In Some Farm-to-Table Restaurants, Meat Doesn’t Get the Memo
Updated: May 7, 2020
“Farm-to-table” is hardly a new term in our fast-paced food lives. It sounds trendy, but unlike IPAs and molecular gastronomy, it has inherent value. Direct farm-to-table systems support neighboring businesses, rather than corporate ones, which strengthens the local economy. Small-scale distribution also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to feed people, since the food is grown in a driving radius of a few hours at most. In the kitchen, chefs sourcing locally get access to unique varieties and unmatched flavor that can only be derived from the meticulously tended fields of small farms.
Restaurants all over Pittsburgh have been increasing local sourcing, procuring fruit, vegetables, and herbs from Western Pennsylvania’s impressive lineup of small farms. The ingredient that often gets ignored by chefs? Meat.
About 99% of animals in the US are raised in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), more commonly called “factory farms.” Unless your store-bought meat says “pastured,” “organic,” or a few other qualifiers, you can assume it’s part of the 99%. To cope with the ecological burden of conventional animal agriculture, some sustainability-minded restaurants have put a greater emphasis on vegetarian cuisine, a definite improvement over a dish that relies on factory farming, but the support for industrially raised meat, dairy, and eggs remains in most establishments, regardless of their menu price range.
The clear alternative for the conscious chef is humanely raised meat, available year-round from dozens of local farms around Pittsburgh. These farms prioritize land stewardship and animal welfare, producing a high-quality ingredient that is as precious as any heirloom tomato. Restaurants’ large-scale buying power (relative to that of individuals) makes them influential actors in the food system, with the ability to elevate the standards of local meat production by opting out of industrial animal production. Fortunately, a few restaurants in Pittsburgh have stepped up to the plate in support of local, humane farming practices. (Check out the Ethical Farming Fund's growing list of profiles of these restaurants.)
While these restaurants are voting with their arsenal of forks to strengthen the local meat shed, the switch from conventionally raised meat isn’t purely altruistic; it’s mutually beneficial.
“A happy animal is a good product,” says Butcher Timothy Riesmeyer of the newly opened or, The Whale. The downtown steak and seafood house currently sources animal products from Elysian Fields, Footprints Farm, Goodness Grows, and Jubilee Hilltop Ranch. Beef and pork are delivered as primals to be butchered by Riesmeyer for steaks, chops, and sausage.
Lidia’s Pittsburgh, a restaurant in the Strip District, has held farm-to-table principles as a core of their from-scratch, Italian cuisine. “The best way to get a hold of the best possible products is to source locally,” says Executive Chef Daniel Walker. “Anytime an opportunity presents itself to source something [locally]—be it fresh cheese, dairy products, eggs, anything like that—we jump on it.” Lidia’s gets their humanely raised meat from Burns’ Heritage Farm and Serenity Hill Farms.
If humanely raised meat is superior, why isn’t it on every menu? The most obvious obstacles are the ones that plague every local food system: price and logistics.
For the restaurants already sourcing local meat, it’s a cost they are willing to either absorb or balance. Many have found enough wiggle room to keep their prices competitive, even down to gourmet hamburgers (like Butterjoint’s grass-fed burger) and specialty frankfurters (like Franktuary’s pastured franks and kielbasa).
In-house butchering is another way to cut costs without sacrificing quality. Legume, for instance, orders large sections of the animal, and breaks them down into unique bistro cuts, rendering the fat, and using the bones for stock. Or, The Whale receives primals, which are preferred for the dry-aging they do in house. The off-cuts of steaks and chops become sausage for their brunch menu.
The logistical side is a bit more of a puzzle. For one, not all farms are equipped for wholesale marketing in terms of volume or delivery. Second, which is characteristic of any farm-to-table restaurant, you might not be able to source everything you need from one farm, ultimately requiring multiple orders. Restaurants like Franktuary source ingredients from more than 15 vendors, getting their humanely raised, local meat from Jubilee Hilltop Ranch and Ron Gargasz Organic Farm.
“It’s not complicated in that most small farmers will really work with you in terms of minimum order sizes,” says Franktuary co-owner Megan Lindsey. “There’s an element of it that’s a lot harder, I think. We have always felt like it was worth it, so we do it.”
There are certainly benefits of working directly with a farmer, such as the ability to be part of the production of your ingredients.
Rebecca Bykoski, the program manager of Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program, highlights several solid reasons for working directly with local, humane meat producers. “When restaurants source animal products from a local small farmer, not only are they making a more responsible choice in terms of building local economies and reducing environmental impacts, they are providing their diners with a better quality, better cared for, and better tasting meal and helping to ensure the livelihood of the small farmer.”
For diners looking for humanely raised proteins, it can be difficult to resist the halo effect possessed by any farm-to-table restaurant, or even an expensive restaurant. The tempting perception is that every ingredient in the kitchen was sustainably produced. But restaurants that purchase produce from a farm do not necessarily do so with meat. If you don’t see a trusted farm name on the menu, ask the server about the sourcing of the protein. Some establishments, like Legume, which has been sourcing directly from farms since opening in 2007, don’t always list the farm name on their meat dishes.
“The reason we don’t use the word ‘farm-to-table’ to describe what we do, or the reason we don’t list farms on our menu and whatnot, is because I think greenwashing is so pervasive,” says Trevett Hooper, executive chef and co-owner of Legume Bistro. Greenwashing, the act of misinforming an audience so as to appear more environmentally conscious, is quite common in the restaurant industry. A common complaint from farmers distributing to restaurants is that a chef will print their farm’s name on the menu, but order sporadically if not only once. Legume hardly fits that bill. More than 98% of their meat and poultry last year were purchased within Western PA. “We want to do mostly local food, and let the food speak for itself, and then have a conversation about it.”
If you’re specifically looking for restaurants that get their meat from ethical farms in Western PA, the Ethical Farming Fund has a list available for download. They also have a growing catalog of profiles of some of the restaurants, detailing the restaurant’s ethical sources of meat, eggs, and dairy.
For chefs and restaurateurs looking to upgrade their ingredients, the Ethical Farming Fund is offering a free matchmaking service, compiling a list of eligible farms that meet the requirements of the interested chef.
Speaking for myself, farm-to-table is a trend I’d rather not see wane, at least not until it becomes the standard. Any direct support of local farms should be considered valuable, even if it sounds trendy.