Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, this is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used." -- Wendell Berry
“No one is growing turkey-craw beans any more. There are so many great varieties that were bred for taste that don’t get planted any more. It can’t be good when only 5 seed companies sell 75% of the seeds for our food” says Mark Baerwolf, sous-chef and now farmer for the Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. Baerwolf who together with Alex Young, chef/owner at the Roadhouse, have decided that growing their own food is the way to bring the taste of real, regional, local food back into the taste vocabulary of their customers. And although they may have taken their passion to an extreme, they are not alone among chefs in the area who believe that how we eat expresses our values. Customers are beginning to recognize the difference in those chefs and those restaurants who make serving local food a priority.
Because Michigan is among the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation, second only to California, it would make sense for this bounty to translate into delicious, local produce and meat and regional specialties like morels or thimbleberries on every Michigan fork. Instead, in restaurants and at home, we mostly eat food that came from other states or countries. Most of our region’s food goes to centralized processing plants as cheap commodities to be packaged and processed rather than to the tables of Chelsea or Milford or Detroit.
Lorraine Platman — owner of the Sweet Lorraine’s restaurants in Detroit, Livonia, and Southfield — thinks something is wrong with this picture. “We have a terrible problem in our state with getting food from the farms to the restaurants. In the U.S. people think of food as being a commodity item. We think of food as being cheap and don’t think of the value," she says. This failure to value a secure local food community has led to the strange situation where even agricultural states import most of the food that ends up on our tables.
Getting food from farms to restaurants is so difficult in part because we don’t have many local processors any more and the current system of commoditization has diminished the number of USDA slaughterhouses in our state to only 2. So, Michigan grapes go to make big company grape juice and it’s almost impossible to get a Michigan steak for dinner. Even with our agricultural riches, when commoditization of food is the norm, it’s truly a challenge for a chef to choose to work with the fresh, seasonal food of our region. It requires a level of effort driven by passion and a commitment to building relationships with individual farmers and producers.
Alex Young uses the passion that fuels him to put in a 75-hour work week at Zingerman’s Roadhouse and then spends his one day off growing vegetables for the restaurant. “My initial motivation was to grow food that tasted better, but the more I learn the more passionate I get about it. And knowing that 10 years from now this approach is helping farmers transition to growing food rather than sending their vegetables to a processing plant makes me feel good when I go to bed at night,” he says. With family in the Dexter area for 300 years, Young has a perspective on the history of the land and its foodways that takes in a long view of the importance of farms in securing a thriving Michigan community.
Part of that Michigan context is the narrowed scope of what’s available during the 6 months in our climate that are not summer. Instead of finding that a barrier Brian Polcyn, chef/owner of Milford’s Five Lakes Grill, is happy coaxing wonderful taste out of sometimes humble building blocks. “I’ve cooked for 33 years and still find pleasure in it every single day," he says. Even with “a winter soup that I would make – a white onion soup thickened with rice so it’s silky and creamy, then garnished with carmelized onion and some crispy fried onion on top of that. It’s the most humble root vegetable cooked 3 ways and it’s beautiful. That’s what is exciting to me. It takes skill to take something simple and turn it into a dynamic dish. But anything that’s good is hard.” Polcyn’s view is that some things, like seasonal produce and the humane treatment of animals raised for food, are just the right thing to do. And if he has to work harder and spend more to do what’s right and to get the flavor he wants, he’s going to do it.
Aaron Cozadd at the Clarkston Café in Clarkston would likely agree that good things don’t necessarily come easily. He struggles against the chokehold of commoditized food with an understanding that this is a zero sum game. “The more we buy the bad stuff, the less of the good stuff will be around. It’s hard to get passionate about low-quality commodity ingredients," he says. Cozadd makes it a point to work with the local Bittersweet Farm for produce like heirloom tomatoes and Werp Farm for specialty items like the golden corn shoots he loves. He finds "it’s a different experience when you get something special. There’s just a beauty to it and it fuels my passion for food.”
To get those special ingredients requires growing not just food but also a partnership between chef and farmer. Jimmy Schmidt of the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit explains, “The basic challenge in this climate is that the food all comes to harvest at the same time. I can’t use that many green beans at once.” He says, “I have to balance my economics with the farmer’s, convince him to plant some things later. I need diversity in order to supply the restaurant and to work out a plan for the menu so that they grow some things that I’m interested in and I take the extra sometimes. It’s growing and learning from season to season and it takes years to develop it.” This approach highlights both the effort and the interdependence of people in the community who care deeply about food.
It’s also clear that the interdependence extends further than just between farmer and chef. Nick Seccia, executive chef of the Henry Ford in Dearborn, says consumers have a crucial role to play by keeping farms in business and by advocating for local food in Michigan restaurants. “Ask for it, shop at independent places, eat in independent restaurants. They need as much support as they can get," Seccia says. "Spend your dollars in the right place. Think about it — does a big chain buy from farmers or care about anything but the commodity costs? No.”
Although it may not be advertised, dedicated food lovers know that benefits accrue from asking where the food comes from. There are a significant number of chefs and restaurants in our area working to bring the taste of real, regional, local food to their customers by working with local farmers and producers and now even by growing their own food. Aaron Cozadd says, “People have a lot more pull than they think. Chefs listen if people make a request in a respectful manner. Just ask. The server will come back to the chef, the chef will grumble and throw a pot around, but you hear that enough times and it makes an impression.”
Eating locally is about asking locally and each of us in this state has a part to play. Foods that taste of Michigan are the secret under-valued gems on both the peninsula and on the menu. Eating them will bring a smile to your face as well as a boost to your community.
Aaron Cozadd, Clarkston Café
Address: 18 S Main St., Clarkston, MI 48346-1524
Lorraine Platman, Sweet Lorraine’s
Address: 29101 Greenfield, Southfield, MI 48076
Jimmy Schmidt, The Rattlesnake Club
Address: 300 River Place, Detroit, MI 48207
Nick Seccia, The Henry Ford
Address: 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, MI 48124,
Alex Young, Zingerman’s Roadhouse
Address: 2501 Jackson Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48103