Austin Chefs on What "Locally Sourced" Means to Them
Small gardens have big impact on flavor
In our global economy, chefs can get fresh meat, dairy, and produce from all over the world thanks to massive food distributors and boutique suppliers. Over the last decade, locally sourced food has exploded in popularity, and become a focal point for menu development and bragging rights.
Since "locally sourced" isn't a regulated term, it's mostly up to individual interpretation. What is generally agreed on is that it's food from the consumers' area, usually within 200 miles or so. For Austin, that covers parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Hill Country, and as far away as Dallas and San Antonio. For Andrew Stiver, executive chef at Vista Brewing*, getting his product locally is about serving a community: "I wanted to make a difference in whatever way I could. It's a great responsibility for any chef."
That responsibility extends to the environment as well since massive cultivations of a single crop can deplete a region's soil. The overgrazing of livestock leaves land barren. Fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy also don't need to be packed, refrigerated, shipped, and distributed over thousands of miles. In Stiver's case, it's an eight-minute walk from his garden to his outdoor kitchen, so most days, he's serving things that were picked that morning.
What they don't get from their own garden, Vista often gets from the brewery and their neighbors. "It drove me crazy that we have all of these families and farms right here that produce awesome food that's fresh, but grocery stores are buying all their food from halfway around the world," said Stiver. While buying local or growing their own product gives chefs more control over the quality and freshness of their ingredients, it can be a double-edged sword. A dish can be very popular, utilizing bright summer fruits or hardy winter root vegetables, but when their growing season is over, it forces chefs to adapt.
"When things go out of season, the menu has to change quickly. Seasons are unpredictable here, and ingredients will change drastically from one week to the next. Things like eggplant or peaches or tomatoes – the quality of the ingredients fluctuate a lot," said Max Snyder, executive chef at Pitchfork Pretty.
The restaurant sits in the middle of the Eastside, but is fortunate enough to have a small garden down the street that the chefs use to fuel the menu. Occupying only an eighth of an acre, the garden has a hard time producing larger fruits and vegetables. Instead, Snyder mostly uses it to grow things he couldn't get otherwise. "It's a great source of constant newness: new ideas coming from a rotating cast of ingredients," he said.
Sourcing local provides excellent opportunities for chefs to showcase things coming from their backyards, but what about everything else that is used to round out a dish? Salts, seasonings, spices, oils, and vinegar? "You never want to sacrifice quality. Texas has made leaps and bounds when it comes to olive oils, but you don't see very many salt producers coming out of the Gulf," said Jesse DeLeon, executive chef at Rosewood.
Operating out of a converted Victorian house, DeLeon uses the challenge of local sourcing as a way to help shape his menu. He tries to get as many of his ingredients as possible either from the area, or from Texas in general. Drawing from the Gulf and Hill Country lets his food speak for his home state.
"[Rosewood] brings it back to a dish that either I grew up eating, or my cooks grew up eating, that brings back some nostalgia," said DeLeon. "We want people who grew up in Texas going, 'Wow, I remember eating this as a kid.' Or people who aren't from Texas to get a basic understanding of our food."[*Editor's Note: The name has been edited for clarification.]