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VOL. 36 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 30, 2012

Changing the world, one chef at a time

Tayst’s Barlow writes manifesto for improving the quality of our food and how it's brought to market

By Hollie Deese

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Tayst chef Jeremy Barlow didn’t set out to change the world. He just wanted to make incredibly delicious food. And for him, that meant using the best ingredients he could find.

But the chef once known for his Krispy Kreme bread pudding has changed his idea of what those ingredients are. Now, in the kitchen at Tayst, 90 percent of the food comes from local sources and those sources are 100 percent sustainable. That’s a big change for a self-described fast food addict.

“It was a complete evolution,” he says of his food philosophy. “For years, fast food was what I ate just like everybody else. I am a regular person and found this philosophy. Or I guess it found me. It is the right way to do things. It is the right way to operate a restaurant. It is the right way to cook and eat food and it is the right food to get.”

Diners at his restaurant began to see ingredients on the menu from area farm, and Barlow became a champion of nose-to-tail cooking by using nearly every component of the animal. Vegans and vegetarians easily found items on the menu they could enjoy. Waste was minimized, leftovers were composted and, last year, he was 2011 Sustainable Food Leader of the Year by the Lipscomb University Institute for Sustainability’s Green Business Leadership Awards.

Eventually, Barlow found himself having coffee and meeting with other chefs and people in the food industry interested in embracing this way of cooking and operating a restaurant. So much so that he decided to write a book, the recently published Chefs Can Save the World.

“The beginning purpose of the book was about why you should have a green restaurant and how to do it,” he says. “But what I quickly found out as I wrote is how powerful the restaurant industry is and how much of a difference chefs can make by the way they get food. Just by the nature of how the food system is connected, I really interweaved that and made it the main premise.”

The power chefs hold is no exaggeration. According to the National Restaurant Association, $632 billion dollars will be spent eating out in 2012. That’s nearly 50 percent of the total food dollars spent in this country. In 2010, the average household spent $2,500 eating out. By changing the way chefs get their food, switching to local sources instead of large corporate providers, Barlow says the industry itself will have to change in order to meet demand.

“That is a lot of money chefs are in control of,” Barlow says. “We have a significant ability to make a big dent in the profit margins of these big food production companies. We don’t have to buy genetically modified corn. We don’t want processed food. We want them to get us the basic stuff and that is what we are looking for.”

The subject matter isn’t new territory. The book Fast Food Nation was published a decade ago, with author Eric Schlosser pulling back the curtain on the industrialization of the food industry. But is it possible for a region known for fried pies and meat-and-threes to truly embrace this philosophy?

George Green thinks so. He is the vice president of Bread and Company, which has four Middle Tennessee locations, and a columnist for QSR magazine, a trade publication for the food industry, focusing on fast-casual restaurants.

“I have always heard about people going sustainable and buying local and thought that was great to do, but never have been completely sold until I read Jeremy’s book,” Green says. “Those of us in the industry, especially those of us with chain restaurants, have been resistant going with more local stuff just because it was hard. Or they couldn’t get the kind of product or amount of product when they wanted it. However, Jeremy proves you can go out there and do it. It is kind of a good challenge for the industry and really chefs at all levels. Even into levels of the big chains.”

Not that Bread and Company is making the switch. “I don’t make that decision,” Green says.

“They haven’t really done it mainly because of the quantity of food. But there are fast casual places in other parts of the country who are doing it, especially in the Pacific Northwest. And they are doing very well with it.”

Barlow is convinced real change is possible one chef at a time, mainly because the current model of industrialized food is young. Just 40 years ago, farming was a viable industry, and many people grew food for themselves in backyard gardens. If it changed in one generation, Barlow thinks it can change back in another.

So he set out to prove it was possible by opening Sloco, a sandwich shop in the 12South neighborhood. He gives 5 percent of his profits to Community Food Advocates, uses bikes instead of cars to deliver and uses 95 percent local ingredients.

Interest in local farmers is certainly growing, and Barlow hopes that trend continues as more chefs demand their products. But there is still a lot of work to be done to encourage people that farming is a viable career option. Stephanie and Daniel Allen are third generation farmers on 120 acres in Williamson County, which has never seen a chemical. They are launching a CSA this spring with 40 members and hope to begin providing food to local restaurants. Their farm is self-sufficient, yet they are having a hard time insuring their business.

“We have been trying to get insurance for our farm and we have been told by multiple insurers – most of which have the name ‘Farm’ in their title – that they can’t insure us because we don’t have a typical business,” Stephanie says. “If farming is no longer a typical business in America, where are people getting their food?”

Often that food comes from Mexico and Chile, where it spends days being shipped to local groceries. That changes the flavor, uses energy and deprives local farmers of getting paid for their work.

“I feel pretty strongly that food shouldn’t be the result of trends and studies and demographic surveys,” Stephanie says. “It should be the result of a farmer’s hard work, of soil and seed and sowing and harvest. That is where real sustainable food comes from.”

As a vegan who mainly chooses raw options, Kate O’Neill is pretty limited in the restaurants where she can eat. But more than the items on menu, she says her choices are even more limited because she wants to spend money at establishments that use local food. She often ends up dining at City House, Wild Cow, Tayst, Sloco and Margot.

But she cooks at home, also, picking up produce from the farmers market or the Turnip Truck.

“It is such a great idea and such a great concept to be trying to inspire other chefs to be thinking about,” she says of Barlow’s book. “It seems it does just take one thought leader in the community to put that idea out there before other chefs start thinking about how they can make that impact, even in small ways.”

Barlow anticipates more and more diners voting with their fork like O’Neill as the focus on local food continues.

The flood in 2010 put a big spotlight on what might happen if trucks somehow are not able to deliver food to the stores, but the problem seems too big to fix.

“When you step back and look at the whole thing, it is huge and overwhelming,” Barlow explains. “What area do you focus on first? Health, how food is grown, water quality? Do you focus on the loss of culture by homogenizing the way we eat? Do we focus on national security and the fact we can’t feed ourselves?

“There are so many different aspects, so which one do you touch? Inevitably if you focus on one you are going to affect the other ones in some way.”

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