Kitchen Sourcery

21st January 2009 (Last Updated January 21st, 2009 18:30)

Finding the best quality ingredients for environmentally and economically conscious diners of the 21st century has top chefs and food and beverage directors reverting to almost hunter-gatherer methods of sourcing, writes Jodie McLeod.

Kitchen Sourcery

Where can you find the freshest, tastiest honey in the world? Some say the Hadramaut Mountains in the south-western Arabian Peninsula and others say New Zealand, but executive head chef of the Langham Hotel’s Landau restaurant in London, Andrew Turner, says the best honey will come straight from the beehives on his hotel rooftop.

In the present age of environmental do-goodism and economic anxiety, impressing restaurant guests is no longer about wowing them with exotic ingredients from afar, and nor is it simply about flavour. Today, as diners become more mindful of the bigger picture rather than their bellies alone, head chefs and food and beverage directors have realised that locally sourced food is what makes customers’ mouths water.

Quality is proportional to the distance the food has travelled from its origin to the plate; the fewer miles, the better. The trend has led to executive chefs rummaging through their back gardens for the freshest, most minimally handled, seasonal ingredients.

In 2009, Turner plans to install two beehives on the roof of the Langham Hotel, from which he’ll fetch freshly made honey for breakfast dishes and other meals. In Spain José Ramón Piñeiro, head chef of the Marques de Riscal in Elciego, will source his Cameros goat’s cheese from the last remaining goat herd in the tiny Basque-country village, and his wine from the hotel’s own vineyards.

The hunter-gatherer approach is reflective of a wider shift in sourcing trends, and in what customers want and value in their restaurant experience.

‘People want to know where their food comes from,’ says Henri Brosi, executive chef of The Dorchester hotel in London. ‘They also look into the way the food has travelled and how long it takes to reach the table.’

Brosi rarely sources ingredients outside of a 300-mile radius from home. He has 15 core local suppliers with whom he works in tandem to create products that meet his exact specifications.

Any new suppliers are put through a rigorous inspection process because, like his customers, Brosi wants to know exactly where the new product comes from.

‘I go directly to the farmer or producer and look at how they rear, handle and feed their breeds, because this has a big influence on the flavour of the cuts. And I look at transportation – how far the apple trees are from the farm, and what kind of philosophy the producer brings into rearing livestock purely. What makes it special?’

Mark Goncalves, group purchasing manager for London-based Firmdale Hotels, sources locally because it ‘reduces our carbon footprint, supports the local economy and means we get a better quality product,’ he says. The hotel group also sends its kitchen staff on excursions to visit the farm (Laverstoke Park Organic Farm) from which the restaurants source their organic produce, which is only 50km from the centre of London.

Goncalves says that staff’s first-hand knowledge of the ingredients’ origin gives the customer confidence.

‘If the chef says "I have this lovely carrot that comes from down the road," that has more meaning,’ he says.

Challenges of local sourcing

Purchasing niche ingredients from local producers can present difficulties – mostly in terms of availability.

Brosi encounters this on occasion. With four of the busiest dining venues in London as well as room service, he has to ensure his ingredients can be sustained on a large scale and at a top level over the tenure of each season’s menu.

But with a penchant for rare breeds such as salt marsh and Herwick lamb or longhorn beef (Brosi is a member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust) bought from boutique suppliers, this is hard to do.

‘My aim is to let everybody experience a product, but if I work with suppliers that have about 80 livestock, who can only release a limited amount of meat every two months, it can be hard,’ he says.

“My aim is to let everybody experience a product.”

Brosi’s solution is to keep his fine dining outlets small, limited to 40 or 50 people, or even smaller, as with the Dorchester’s private dining outlet, the Krug room, which seats just 12 guests.

‘Then I can put everything on the table,’ he says.

And while higher costs would seem a likely consequence of sourcing locally – surely farmers would have to hike up their prices to ensure they survive in a limited market – Brosi doesn’t think so.

‘The practice is cost beneficial, because you cut out the middle man,’ he says. ‘If you don’t buy direct you have up to 35% price increases.’

