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Not From Here?

The Vermont Fresh Network takes on a new problem: fraud


Published July 12, 2006 at 1:43 p.m.

There are two red-blooded burgers on the menu at Mary's Restaurant in Bristol. The traditional beef patty comes from cows grazing happily at nearby Wood Creek Farm in Bridport. The other can be sourced to the herd of buffalo down the road, at Middlebury's Apple Ridge Farms.

A little cheese on that? Chef Doug Mack recommends the cheddar-chive from Neighborly Farms in Randolph.

At least 17 local farms currently supply Mack with venison, chicken, eggs, rabbit, maple syrup, elk, cheese, sausage, flour and dairy products. He got his veggies from neighboring suppliers, too, before he started growing his own.

Mack is a founder -- and exemplary member -- of the Vermont Fresh Network, which cultivates partnerships between chefs, producers and consumers in an effort to support Vermont agriculture. Restaurant membership is predicated on a promise to feature at least three local farm products on the menu. The VFN logo, which is displayed prominently in nearly 200 restaurants around the state, has become synonymous with top-notch local ingredients and Vermont-flavored fine dining. The growth of the 11-year-old nonprofit has paralleled the nation's burgeoning interest in healthy food.

But, like the organic movement, Vermont Fresh may be beginning to suffer from its own success. A decade ago the challenge was "educating people that this was the way to go," Mack recalls. Now that customers think it's cool, posers are becoming a problem. "The farmers aren't the ones faking it; they're not buying something at Shaw's and calling it local," Mack says. But some restaurants, he claims, "are trying to jump on the bandwagon."

This food fraud phenomenon is the subject of a cranky piece by Barry Estabrook in the current issue of Gourmet magazine. The author, who lives part-time in Vergennes with cookbook editor Rux Martin, begins his complaint with an anecdote about a "slice of Australian grass-fed beef I was served recently at a restaurant in my home state of Vermont."

Normally first-paragraph placement would be prime publicity for the state, but Estabrook goes on to explain how the waiter at this nameless Vermont restaurant "launched into an impassioned sermon praising 'Chef's' abiding respect for local seasonal ingredients. He made this assertion without a trace of irony, even though one of the four entrees on the menu we were perusing once grazed in another hemisphere." Estabrook recalls observing on the way to the restaurant "several plump, perfectly yummy-looking steers."

He goes on, noting the bread at this particular restaurant came frozen from Southern California and the cheese list was "heavily French, as if our state were not itself the home of dozens of top-notch artisanal cheesemakers. All of which would have been fine with me," he sums up, "had the guy not been cashing in so blatantly on the local-and-seasonal platitude. Even more frustrating, it seemed like no one was calling his bluff."

Should they? "It's always a topic at our board meetings," Meghan Sheradin says of the enforcement side of VFN's mission. But as the organization's sole staff person, she can only keep so many plates spinning at once. Fundraising is still a big part of the job. "We're more about positive reinforcement, hoping they'll step up and fulfill the requirements. We could revoke someone's membership, but we just haven't had to. I've never had to go in and say, 'You have to take our logo off.' But it may get to that at some point."

A number of Vermont chefs believe the time has come. Mack says one of his producers claims 80 percent of the restaurateurs who say they're selling his product, aren't.

Hen of the Wood co-owner Craig Tresser asks, "Why do they get to cheat and still get the recognition of being part of the Vermont Fresh Network?" Although he has yet to join the organization, the 30-year-old restaurateur -- and every grower, chef and diner who buys into the notion that local is better -- has a stake in its credibility.

Although the organization is based on voluntary compliance, VFN keeps track of the "handshake" agreements its member restaurants make with local farmers. Every year, the eateries have to reconfirm those partnerships and communicate them to Sheradin. Only one of the minimum three deals can involve a distributor. The goal, Sheradin explains, is for chefs to "have communication directly with the farmer." Farmer-featured dinners, such as the ones hosted by VFN and Mary's, are more likely to result from one-on-one contact.

If someone were to question the integrity of a particular restaurant, Sheradin says she would investigate the claim. She'll be drawing from a lot more intel in August, when Vermont Fresh Net launches a new, interactive online program that encourages diners to post comments from meals at its restaurants. Specifically, Sheradin wants to know what people ate, and from which Vermont farms the food items originated. Anyone who participates in the project receives a VFN pin. A badge is not a billy club, but the outreach effort will help Sheradin get a read on whether the majority of VFN members are in compliance.

How hard is it to stay true to the Vermont Fresh mission? It came naturally to Mack. "Somebody was always knocking on my door, selling something, as soon as I got a rep for being a taker." But he notes it's more expensive to buy local, "and you have to educate your staff so they can explain" the value.

At Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, where practically every entree draws from at least two or three local sources, Tresser counts on waiters who can extoll the virtues of celery root and beets in the dead of winter. Certain meats can be hard to find, too -- pork, duck and, until recently, lamb -- and there's a lot of competition for prime cuts of beef. It's no coincidence that a North Clarendon-based co-op called Vermont Quality Meats, which delivers Green Mountain mammals to fine restaurants in Boston and New York, recently hired a local rep to service Vermont's own meat-seeking chefs.

"There's only a certain amount, and everybody wants it," says Warnstedt.

Sheradin confirms that the demand for local ingredients probably now exceeds the supply. She's only half kidding when she suggests, "Maybe some dairy farmers want to transition over, put some beef on." The bigger challenge is developing an infrastructure to support increased local production: The state needs more slaughterhouses, processing plants, storage facilities and delivery systems to assemble a sustainable local food chain.

But even if there were no missing links, Sheradin says it's unrealistic to expect Vermont restaurant menus will ever be 100 percent local. That said, she is actively encouraging all VFN restaurants to offer at least one dish for hungry localvores next month.

"There are always going to be crab cakes, but there's also going to be Misty Knoll chicken," Sheradin says. "We want to make sure people are connecting to their food," and at restaurants, "there are some farmers coming in the kitchen door."

Vermont Fresh Network "Farmers Dinner" Series

July 12: The Kitchen Table, Richmond, 434-8686

July 22: The Cliff House, Stowe, 253-3000

August 14: Anjali Farms, Londonderry, 824-4658

August 31: Chef's Table, Montpelier, 229-9202

September 11: Elements, St. Johnsbury, 748-8400

September 13: Bistro Sauce, Shelburne, 985-2830

Vermont Fresh Network Annual Forum

"Good Food from the Good Land,"

August 7, 5 p.m., Shelburne Farms. Info, 434-2000.

"Farmhouse Dinners"

Hosted by Mary's Restaurant at the Inn at Baldwin Creek every Wednesday night through August. The price is $20. Call 453-2432 for info and reservations. The featured producers are as follows:

July 12:Orb Weaver Farm, New Haven

July 19:Lewis Creek Farm, Starksboro

July 26:LedgEnd Farm, Middlebury

August 2: Boyden Farm, Cambridge

August 9: Gleason's Organic Grains, Bridport

August 16: Blue Ledge Farm, Leicester

August 23: Last Resort Farm, Monkton

August 30: Pin Money Farm, Lincoln

September 22: "Feast of Our Farms" Harvest Celebration, $36.