The restaurant is quickly coming up on it's 3rd anniversary and as I look back over these past three years I am pleased to see our progress in championing local foods. We are very involved with many of the farm to table initiatives here in Northern Michigan. We sponsor a local community garden. We ask farmers to grow us foods that are on the Great Lakes Foods at Risk list. During summer months our menu is 100% Michigan and never gets below 75% even during the coldest, bleakest months of winter. In short, we try very hard to walk our talk.
Under "The Cooks' House" on our sign are the words, "local sustainable cuisine". We chose those words very carefully because the last thing we wanted to be was a cliche or just jumping on a band wagon. In our minds the two can only exist as a pair, for each feeds the other. So when someone asks us the kind of food we serve we tell them...local-sustainable. We believe in local food because of the quality of the ingredients we can get from it. Our food is produce/product driven. Our food is good because of the ingredients we get, not because of us.
But for sometime now, I have had a nagging feeling that we can do better. While we use foods grown and produced in our wonderful state, I still have to wonder if we are truly local. What does local mean? That's the question I've been asking myself for little over a year. One dictionary defines local as, "pertaining to or characteristic of, a certian place or location". I like that. Local food then can be defined by two distinguishing marks: 1) It must pertain to it's place or location. 2) It must be bear the characteristic of it's place or location. These are two sides of the same coin. Local food pertains to it's place by taking on the place's spirit, and it is charateristic of the place by being grounded in the place's terroir.
The spririt of the place means many things, but basically it is the personality of the place; the magic of the place. To discover this takes time. One has to do more than exist in a place to discover it's personality; one has live in and engage the place on it's own terms. We have to use all our senses to understand it. What does it smell like? Sound like? Look like? How it tastes will have everything to do with traditional foods. The place's likes and dislikes in food. It's attitude towards food and eating in general. Get to know the people, the customes, the attitudes, the aesthetics, and you will begin to understand the spirit of a place. A place's personality will have it's definable elements. Is it cosmopalitian? Rural? Progressive? Conservative? Hip? Artsy? There will also be those undefinable elements. Elements we just can't put our finger on, but somehow understand anyway. Elements you just feel.
Terroir is a French term that refers to the special charateristics that the geography, climate, and geology of the land a certian place will bestow upon what is grown there. I'm thinking not only of the flavor of what is grown but what actually grows in a given region; the barks, weeds, grasses, berries, sprouts, shoots, etc., that can be found in the local region. For me it's not only usingwhat the local farmers grow but also using what Mother Nature herself grows. It's what naturally grows in a given region that defines the terroir for me when thinking of local foods.
So a true local cuisine will be a product of it's place. It is often said if you want to understand a place, eat it's food and that is because a place's food is what naturally comes from the people who have lived there and now live there. It is a cuisine that takes what is offered and makes something of it. It is something that often takes generations to develop. A place's food is something that is natural to the place; it can't be forced. It has to appear on it's own and according to it's own terms. It is what god would cook if he so was inclined.
So this is the direction Jen and I have been wondering towards this past year or so. We are wanting to find someone we can put on staff who will go out foraging for us. We have enlisted the help of our good friend Penny Krebiehl who is an expert in permaculture hoping she can teach us some of her whiles and ways. We want to discover the cuisine of Northern Michigan. We want to listen to the spirit and terroir and help it find it's way onto a plate. The beauty of our continued quest for an even more local cuisine is it will take us a long time to get there. We have years of learning ahead of us. Our food will evolve many times before we reach our goal.