And what happens when the better-quality, more flavoursome ingredient comes from outside the hotel’s locality – such as Kobe beef from Japan, goose liver from France, or pata negra ham from Spain? Where should the chef’s loyalties lie: with the environment and the local economy, or with the guest?

If one is to stay ahead in the fine dining ranks, there must be exceptions to the ‘local’ rule of thumb, says Goncalves, who sources Firmdale’s pasta and olive oil from Italy. Even Brosi admits that for restaurants focused on serving authentic cuisine from another country, the ingredients should largely be sourced from that area.

But the way to avoid sourcing such internationally revered foodstuffs, Brosi suggests, is to offer a locally produced alternative on the menu. At The Dorchester, 50% of the hotel’s business traveller contingent is from the US, where – as is the case in London – Kobe and particularly Wagyu beef are popular.

But Brosi says that when people from the US come to London, they’re more interested in trying the local Wagyu equivalent – cuts from the Aberdeen Black Angus breed.

New concepts liven up local fare

When most of your hotel guests are local to the region, however, native cuisine alone isn’t always enough to excite palettes.

Paul Tribolet, Starwood Hotels’ senior vice-president for food and beverage for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, says that showcasing the local cuisine is a big part of Starwood’s restaurant philosophy. But because 70% of the clientele at Starwood’s European hotels come from Europe and 65% of its guests at Middle Eastern hotels come from the Middle East, the traditional fare must be livened up with new concepts to ensure the menu is interesting to everyone.

‘Whether San Sebastian, the South of France or Munich, each destination has its local specialities. While we want to offer these to our international guests, we try to enhance them with interesting concepts, such as fusing Asian and European cuisine,’ he says.

In one concept, Starwood’s Westin brand of hotels has aligned with the health food company Super Foods RX to provide healthier eating options on all Westin Hotel menus. The Super Food meal options are based on ultra-nutritious ingredients known for their health qualities, including broccoli, avocado, blueberries and walnuts.

An advantage of this concept, says Tribolet, is that ingredients can usually be sourced locally.

Starwood’s Paris hotels experimented at the end of 2008 with a 100 Mile Menu, for which each hotel restaurant used ingredients sourced exclusively within 100 miles of the city. For another concept, the W hotels of Istanbul, Doha and Atlanta teamed up with celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten to create a brand new restaurant concept called Spice Market – designed to emulate the bustling street food markets of Southeast Asia.

At Spice Market, bowls of curry and salad dishes are served in the middle of tables to be eaten and shared, family-style.

‘We have had great success with this because we use all the oriental spices we have in Turkey, combined with the food, fish and vegetables available in the local market,’ says Tribolet.

The Marques de Riscal also jazzes up its traditional fare with an avant-garde approach. General manager Alexander Peev says: ‘The purpose of our restaurants is that people who come to our hotels want to try the cuisine from the Rioja region. To travellers from around the world, our traditional ingredients seem exotic, but for the local guests, who make up 80% of the clientele, we fuse this with contemporary techniques.’

At the hotel’s 1860 restaurant, traditional dishes such as Riojan lambs' feet sit side-by-side on the menu with contemporary garnishes such as wine-shoot scented oil or yoghurt mousse.

Andrew Turner at The Landau delights in using contemporary techniques to put a surprising twist on familiar ingredients, such as grating Fisherman’s Friend (a menthol-flavoured lozenge) into a smoked salmon dish (‘Fisherman’s Friend opens up the olfactory glands behind your nose, and the combination of that with smoked salmon, beetroot and basil is mind blowing’); or using alginate bath made from seaweed to seal a ball of yoghurt and mango purée into the shape of a boiled egg.

As for the future of the altruistic local sourcing trend, it’s hard to predict. In the present economic climate it would ideally continue, but in an industry where growth is dictated by fluctuating customer needs this may be too good to be true.

Sooner rather than later, Brosi believes that customer needs may move away from eco-eating and towards more global gastronomy.

‘The biggest trend will be in Asian food,’ he says. ‘My clients ask me about it, so there’s a lot of Thai, Vietnamese and Pacific Rim influence in my 2009 menus. Demand for this is getting stronger, and you have to adapt to it.'