“Once Upon A Table”

Author’s note: This article is reprinted with permission from Central Coast Magazine.

It is now easier than ever to be a locavore on the Central Coast.  By now, you’ve probably taken the opportunity to visit a farmer’s market for fresh vegetables and fruit.  Maybe you’ve even subscribed to a community supported agriculture program or bought grass-fed meat from a nearby ranch.  But what about our local restaurants?  Are chefs using local ingredients in their kitchens too?

Fortunately for us eaters, many are.  It’s slowly becoming more commonplace to read a menu that name-checks local purveyors, giving credit where credit is due for vibrant ingredients with unparalleled straight-from-the-earth flavors.  Several talented and conscientious chefs are rejecting the bland convenience of food supply companies in favor of the Central Coast’s local bounty.  And in their hands, these ingredients threaten to convert every eater into a locavore for life.

“Buying locally connects you to the product,” says Marisol Restaurant Executive Chef Gregg Wangard.  “When I shop in my backyard, I get to see the product firsthand and decide what to buy, as opposed to calling an 800-number and putting in an order for something that I don’t get to see until it arrives.”

“A chef who buys locally is enthusiastic because there is always a story to tell.  If I make an apple crisp using apples from a supply company, there is no story – nothing interesting at all about it.  But if I go to See Canyon and tell Mike Cirone that I’m making an apple crisp, he’ll say, ‘Well, you need this apple for its acidity or that apple for its texture.’  Then there’s a story behind my apple crisp that I’m really excited to share with my customers.”

One of Wangard’s sources for fresh seafood is the Dockside Restaurant and Fish Market in Morro Bay, owned by Mark and Bonnie Tognazzini.  A commercial fisherman for over 39 years, Tognazzini began selling fish directly off his boat in Morro Bay harbor in 1996.  Since then his business has expanded to a full-service fish market and restaurant in which other local fishermen’s catch is showcased.  “We get a lot of satisfaction out of telling the consumer which boat and which fisherman caught their meal, giving them a direct connection to what they’re consuming.”

Tognazzini’s loyalty to local fishermen even extends to the restaurant’s decor. “Every table inside is dedicated to certain guys that I’ve fished my career around, whether that’s sport fishing or commercial fishing – we even have a table dedicated to the Coast Guard for their support of what we do here.  There’s a caption on each table, a snapshot of their career, and plenty of photos for people to see who we’re talking about.”

When asked how business has been since the start of the recession, Tognazzini says “The locals love us and have kept us recession-proof. We’ve discovered that people are going to eat out no matter what.  If you give them something honest and worth eating, they’ll come back.”

Another passionate player in the local food movement is chef Robert Root.  In 2007, Root had been using local ingredients for years in his kitchen at the Inn at Morro Bay, but was looking for a new challenge.  “I asked my farmers what I could do to help educate the public about using local products, and the Pallet to Palate event was the answer.”

In its first year, Pallet to Palate was held solely to connect local chefs to local farmers.  “It was really tough to get farmers to leave their work even for an afternoon – they’re so busy.  But it was such a success that they started asking about the next year’s event.” Now in its fourth year, Pallet to Palate is open to the public, including cooking demonstrations, panel discussions, and a gala dinner that practices what it preaches with lip-smacking results.  (Check the P2P website for information on dates and locations for 2010: http://www.pallettopalate.com.)

In addition to his work with P2P, Root is now the executive chef at The Manse on Marsh, a senior living community in San Luis Obispo, where he ensures that each resident has access to the best ingredients he can find.  “We as chefs need to support the hard work of our local farmers because we buy in bulk.  A relationship between one chef and one farmer can be enormously beneficial for both.”

How can we consumers know if a local chef is supporting local farmers?  We have to ask. “When you’re making your reservation, slip in a question about local ingredients,” says Root.  “Chefs often use them without advertising it, but we want them to know that we appreciate and recognize what they’re doing for this beautiful place in which we live.”

———————————————–

Marisol at the Cliffs, Chef Gregg Wangard
http://www.cliffsresort.com
805.773.5000

Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant and Fish Market, Mark and Bonnie Tognazzini
http://www.bonniemarietta.com
805.772.8100 (restaurant)

Pallet to Palate, Chef Robert Root
http://www.pallettopalate.com
805.234.6294

Central Coast Grown
http://www.centralcoastgrown.net
Non-profit organization that provides education and information on local farms, grocers, restaurants that source locally, and CSAs.

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