Restaurants embrace zero-kilometer philosophy
Like so many brilliant food developments, it started in Italy. The idea was to make delicious and beautiful dishes in season with local ingredients. Zero-kilometer dining promised to be eco-friendly, sourcing every ingredient from with 100 km (about 60 miles) to eliminate long journeys that resulted in high emissions. It emphasized using local ingredients while they’re fresh, so menus vary depending on the time of year, and there’s not a lot of energy going toward freezing and refrigeration. Sustainability is the name of the game. With global supply chains in disarray, restaurants have turned to hyperlocal sourcing to sustain themselves.
Every region has its own delicacies. Restaurants in New England don’t hesitate to tout their clam chowder, those in Argentina a steak with a nice glass of red wine, and so on. Diners aren’t flocking to Kansas City for the seafood. So, when COVID made it harder to source ingredients from around the world, restaurants had to pivot. They served what they could get their hands on, forging and deepening connections with local suppliers.
“Over the past couple of years, we have watched supply chains take a real hit which has created the closest thing to scarcity that most modern chefs have experienced. So, the desire that I have always had to cook light, vegetable-forward, sustainable cuisine has become something I feel will be more and more prevalent in the coming years as food chains create a need for chefs to cook with more local ingredients,” Scott Bacon, chef at Magdalena in Baltimore, told Food & Wine.
With fewer moving parts, more things are in a restaurant’s control, and it’s easier to predict what will and won’t be available on the menu. With food prices well above normal for the last year, a zero-kilometer philosophy has let them transition to what they can get locally without paying shipping premiums. Plus, it supports local businesses, a major emphasis in the restaurant industry after the pandemic forced longtime local establishments across the country to close.
That combination of supply chain problems and high food prices has forced chefs to tighten their menus. With margins already thin, restaurants are counting on ingredients they can reliably and affordably obtain. Labor shortages have also made chefs keep things simple, so the cooks who are on hand have a more limited range of dishes to prepare on a busy night. Chefs are getting creative to minimize waste and maximize the ingredients they do have.
“With the rising cost of goods and inflation, menus now more than ever are being built to cross-utilize ingredients as much as possible. There is an even larger focus on local ingredients because local supply chains are not as broken as the global chains,” Kelsey Bush, co-owner and head chef of Philadelphia’s Bloomsday Café, told Food & Wine.
The trend toward plant-based and flexitarian diets fits nicely with the zero-kilometer spirit, since although vegetables have also risen in price, they remain less expensive than meat, and it’s easier to locally source a variety of options. They’re also more sustainable than meat production.
“I believe vegetables will continue to move to the center of the plate. Chefs will become more creative with vegetables by studying seasonal availability as well as regions and cuisines around the world where vegetables, not meat or seafood, are the primary ingredients.” Michelin-starred chef Jonathan Benno told Food & Wine.
There’s no more prominent example of this than Eleven Madison Park, which has three Michelin stars and was voted best restaurant in the world in 2017, announcing its tasting menu would switch to all plant-based last year.
Taking it Slow
As labor shortages continue, many restaurants have cut back their opening hours or the number of nights per week they’re open. Just about everyone who has been working in the restaurant industry through the pandemic is exhausted. Chefs routinely worked brutal hours before COVID, and the fight just to stay open the last two years has left many at their breaking points.
“So many of us in the restaurant industry have worked our butts off to pivot and survive during the pandemic. Now we’re burned out and exhausted and the pandemic just keeps going! A central challenge for 2022 will be accepting the fact that disruptions — whether pandemic, climate, or supply-chain related — are now a permanent part of the landscape. If we’re going to keep our core team intact over the long haul and stay true to our mission, it might mean cutting back on some services, bowing out of some events, and generally saying ‘adios’ to anything superfluous that threatens our ability to serve great food and take care of people over the long haul,” Caroline Glover, chef and owner of Annette in Aurora, Colo., told Food & Wine.
Taking it easy not only can help chefs and employees with burnout, an all-too-common problem in restaurant life, it can create a better atmosphere for diners too. After limits on in-person dining the last couple years, a certain subset of patrons is eager to make dining out a special occasion, getting all dressed and enjoying a relaxing, multi-course meal fine-dining experience. That’s perfectly in line with the spirit of the Slow Food movement, a forerunner to the zero-kilometer movement that also began in Italy. Slow Food’s pillars are good, clean, and fair, and the aim is to celebrate and preserve the unique contributions localities make to gastronomy.
The last couple of years have been especially hard on restaurants, but by embracing zero-kilometer principles and slowing down a bit, chefs are working toward their silver lining.