name 18 years ago, they faced lots of hurdles. It wasn't just the difficulty of the business, of getting a working farm going, but the distributing of all that produce that became a nightmare—a constant slog to get restaurants to continually buy their produce.
Nearly two decades later, that's still true, Jodi Swank says. Every week, she's calling restaurants who have bought their produce for years, wondering why they haven't put in an order yet.
The problem is that produce from suppliers like Sysco is undeniably cheaper than the fruits and vegetables the Swanks grow down the road. Restaurants regularly go with the cheaper option, and—here's what really irks the Swanks—don't update their menus. Even though the produce isn't from Swank, many local places are still selling dishes with the promise that they are.
“My husband is out here killing himself 14 hours a day, and for them to put ‘Swank' on the menu even though it's not; it's insulting,” she says.
While Swank isn't certified organic, the farm does grow produce without herbicides, fungicides or pesticides, Jodi Swank says. They haven't gone through the process of getting certified because “the whole organic thing, in my opinion, is political,” she says.
The fact that restaurants can simply lie about where they get their produce puts diners in a difficult spot, she admits. Even if you ask about where the restaurant is getting their produce, they simply might lie about it. Local farms like Swank have at least gotten some help lately from local health department inspectors who have begun to ask restaurants for proof of “local” claims on menus.
It also helps when consumers ask questions about the source of local ingredients. Ask to speak to the chef, and ask for the specific names of the farms, Jodi Swank says. If they're lying about it, no doubt it'll be more difficult to do so face-to-face. “Ask, ask, ask,” she says. “Ask the chef to come out and explain where the produce is from.
Just ask. Always.”
Learn How To Taste If It's Really Organic
Few people have been more connected with the organic and local movement than Joey Giannuzzi. Back when he started the Green Gourmet in Delray Beach in 2008, he hoped to ditch the flavorless, waxy fruits and vegetables served at most local restaurants.
That wasn't so easy, as few suppliers back then offered anything better. Since then, Giannuzzi says nearly 100 Florida farms have begun supplying restaurants with local and organic vegetables, fruits and meats. Without a doubt, Giannuzzi says, you can taste the difference.
Organic chicken, for instance, is pleasantly firmer and far more flavorful than a traditional bird, which seems plasticky and pumped with water, Giannuzzi says. Beef will be more lean and flavorful, with a texture that is denser and seems somehow more real, more natural.
When you suspect something isn't what it's purported to be, Giannuzzi says to ask the server to explain. Ask for the chef or a manager. “I do this all the time, and it drives my wife crazy,” he says. “She's like, ‘Oh my God, leave them alone.'”
In 2013, Giannuzzi and real estate developer Mitchell Robbins opened Farmer's Table in Boca Raton. Giannuzzi says it's now far easier for him to source local and organic ingredients, but it remains difficult to find them at restaurants elsewhere. His advice: Train yourself on tasting the difference and you'll know when restaurants are telling you the truth.
It's really unfortunate that we have to do this, a taste test to see if something is really organic, Giannuzzi says. But too often restaurants will make stretching statements about what they're serving. “It's really knowing the integrity of a restaurant,” he says.
It's really knowing the integrity of a restaurant.”
Ask A Lot Of Questions
As the owner of Ground Floor Farm in Stuart, you might think Jackie Vitale won't go out to eat unless it's an organic restaurant. But actually, she often finds herself out with friends, at restaurants with no or few organic choices. When she spots an organic item on the menu, though, Vitale will undoubtedly have questions to ask.
“There are a lot of questions to ask about how the food is produced. Sometimes the wait staff knows, sometimes they don't, and sometimes even the kitchen staff doesn't know,” says Vitale from her urban farm, market and restaurant in downtown Stuart.
Let's say it's a menu that promises local organic tomatoes in a caprese salad. Vitale will ask for the name of the farm, knowing few in Florida can produce organic tomatoes, especially in warm months. If they say all organic produce is local, it's almost certainly not true, Vitale says, because it's nearly impossible to source a menu of entirely organic produce. So if a menu promises it, ask the server how they've pulled it off. “Thing is, sourcing locally is really hard,” she says. “I spend most of my day sourcing local, and it takes much of my time.”
Then, even if the restaurant can explain which farm the organic and local items came from, there are plenty of other questions to ask. Are the organic items certified? Fair trade? Any GMO items on the menu?
“Don't be embarrassed about asking specific questions,” Vitale says.
Then, if the restaurant can't come up with the answers, if they tell you things that aren't true, what do you do? Sitting there, with a group of friends on a Saturday night at someone's favorite spot, do you get up and walk out? Vitale says no, that you just have to live your life.
“It's too hard to feel constantly guilt-ridden about your food choices,” she says. “Do your best, be OK with it, and move on.”