WASHINGTON – A bowl of bright green orbs are tipped into a waiting skillet at the Blue Duck Tavern. As their green color glows under the heat, chef John Melfi tosses dried cranberries and chopped bacon into the mix.
The brussels sprouts from Path Valley, a co-op of farmers in Pennsylvania arrived this week. Melfi knows the man who picked them. He’s walked farmer Ely Byler’s land with him.
As a hotel chef, it’s a rarity to know your farmers personally or to visit their land, he says. But it’s becoming more common as hotel chains get in on what started as a culinary trend and is now the norm at some of the best restaurants in the country.
In an effort to reduce their environmental footprint, reflect the region they serve and support local businesses, a handful of hotel chains are starting to locally source their food.
In the culinary industry, hotels are often considered a bland employment choice for a chef — where their creativity can easily dry up creating a boring cookie cutter menu. But at the Starwood, Kimpton and Park Hyatt national hotel chains, some chefs say the renewed commitment to locally sourced food makes creating diner-friendly dishes a creative challenge.
Their menus are not only dependent on what’s available regionally, but also rely on the weather. Working seasonally means that diners are affected by rogue snow storms like the one that scared Washington two weeks ago.
“That’s the first question I asked the farmer the other day,” says Todd Wiss, executive chef at the Firefly in Dupont Circle. He says when the weather changes that drastically, it can affect his immediate orders as well as the production from the season ahead.
While working within the confines of their region is something these chefs prefer, they admit it can be limiting depending on the season and the availability.
“It’s definitely limiting in the wintertime. People want tomatoes on their burgers in the winter. So we’ll find the best tomatoes we can from say, a hot house in West Virginia. But you have to get creative with what you use,” Wiss says.
Wiss was trained in culinary school to work with what ingredients are available seasonally, but not locally. It’s a skill he’s learned from other chefs specializing in locally sourced menus. And what comes from working with local farmers in season? Better taste, Wiss says.
“Why should we buy asparagus in January from Peru? There’s no point in it. It doesn’t take like asparagus,” he says.
Farmers couldn’t agree more.
More than a dozen stands line Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring, Md., for a farmers market every weekend. Many of them are part of the Fresh Farm Markets co-op run out of Washington, D.C.
The weekend market is dominated by vegetables, but shoppers can also buy fresh eggs, fish and pastries. Bundles of fruit and berries are no where to be found, because it’s March, not August.
“Last night in a restaurant, I had a dessert and they put berries on it. And the berries had no flavor. I had to pay for them, but the raspberry was, I don’t know, 3,000 miles away from where it grows. And it didn’t seem to have a happy trip,” says Ann Yonkers, who runs Fresh Farm Markets and advocates for buying local.
Fresh Farm Markets pulls from farmers in five states and puts on 10 farmers markets in the D.C. region, including the popular market in Dupont Circle each weekend.
Locally sourced food is not a new trend for restaurants, but Yonkers argues it shouldn’t be new to hotel chains either.
“When I go into a hotel, I would like it to be predictable that I would find things that were in season and typical of that area,” she says.
“So, it’s going to taste like the Chesapeake Bay region. And that should taste different than it does in Louisiana and in New York, and that’s exciting,” she says.
In New York, THE LCL: Bar and Kitchen — an acronym that stands for the word local — recently opened at the Westin Grand Central. Surrounded by Sbarro stores and street markets, it’s one of the few places to buy a locally-sourced sandwich for blocks.
The menu offer diners a taste of the meats and cheeses from farmers nearby, and it’s an entirely different menu than travelers will find at the Westin in D.C.
LCL Chef Brian Wieler couldn’t choose his favorite item on the menu between the mac and cheese made with local cheeses or the flank steak sourced from a local farmer’s humanely-raised cattle. The LCL also uses organic juices for its cocktails.
“In years past and still today, a lot of the hotel chains are sticking to their very generic, very Cisco-esque cuisine,” Melfi says. He says he’s proud to be working for the Park Hyatt where a chef-driven “sourcefully-thought, locally grown” mantra is a priority.
Beyond the improved experience for the chef and the diner, Yonkers says the hotel industry’s purchasing power is changing the livelihoods for many regional farmers.
“Just like any business, you want a farmer to have multiple ways of selling what they grow. So having something predictably to be sold wholesale — you really want that to exist,” she says.
When asked, each chef adamantly agreed their relationship with the farmer makes for a better prepared dish. Melfi, of the Blue Duck Tavern — which works with five local farms — says he feels linked to the food.
“You’re very connected to the people that grow it … We have one guy who raises all of our eggs. We have one guy who we buy most of his cheese if not all of his cheese just for us,” Melfi says.
Wiss says the farmers’ determination and work ethic inspires him.
“What we buy is what really matters to the local economy. And (the farmer) relies upon my order to buy a new irrigation pump and pay his bills, and buy food for his dog,” Wiss says.