Originally printed in the November 2023 issue of Produce Business.
I have been paid to cook food for others for more than 45 years. Because of this vocation, I am often asked, “What was your favorite meal?” “Where is your favorite restaurant?” “What’s your favorite food?” I rephrase the question and respond with my most memorable meals — like the lovely dinner I had on the shoreline of Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay; or the sashimi bites from a freshly caught king salmon in Skwentna, AK; or the incredible dessert with golden passionfruit (lilikoi) that finished a meal on the Salkantay Pass in Peru.
I share these experiences not to expound on my travels, but to illustrate the relevance of place for each of these meals. None of the memories would have been the same without the grounding of place behind each of these events. This connection is what forms the backbone of the desire for local food.
A friend once stated she believed chefs were behind the movement to buy local, and I shared that, honestly, local was not a modern rallying protest cry — but an earlier acknowledgment of all that was available for cooks and chefs in their regions for years. It was not a conscious decision, but a practical one.
Regional specialties and cooking styles are defined by what was available seasonally, the flavors of that food were defined by the terroir of the soil and the waterways, and the cooking methods were defined by culinary heritage, lore and craft. Items like Scuppernong grapes and pawpaws, Vidalia onions and Maui pineapple are identified with their regions, and they mark a season and a distinct ingredient not available anywhere else in the country.
There was a purpose for each of the ingredients and an inherent regional menu that used them in conjunction with other local products, lending credence to the phrase: “If it grows together, it goes together,” a nod to both season and region.
Another facet of this regionally contained procurement system were the people involved — the growers and farmers, the small companies, the local restaurants, and grocers who all knew one another. It was a model micro-system for capacity and contingency, or cap/con, as we are used to accommodating today.Farmers and growers all knew one another and were familiar with one another’s seasonal yields. The local vendors and food outlets knew the seasons and change indicators and planned accordingly.
With the advent of several factors, the opportunities to purchase more products from further afield increased the reach and depth of these regional menus and consumers were delighted. Honestly, I’m delighted — year-round avocados, black garlic, finger limes, not to mention mâche and arugula in January — what’s not to love?
- Transportation methods became more efficient and affordable, creating a gateway for international and domestic items that had not previously been available to chefs.
- Trade barriers and tariffs were modified, reduced or eliminated, allowing for an exchange of fruits and vegetables from a variety of climates and established the opportunity for year-round supply of some menu favorites.
- Technological advancements in controlled atmosphere (CA) and cold storage extended the shelf life of perishable products and improved inbound and cross-national product quality and variety.
- Market demand and cultural dietary shifts pushed the boundaries for a broader variety of global products.
- Advances in specialized farming, seed genetics and soil optimization created products for areas that have since become known to be optimal for producing previously unfarmed yields and varieties.
And, at some point in the past 30 years of these very positive advancements, “local sourcing, buy local” started to be heard as a belligerent battle cry instead of a herald of a region’s riches. As a chef who has lived on all seven continents and has visited more than 45 states, this hurts my culinary heart.
Globalization, advancements, wholesale distribution and local sourcing are not mutually exclusive sales opportunities. As an industry, we will all benefit from recognizing we can provide a global, year-round product in tandem with a locally sourced specialty. As an industry, we have a PLACE to honor and acknowledge for each of the items we sell.
We have a PURPOSE — to provide the best possible quality and most flavorful products we can source and then share this with our customers.
If, as an industry, we become conditioned to tell the stories of the products we each sell, we will be building a larger community with connection and understanding of our rich heritage. We have a PURPOSE — to provide the best possible quality and most flavorful products we can source and then share this with our customers.
Finally, we are a community of PEOPLE. Connecting, networking, and sharing are some of the things we do best. We may no longer be the microcosm of a supply chain that necessitated buying local, yet we can foster and continue to strengthen a community that understands the parallel needs of regional specialties and global supply.
Because, honestly, this is what we do, every day. Bon Appetit!
An executive chef for more than 15 years before entering the produce industry, Jill Overdorf founded The Produce Ambassador to provide culinary guidance and outreach strategy to companies by connecting field, kitchen and foodservice consumer through education and advocacy for good food. Jill is known for professionalism, candor and a futuristic view, and is often invited to participate as a public speaker and as a contributor to ideation and development projects. In addition to her professional commitments, Jill is chair of the executive committee of the LA Food Policy Council. She has visited all seven continents and has found many favorite places around the world to eat and cook.