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Serious About Sustainability

Two Connecticut Chefs Manage To Cook With Local Products, Even In Dead Of Winter

Deborah Hornblow

February 17, 2011

In this day and age, we hear a lot about "sustainable" cooking. But in the middle of a harsh Connecticut winter, when absolutely nothing appears to be growing locally, what can that possibly mean?

We checked in with two Connecticut chefs, both proponents of sustainable cuisine, to find out what they are doing and how they are doing it.

"Obviously, it's New England; we're totally limited," says Sean Farrell, executive chef at Firebox in Hartford. But only by imagination, he suggests.

Even with 10-foot snow banks outside the restaurant and the small garden in the rear under several feet of snow, the commitment to cooking with local ingredients remains. Sustainability "definitely means cooking locally what's in season, using as many products that are as close to us as possible," he says. "We work a lot with Urban Oaks [organic farm in New Britain], and we use things that are cellared, a lot of root vegetables — parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas. We're not going to have tomatoes in February."

Joel Viehland, chef and owner of the Community Table restaurant in Washington, Conn., is committed to the same practice. Summer, winter, autumn and spring, the chef sets a high standard.

"As of right now [with very few exceptions], we haven't bought anything that's not from Connecticut or within a 200-mile radius" of the restaurant, he says. Viehland sources ingredients from purveyors and suppliers in New York, which is 95 miles from his door, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Whenever he can, he deals with Connecticut farmers, often driving his fuel-efficient van out to pick up ingredients. (He regrets that the van wasn't made in Connecticut.)

What does Viehland do for vegetables in winter when nothing is growing outside? Months ago, he stocked up on root vegetables when they were in season, loading up the restaurant's walk-in. He does a lot of pickling and preserving. He buys local meats and seafood. He cures some meats, making duck prosciutto, pancetta and cured hog jowl. He makes terrines and forcemeats. He freezes fruits such as berries and vegetables.

The menus at both restaurants are filled with mouth-watering, seasonal temptations — the kind of food your body craves when winter is at its worst. In early February, Viehland's offerings included hunter's soup with mushroom, pheasant, vegetables and nasturtium; halibut brandade with marinated roasted beets and crostini; and Lola duck with root vegetable purée, braised red cabbage, roasted apples, and Concord grape sauce.

Farrell featured Eaglewood Farm pork two ways with bean cassoulet and piquillo peppers; Stonington sea scallops with caramelized onion and fennel, edamame beans, apple and pomegrante, and lobster reduction; and pan-roasted duck breast with root vegetable hash, pancetta, arugula and cauliflower purée.

But sourcing and using local ingredients is only one-third of the challenge when it comes to sustainability, says Viehland.

"There are three factors that you want to try to address: where you get your ingredients, how you're cooking, and what you do with waste."

Viehland cooks using propane and electricity. He has solar panels on the roof of the restaurant. When it comes to cleaning dishes and equipment, he and his staff use Seventh Generation soap.

"You want to make sure that whatever you're putting into the water is OK for fish and the soil," Viehland says. The restaurant's fryer oil is picked up by Western Massachusetts Rendering.

"They pick up our oil, pay us something for it and make bio-diesel. The fat from our stocks, the fryer oil, the animal fat, that's where it goes."

At least half of the restaurant's other waste — food scraps, cardboard, bottles and cans — is composted or recycled.

"We have four bins with lids for compost. Anything that can be recycled gets recycled," Viehland says. Where most restaurants fill a dumpster in a single night, it takes Viehland and his staff a week to accumulate that amount of waste.

Is sustainable cooking harder to manage in the Northeast?

"It doesn't take that much effort, once you get used to it," Viehland says. That said, there are some challenges.

Farrell, who grew up in Bristol but spent a few years cooking in San Francisco, says sustainable practices are further advanced in the Bay Area.

Here, "It's a little more complicated, but it's doable. In San Francisco, all you had to do was call one guy. There was no legwork. Sourcing here requires a lot of groundwork. You go to the farms and meet people. Small farms deliver only one day a week. It's a big juggling act" to make sure the deliveries are staged so the food shows up when you need it.

