What is the threshold for a “sustainable, local, seasonal” restaurant?

What is the threshold for a “sustainable, local, seasonal” restaurant?
What is the threshold for a “sustainable, local, seasonal” restaurant?

What is the threshold for a “sustainable, local, seasonal” restaurant?

Chicago Firehouse grilled salmon

The terms “sustainable,” “local,” and “seasonal” have become as ubiquitous on local menus as those annoying posters for Tito’s Handmade Vodka I see in every bar lately. Do chefs and restaurateurs really think they’re fooling us? They must. It’s unfortunate too, because all of this name-checking and farmer-worshipping - while noble - really diminishes the hard work of the restaurants that have been sticking to this mantra long before it became fashionable.

My big question is: at what point can a restaurant claim it has a “sustainable” philosophy? Should all of the seafood be responsibly harvested? If you say you work with local, seasonal produce, does that mean it’s o.k. to have tomatoes and asparagus on your winter menu? These are always the kinds of things that stick in my craw. I realize most diners just accept it and say to themselves, “oh that’s so nice that we’re eating in a restaurant where the chef really cares about our environment and the carbon footprint and all,” but it’s also code for “this food costs more because we’re taking extra steps to ensure that our suppliers are responsible - and most likely smaller than the large, agri-business farming operations - and we hope you’ll agree that this is something that is worth the extra expense.”

Guys like Bruce Sherman and Paul Kahan and Rick Bayless have been doing this sort of cooking for years. As much as Sherman claims he’s a supporter of local produce, you’ll see names like Nichols, Klug and Prairie Fruits Farm to back it up. When Bayless has a new ceviche on the menu at Frontera, you know the fish has been vetted, making sure it comes from sustainably-caught fisheries.

So it was with some disappointment - and a little annoyance - when I got a pitch to do a story on chef Kendal Duque, the recently-appointed Executive Chef at The Chicago Firehouse, a South Loop steakhouse that’s always been solid, but certainly not among my top 20 culinary destinations in town.

I noticed on the chef’s bio from the Chicago Firehouse website, that having come from the kitchens of Tru, NoMI and Sepia, he has “a passion for sustainable cooking and efforts to purchase only seasonal, fresh ingredients from local farmers when available.” His cooking style is described as “simple and sophisticated with an emphasis on clean, bright flavors.”

“Wonderful!” I thought. Finally, a steakhouse that’s going to ditch the cliché side dishes of potatoes 12 ways and really add some local nuance to a tired formula. Then I noticed “grilled salmon” in the Surf section of the dinner menu, which was obviously Atlantic and farmed, since their lunch menu lists it as Atlantic. According to the Shedd Aquarium’s “Right Bite” seafood card, farmed, Atlantic salmon is clearly on the “Avoid” side, as are imported king crab (also on the menu) and Atlantic/Pacific imported cod (menu says “roasted cod,” but in order to be sustainable, it has to be Pacific - Alaska longline - caught, and the menu did not specify this). As for sustainability in the extensive beef/pork program, there were no signs that the pigs were coming from responsibly-farmed operations like Slagel Farm in Fairbury, IL or Becker Lane Organic Farm in Iowa. By virtue of selling all corn-fed beef (which typically contains antibiotics, as opposed to grass-fed and grass-finished), there was no indication that even this featured protein was being sourced sustainably, rather than from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), which, if you’ve read Ominvore’s Dilemma, know is not a good place.

Then there’s the issue of his efforts to purchase only seasonal, fresh ingredients from local farmers. Not sure where baby spinach (Oysters Rockefeller), tomatoes (iceberg wedge) and sides of asparagus are coming from this time of year, but I’m pretty sure they’re not from the Midwest.

My favorite disconnect, however, is with respect to the claim that the food has an “emphasis on clean, bright flavors.” Really? When did smoked bacon, truffle sauce, truffle potato puree, pork belly and lobster bisque (with puff pastry) become considered “clean” flavors, and how do you spin the fact that in the Turf section alone, there are crusts made from blue cheese and black truffles, as well as bordelaise and béarnaise sauces?

I know Mr. Duque is talented and he’s certainly not alone in Chicago; he’s probably hamstrung by a clientele expecting big, bold, beefy flavors. Unfortunately, his menu is my example du jour here. When I asked the publicist about this seemingly obvious disconnect between philosophy and execution, I never got a response. But I would love to know from some experts out there: if you’re going to say your kitchen deals in the sustainable, local, seasonal kind of business diners are interested in, what is the threshold? 100%? 50% 10% of your menu?