Dear Salty, I’m mostly writing to you to get this off my chest. I’ve been a bartender for over 10 years, working at fancy, farm-to-table restaurants, the types of places that pride themselves on using the whole animal, nose-to-tail, small local farms, ingredients that are in season. etc.
I recently left a very popular restaurant in a liberal East Coast city that broadcasted those values very loudly, including serving a “Farmer’s Market” vegetarian menu every Monday.
The problem was, all of the vegetables came from the gargantuan local wholesaler, Russo’s, and we served the menu even in December through March, when our local farmers market shut down. I found a case of commodity ribeyes in the walk-in, the same ribeyes we were selling as grass-fed.
I now work down the street for a restaurant that walks the walk, that sells responsibly sourced ingredients, that brings in the rancher from Maine that raises our beef and that buys fish only from New England fisherman, so it kills me when we sell a steak or a fish for the same price as my former employer, when his chicken is factory farmed, his fish from New Zealand or Scotland and we are doing our best to buy from local, sustainable producers.
It’s breaking my heart that my current employers are operating on thinner margins while my former employer co-opts their values, the quality of their ingredients, to sell commodity and wholesale shit. Our guests have no way of telling the difference (though our Yelp and OpenTable reviews show at least a little understanding of the difference) between the guys selling high-quality local ingredients and those just saying they do.
What should I do? I’m tired of restaurants buying the same old commodity products and faking that they are local.
Actually Shops At A Farmer’s Market
PS: I trust you will understand that broadcasting my personal information will make it impossible for me to continue bartending in the places I work if I become known as a narc.
Dear Farmer’s Market,
Don’t worry, (locally grown) sweet pea, I’m not going to out your email address and get you in hot water with anyone. I don’t think any laws protect whistleblowers who rat to Salty Waitress, but know your secrets are safe with me. Your identity is still hidden because, sad to say, you could be any one of the countless people working in countless restaurants across the country that peddle these lies to sell $18 salads and $45 pork chops.
Farm-to-table bullshit is everywhere, and it screws over the restaurants actually doing it right. “If you eat food, you are being lied to every day,” is only one of the choice quotes from this Tampa Bay Times report from a few years ago. It laid out just how shadily some farm-to-table restaurants do a bait-and-switch with their ingredients. (That investigation won a bunch of fancy awards.) It’s a damn shame, because there are restaurants, like the one where you work, doing it right.
What can you do as a bartender to stick it to your former employer? There’s not much you can do now publicly, unless you want to risk your job. Whether you should have quit that job in protest is a moral decision between you, your conscience, and Alice Waters. But you and your current restaurant can try to work with guests to help them become more savvy.
Most importantly, know the answers to customers’ questions. If you can’t answer which farm your fruit garnish came from or what type of trout is on the menu, it makes your restaurant look like it’s trying to pull one over. A few months ago, I ate at a restaurant with expensive salmon on the menu. My friend asked if it was Alaskan or Coho or whatever, and the server stumbled, sputtered, and eventually told us it was “wild-caught, farm-finished salmon.” Uh huh. That kind of shenanigan is a red flag that told me this place either didn’t actually care about its ingredients enough to train its staff, or it expected them to lie and just come up with something that sounds good. (My friend ordered the chicken.)
You’ll have to convey that, though, without going full Portlandia. Even though they’re eating at a farm-to-table restaurant, some people just don’t care which farm grew the turnips or what breed of chicken laid their omelet eggs. Read the room, and don’t talk anyone’s ear off if they’re not interested.
Then it’s up to customers. It’s on all of us to not just ask questions, but use our brains. If a café is serving local berries in the middle of a frigid February, ask which greenhouse they came from. If the menu brags the beef is raised in-state, ask which ranch raised it. And if the server tells you the salmon is “wild-caught, farm-finished,” maybe write that place off entirely.
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