Opinion / 16.02.17

The Grassroots Revolution In Haute Cuisine

This article was originally published in Hudson Walker / Opinion.


Boosted by changing consumer attitudes, a push towards transparency and the battle for greater control over what we consume, hyper-local sourcing is proving to be more than just a passing food trend. Rather, it’s a fresh movement which is flourishing in the lap of luxury. Haute cuisine is headed for one hell of a detox.

 
 
 
 

In the land of luxury fare, a subtle revolution has been unfurling, the seeds of which have been budding for some time, but are just now beginning to flourish with gusto.

Originally championed by culinary pioneers, such as the likes of De Kas in Amsterdam, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and Matt Moran’s Chiswick restaurant in Sydney, ‘hyper-local sourcing’ takes sustainability and the ‘farm-to-table’ concept to the next level and refers to restaurants which serve food that they have cultivated themselves, usually in the form of a backyard/rooftop garden or their own farm.

Although the concept is not entirely new – see Raymond Blanc’s Manoir au Quat Saisons — hyper-local sourcing is a trend which has been steadily gaining traction for some time and this year, it is at the tipping point to proliferate. 

“The most recent 2017 biggest trends report states ‘hyper-local sourcing’ voted as the number one concept and hottest haute cuisine topic.”

According to the most recent report from The National Restaurant Association, which surveyed 1,298 American Culinary Federation members in October about the biggest trends for 2017, it was voted the number one concept trend for this year, and hence, the hottest topic ahead for haute cuisine. The same survey in 2015 saw hyper-local sourcing claim only seventh-place on the list.

Its rising prevalence on a global scale has been fuelled by a mixture of factors — not least of all the David and Goliath-type battle (between giant conglomerates like Monsanto, Bayer and big chain producers versus small growers, enlightened chefs and bio enthusiasts), which is raging on the side-lines over who will eventually control the world’s food sources.

In recent times, this tug-of-war has intensified and been pushed further into the public eye by several haute chefs who have taken to arms and are becoming increasingly more vocal about the issue, endorsing this way of sourcing as the holy grail to safeguard the future of food as we know it.

Thanks to this added spotlight and easier access to information in the digital age, the message to join the grassroots movement is being heard loud and clear – and nowhere is it resounding more than with millennials, and particularly in the luxury arena, where patrons are becoming increasingly savvy, well-informed and choosy about what they consume, and demanding more transparency about where produce comes from and how it’s obtained.

Thus, with all signs suggesting that hyper-sourcing is soon ripe to boom on a bigger scale, the emphasis is now on for the greater luxury cuisine consort to respond accordingly, and in sync with the rising popularity of the trend. In fact, according to internationally-renowned food and restaurant consulting company Baum + Whiteman, it’s a collective industry move which is significantly overdue.

But, and herein lies the conundrum. Not everyone can comply – and that means that hyper-local sourcing is on track to become, not only the ultimate luxury for diners, but a culinary trend that could polarise the entire industry, by creating a new class of elite restaurateurs crowned ‘best’ by their ability to compete and cater to the demand for ‘home-grown’ food.

Why? Well, quite simply because in the pyramid of luxury, if we look at those goods or services at the very pinnacle, they are by and large: those which are of premium quality, hard to produce and even harder to get — so, essentially, where all factors align for market demand to outweigh supply — and hyper-local sourcing is on track to tick all those boxes, and then some.

However, while there’s no denying that hyper-local sourcing is the next big thing, whether it is actually a model which can be viably adopted by luxury restaurateurs on a bigger scale is another kettle of fish altogether.

Market demand is certainly there, but the basic fact is that implementation of hyper-local sourcing via in-house or adjacent facilities requires a significant amount of space, which, in most booming capital cities, already comes at a premium. It also involves a great deal of commitment, time and energy, not to mention the quantity of produce top restaurants would consistently have to churn out in order to properly cater to their clientele.

Sure, some luxury hotels and restaurants are already on the bandwagon (including — but not limited to — the Crosby Street Hotel, Waldorf-Astoria and, most recently, the Accor Hotels empire), but when you take a closer look and consider the physical space and resources that these frontrunners have at their disposal, it’s clear that they hold an obvious advantage above the rest.

So, for smaller players wanting to take this route, the transition to hyper-local sourcing will surely require a significant overhaul of not only business operations and budgeting, but perhaps also cooking techniques, menus, and basic infrastructure to facilitate the necessary space to grow produce.

That, or they could invest in purchasing their own farms, as L’Arpège in Paris, Meriwether’s in Portland, or Bacchanalia in Atlanta have done. Famed Nordic pioneer chef René Redzepi has also closed doors this year as he prepares to move his award-winning restaurant Noma to a new location which includes an on-site farm.

But then, not everyone has the kind of capital to buy an estate, and many cites also have laws restricting certain aspects of urban farming, both of which add extra hurdles for even the most eager restaurateurs.

“An intrinsic shift in how we eat is on its way, with hyper-local sourcing to become the future for highest quality luxury fare.”

However, on the latter note at least, some positive changes are beginning to occur.

Earlier this summer, Paris quietly passed a new law encouraging residents to help green-scape the City of Light by planting their own urban gardens, in a move signalling a significant shift in the making.

Down the line, it might also provide the perfect platform for a new age in big city gastronomy to blossom, where the parallel trend of the ‘sharing economy’ combines with that of hyper-local sourcing, and communal gardens evolve to supply fine dining establishments. Assaggio Ristorante in Adelaide Australia is doing it (his chefs, co-owners and family members now grow ingredients in their backyards, which supply at times up to 60% of the restaurant’s produce) — so it’s not so far-fetched.

We’re not quite there yet though. Interestingly, while the sharing mind-set may soon open doors to some innovative solutions for the implementation of hyper-local sourcing, it seems that same spirit of accessibility doesn’t yet apply to the open exchange of information on the subject. When contacted to offer some insight into their experiences and opinions on the hyper-local sourcing phenomenon, none of the culinary pioneers I contacted (10 in total) obliged.

But maybe their blanket silence says more than any official comment ever could. In fact, perhaps it’s the perfect example of the aforementioned exclusivity / elitist factor already coming into play.

Nevertheless, an intrinsic shift in how we eat is on its way, with hyper-local sourcing and ‘conscious’ cooking consequently on track to become the future for highest quality luxury fare, and it will be interesting to see how haute chefs adapt across the board.

However, what is certain, is that for those that do aspire to join the fresh top tier emerging in luxury cuisine, the ultimate challenge ahead will be to make it both physically possible and truly sustainable for their establishments, in all senses of the buzz word.


Words / Daniela Aroche

This article was originally commissioned by Hudson Walker.