Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Restaurants go local and organic

'Slow Food' is a growing trend in the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum Grill owner Scott Mason dishes out locally grown organic lamb at the Best of the Valley fund-raiser at Ketchum's Forest Service Park on Saturday. Photo by Willy Cook

An increasing number of Wood River Valley restaurants are buying their food from local producers. Buying local, restaurateurs say, means fresher, better-tasting food and less impact on the environment.

Chris Kastner, owner of CK's Real Food in Hailey, buys much of his produce from four or five local gardeners and his organic lamb from a local ranch.

"I want my food to be grown and come from closer than the food service industry would have us do," Kastner said. "We're all about going with the seasons and keeping it as local as we can. It makes you feel good about what you're selling—that you're part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Local consumption here is part of a growing international awareness known as the "Slow Food" movement. Slow Food is the name of an organization founded in Italy in 1986 in response to the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome. The organization now has affiliates in 42 countries, and its name has become synonymous with opposition to everything the fast-food industry is famous for—factory farming, widespread use of animal growth hormones and fat-saturated products.

For Wood River Valley restaurants, buying "local" can mean getting produce from a gardener as close as Hailey, or from larger operations in the warmer climate of the Snake River Plain.

During the summer, Kastner buys local lettuce, cucumbers, spinach, beets, carrots and asparagus. In June, local produce means morel mushrooms.

"People don't realize that Idaho has a lot to offer with fruits and vegetables," said Keith Otter, executive chef at Chandler's Restaurant in Ketchum.

Cristina Ceccatelli, owner of Cristina's Restaurant and Bakery in Ketchum and a native of Florence, Italy, said she's been buying locally as much as possible since she opened her establishment 16 years ago. However, she said, she's watched as other restaurants in the area have embraced the European tradition of cooking simple dishes with fresh ingredients. As a result, she said, fresh produce and herbs have become easier to find.

Duffy Ditmer, owner of the Pioneer Saloon, said he's buying more local produce now than ever before.

"Farmers come by all the time and knock on our back door, and if they have something we like, we buy it from them," he said.

Ditmer said he buys farmed trout from an aquaculture business near Buhl and specially grown, large potatoes from a farm near Hagerman.

Local restaurateurs admit that locally grown products tend to be more expensive than those shipped in from California. For some, that limits the amount of local food they're willing to buy. Others say the picked-just-that-morning freshness is worth the extra cost.

Tona Stillwell and her husband, Clarence, grow "exotic vegetables" on their Fair Mountain Farm near Fairfield, and sell their produce to Akasha Organics restaurant in Ketchum, to caterers and directly to consumers at the Ketchum Farmers Market.

"It's quite amazing what you can grow in this climate," Stillwell said.

She said she and her husband grow beets that look like peppermint sticks, carrots that are red, yellow or purple and several varieties of "baby veggies." She said the red carrots are higher in anti-oxidants than typical orange carrots, and the purple carrots have a "spicy-sweet" flavor.

Stillwell said two 20-by-50-foot, plastic-covered greenhouses at the farm permit a year-round growing season. She said her farm uses only organic growing methods, though her produce is not certified organic.

"We just didn't want the government in our face for one more thing," she said.

Lava Lake Land and Livestock, located at the southern edge of the Pioneer Mountains east of Carey, sells its organically raised lamb to Christina's, CK's, Globus, Il Naso, Ketchum Grill and Ciro in Ketchum, and to the Full Moon Steakhouse in Bellevue. The ranch also sells directly to consumers at the Ketchum and Hailey farmers markets.

Since the ranch was purchased by new owners in 1999, Lava Lake's principal goal has been to create an environmentally friendly grazing operation on both its 7,700 acres of private land and the 7,000 acres of public land for which it has permits. The ranch has cut the number of sheep it grazes, moved the bands away from riparian areas and carefully monitored range conditions.

Though it raises its lambs somewhat differently than most other ranches, until recently Lava Lake still sold them the usual way—by shipping them to large-scale wholesalers. But Mike Stevens, Lava Lake's president, said that a few years ago, he discovered he could profitably sell to local restaurants.

"That inspired us to change the focus of our business, to really pursue our direct sales and organic product," Stevens said.

Stevens said he finds the direct sales a much more satisfying way to do business. And restaurateurs have helped the ranch tailor its product to customers' needs.

"There's accountability," he said. "If it's not good, you're going to hear about it."

Stevens said he has learned that restaurant owners want meat from lambs that weigh about 130 pounds, which occurs when they are between 4 and 6 months old. He said Lava Lake shepherds now carry small scales to determine exactly when lambs should be sent to market.

Stevens said Lava Lake consists of two separate operations—the "organic" branch, which consists of 900 ewes that bear about 1,100 lambs each spring, and the "all natural" branch, which consists of about 5,000 ewes.

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, "organic" meat is from animals that have received no growth hormones or antibiotics, and have eaten only organically grown feed. The "all natural" label is somewhat less stringent, forbidding growth hormones and antibiotics, but allowing animals to receive 5 percent processed feed.

Stevens said meat from Lava Lake's "organic" lambs is sold locally, while the "all natural" meat is sold to Whole Foods and other natural food store chains.

Stevens said Lava Lake is moving toward raising its organically raised animals only on Lava Lake's pasture grass, rather than on a part-grain diet, which would reduce the meat's cholesterol content.

"We're really excited about having a part of the operation where we retain control all the way through," he said.

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