John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher, and I’m here today with Chef Ned Grieg, corporate chef at The Essex Room in Essex Massachusetts. Today, we’re talking about incorporating seasonal food in menus. Welcome, Chef Ned.
Chef Ned Grieg: Hi, good morning.
John: Morning. Chef Ned, explain what you mean by a 100-mile menu. What is that?
Chef Ned: 100-mile menu. This concept, I did not come up with it myself. There was this lady I worked with in Derry in Connecticut when I was running their catering company there, and she came up with this idea that all the items that we would put on a 100-mile menu would be foods that were sourced within 100 miles of us. And we found out that we thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be difficult to do”, and it actually wasn’t.
It’s the whole concept taken a little bit further of farm-to-table. You’re looking for sustainability. You’re looking for a carbon footprint that is not going to be extensive in the choices that you make. Yes, sometimes the products can cost you a little bit more, but then you can do them in smaller increments and you can have multiple platings of different varieties of foods, as opposed to doing just a salad, just a principal plate, and just a dessert.
But the 100-mile menu’s really fascinating. I like it. To me, it makes a lot of sense. I feel as if this may be something that people will try to push as we go further in the culinary world over the next decade.
100-Mile Menus Ensure Fresh, Sustainable Foods
John: What is it that appeals to people with the 100-mile menu? That they’re getting fresh food, that they’re getting it from smaller farms, instead of the big corporations, that it’s, like you said, the carbon footprint where you’re not shipping it all the way across the country. Things like that?
Chef Ned: Well, it is fresher. If it’s within 100 miles, it’s getting here in three hours as opposed to three days. The product that you’re acquiring, it’s cleaner, it’s fresher. It’s like honey; when people have an allergy of some nature, they say, “Eat the local honey, so you get used to the pollens that are in the air.” The 100-mile menu is ‘eat what’s there.’ Even though it’s a global community, I feel as if we can grow anything anywhere. My goodness, I’ve grown okra at home up in here in a Zone Five growing region, and that shouldn’t be happening, but it does.
Having a 100-mile menu, to me, is imperative. Obviously, us living on the east coast here in Essex, Massachusetts, we already do that with all our fin fish and shellfish and seafood products that come through the door. I mean, they’re all here. Even the salmon that we get, yes, it is farm raised, but it’s coming off the coast of Maine and that’s 100 miles away.
Chef Ned: To me, that makes a lot of sense. The product is fresher, it’s delivered to you more quickly, and it tastes better.
Sourcing Seasonal Fish and Meat
John: How do you find and source local foods, especially for each season of the year?
Chef Ned: The seasonal concept, all you got to do is . . . just imagine growing a garden. Everybody knows that you get your asparagus in the spring. In the summertime, you’re getting an abundance of your zucchinis and the summer squash. And in the fall, you have everything. It isn’t just with vegetables and fruits that provide themselves at certain times of the year, it’s the same thing with all items. Your fin fish and shellfish. Why do you think lobsters cost so much in the wintertime? Well, I’ll tell you. If you got on a lobster boat, went out through the middle of January, you’d know why you’re paying $12 a pound for lobster.
Also, lobsters, they shed their shell, so there’s certain times of the year that lobsters do not make themselves available. When they molt their shells, they literally go up into the riverbanks of the salt water running rivers and they burrow a hole in the side of the riverbanks and shed their shell until it gets firm enough to come back out. Otherwise, if they came back out, they’d just be consumed by any kind of fish or even the crabs that would come by.
And fish are migrating all the time. Striped bass, I mean, you catch the most of them in the middle of July, August, and September. Yes, you can find some at all times of the year, but not always. Crabs seem to be more abundant as the water starts to get warm. That’s on the seafood arena.
And when it comes to, if you’re having pork or beef or poultry, the farms that are around here, there are certain times if you follow the seasons and what they are naturally . . . when they breed and reproduce, you just follow those guidelines there. And then, you can find anything you want any time, really.
Finding Fresh Produce in the Winter
John: Okay. What about produce, and especially up here in the northeast where the farms are obviously more abundant in the summer. We, typically at the grocery store, get a lot of our fruits and vegetables from southern places like Mexico in the winter. How do you get fruits and vegetables in the wintertime?
Chef Ned: Wintertime’s a little bit tougher. There are some companies that we use on a regular basis that grow their products hydroponically. There’s a company in Maine that does this with tomatoes. And you would not know that that tomato was grown in Maine in the middle of January. It tastes like a tomato that you’d have in July.
There are people that grow what they call micro greens and tender greens. There’s a company called Lef. L-E-F. And they grow them in greenhouses all year long. And they cut them when they’re just the right size. They’re able to control their harvest. They’re able to replant it as you need it. They actually come to your doorstep and say, “What’s your usage going to be for this time of the year?”, and they grow accordingly so they’re not wasting their product either.
Certain items you can get on a regular basis that tastes just as good, but when the seasons do get . . . and there is more of an abundance, we obviously use them to our advantage. The wintertime is a little more difficult. It is hard to grow avocados in the state of Maine, in Massachusetts. Let’s be real. We are getting those outsourced from other places. Oddly enough, the only avocados that most people seem to know that are out there are the Hass avocados. Apparently, there’s 24 other types of varieties of avocados that grow all over the world. And then, when we buy them, we use a very reputable produce company and they buy their products from different countries at times.
I mean, the other day, I got carrots in from Israel. I’m going, “Oh my gosh. Why are they shipping a 40-pound bag of carrots from Israel to the United States?” And they said, “Well, because they’re the best carrots and they’re GMO free, and they’re organically grown.” And we didn’t want to take the chance of having something that is said to be such, coming from another country that may not be so.
John: Right. It’s important to really know your produce and where you’re getting it from. And when you have to break that rule, that 100-mile rule, there’s a really good reason for it.
Chef Ned: Yes, it is. Availability. If the availability is not there, it does make it difficult. Otherwise, you’d have to have your greenhouses on top of every building in town. The whole concept of the victory garden that came up after World War II, it was kind of interesting, and I kind of wish that we would move back to that.
We, here, grow a lot of the herbs that we use. We were using window boxes, and then the gardener that comes and takes care of the grounds here, I said, “Can you please start planting herbs for us that we can use on a regular basis and edible flowers?” And she was thrilled to do it. All I had to do is give her a list, and now they’re growing in the soil right here, right at The Essex Room. It’s not even 100 miles. How about 10 feet away?
Planning a Locally Sourced Event at The Essex Room
John: Right, right. If a guest is having an event here at The Essex Room, and they really want to have their food locally sourced, do they just have to ask for that?
Chef Ned: Yes, they do. It’s not something that you need to tell them, unless they have major concerns about it. But I always try to make a mention of it, only because I feel as if, hey, we’re doing everything we can to make sure that this world is going to be here in one piece for your children and your grandchildren someday. It’s not going to start tomorrow, it has to start today. And every single one of us has to be accountable for that.
John: That’s really great information and great advice, Chef Ned. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Chef Ned: You bet. Thank you.
John: And for more information, you can visit The Essex Room website at essexroom.com, or call 978-768-7335.