Bring the Local Food Movement Home With Hyper-Local Sourcing

In Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, an urban tower garden supplies herbs for airport eateries.

In this increased age of social consciousness surrounding what we eat and how it gets to our plates, a priority and premium has been placed on locally grown and sourced produce. But the newest iteration of the movement asks the question: how local can you go?

Hyper-local sourcing is one of the hottest trends in the food world right now, with chefs and restaurateurs beginning to experiment with growing everything from micro greens and legumes, to vegetables and squash right in their very own back yards. They’re no longer simply respecting the local ecosystems of which they’re a part of, but actively cultivating and participating in them — deliciously too.

Chefs owning part of their supply chain is nothing new. Some may even argue it’s a necessity to obtaining the quality any ambitious cook strives for. And as transparency is something of heightened importance to diners and consumers everywhere, it’s unsurprising that the local food movement has transcended the status of niche, elitist foodie fad to mass market, mainstream principle. But even farm-to-table food has some miles on it, what with the to’ing and fro’ing from the farm.

Chefs across the country, from Maine to New Mexico, are beginning to experiment with gardens of varying sizes, where food can be harvested and dished up all within one day’s service. The trailblazing, Chef’s Table-featured Blue Hill at Stone Barns makes its entire daily menu out of crops at their peak from its bountiful gardens. But if you’re not working with 80 acres of former Rockefeller estate, perhaps a roof garden-like, basement dwelling that Bell Book and Candle has in NYC could be more achievable — and the latter still grows 60 percent of the food they serve.

There are obvious drawbacks and hurdles with urban farming. Legal permissions aside, even if you are able to secure a plot of land, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to grow enough food to sustainably service as many hungry mouths as pass through your restaurant. Farming is time and labor intensive too — time that’s unlikely to be in great supply for anybody already running a restaurant.

Boston-based Freight Farms, an innovator in the Ag-tech space, creates fully assembled vertical hydroponic farming systems inside of shipping containers.

But with advances in technology, crops are no longer limited to the quaint soil plots which need hoeing and tilling that you might imagine are necessary for quality ingredients. Bell Book and Candle uses aeroponic towers for its vast variety of produce. Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago grows about 1,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes and chili peppers on the building’s roof each summer in self-watering boxes, and Chicago O’Hare Airport provides several airport eateries with food from its 26 tower gardens. There’s a whole scene, literally underground, in New York City for hydroponically-grown herbs — because plants don’t care if they get their light from the sun or lamps. And if people will queue around the block for food served out of an old van, why not for food grown just feet from them in a repurposed shipping container, as companies like Freight Farms, Growtainer, and CropBox provide?

Even if a swanky shipping container is an unrealistic achievement, a small herb garden needs only a windowsill and some regular affection to be an incredibly respectable and timely feather in the cap of any restaurant. And there are few easier ways to display a clear commitment to excellence and the local movement than aspiring to not just make your food from scratch, but grow it too.

Add to that the reliability and cost-effectiveness of being your own provider, and the novelty which will help your restaurant market itself. Growing your own produce, on whatever scale you can realistically pull off, begins to sound like a pretty delicious prospect.

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