Farrell says Firebox is fortunate to be part of the Billings Forge operation, which includes a garden and a year-round farmers market.

Other challenges to sustainable cuisine involve food safety issues and legal wrangles. Viehland and Farrell cannot purchase chickens from local farmers because Connecticut lacks a poultry slaughterhouse.

"There are chickens being raised right down the road in Cornwall, and I can't buy them," Viehland says. The reasons have to do with food safety and inspection issues and U.S. Department of Agriculture stipulations. Viehland and Farrell have attended meetings designed to lobby for the creation of a mobile poultry slaughterhouse, something Viehland hopes will happen within a year.

Neither chef can imagine going back to less sustainable methods of preparing and serving food.

"[Conventional] restaurants are the worst," says Viehland, who was drawn to sustainable practices after working at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans. "It was the first time it really shocked me. I looked at the amount of waste, and it was astonishing. I saw how much they were throwing away — a lot of perfectly good food — and there's so much poverty in New Orleans. Restaurants remind me of a monster that doesn't care; they just use up resources as fast as they can get them. I quit [the hotel]. Other restaurants were doing the same, so I didn't want to work at a restaurant anymore."

Viehland, who previously worked at Gramercy Tavern and Quilty's, both in Manhattan, moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he worked at a restaurant called Noma. There he discovered a different way of doing things.

"They don't use olive oil or lemon juice. [Their attitude was:] 'It doesn't grow here, so we don't use it.'"

Viehland embraced the notion of what he calls "creating a cuisine," which at Noma meant a Nordic cuisine based exclusively on what is local, seasonal and sustainable.

For Farrell, the importance of sustainability became evident during his sojourn in San Francisco, where restaurants are required to compost.

"It's mandatory," he says. "At first I was, like, 'What?' That was back in 2003." He hopes the practice will be more widely adopted on this side of the country.

Viehland goes further. "It shouldn't be a choice that businesses have," he says. "It should be enforced."

Meanwhile, are the chefs tired of winter's root vegetables?

"Every season, that's the fun part," Farrell says, laughing. He and his staff wonder what they can make next with rutabagas or parsnips. Farrell admits to feeling the same way toward the end of zucchini or tomato season. "But the [season of] root vegetables is the longest."

That season ends for Viehland soon. He closes the restaurant during March, a break inspired by two things: the challenges of sustainability and the desire to recharge himself before the busy spring-summer-fall marathon begins.

The mounds of white stuff notwithstanding, spring is just around the corner. Viehland rattles off a list of the wild, native plants that grow outside his door in the warmer months.

"Right in my back yard, there's purslane, chickweed, wood sorrel, mugwort, phlox flowers, wild carrot [which most of us know as Queen Anne's lace]. You can cut the flowers and put them in vases, then let the roots grow. You have to cook a wild carrot a little bit longer because it's a little woody. There is curly dock, wild strawberries, wild asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, stalks from Japanese knotweed — it tastes like rhubarb," Viehland says.

If Viehland had his druthers, we would all have "plant knowledge," the kind that a mother bear spends two years teaching her cub — "what to eat, and what not to eat" from the salad bar growing in the back yard.

Farrell and Viehland's commitments to sustainable practices suggest a culinary activism that goes beyond the traditional role of a chef. But if both are crusaders, they separately resist the label.

"I don't think I'm a rah-rah activist person, but we're leading by example," says Farrell.

Viehland also shrugs at the notion of being a pioneer. "I'm not the first person to start doing this," he says. "Lots of people — like Alice Waters — took it upon themselves to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You have to do these things so you're not part of the problem."

The Firebox is at 539 Broad St., Hartford. Information: http://www.fireboxrestaurant.com or 860-246-1222.

The Community Table, 223 Litchfield Turnpike, Washington, will be closed for March. Information: 860-868-9354 or http://www.communitytablect.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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