This book owes its beginning to three unique individuals and experiences that influenced me in the early 1990s—Gary Holleman and a computer; Roger Clapp and a lamb; and my niece Abby and a strawberry. The first of these was a chance meeting at an American Culinary Federation Convention. The computer craze was reaching a fevered pitch, and in an attempt to make sense of the Internet, I attended a seminar where I met Gary Holleman. He single-handedly built my on-ramp to the cyber highway. Gary had varied and passionate interests in current affairs and at the top of his list were food and the way we eat.
In fact, Gary was one of the founding members of Chefs Collaborative 2000 and was responsible for helping write the charter by which it is governed. His concern for our food supplies was contagious and he convinced me to attend a CC2000 convention in Puerto Rico. After sitting rapt through several presentations there, I was hooked. I have been a chef my entire adult life and I often say that falling into cooking at eighteen saved my life–but cooking for and feeding people has done more than that, it has actually given meaning to my life. Yet, as with many young chefs I did not really have a firm grasp on the origins of our food supplies.
I attended the Culinary Institute of America in the late-1970s, where I was trained by a cadre of primarily European chefs who instilled in us the idea that all great food came from Europe. This sense of “superior” food coming from afar became more firmly ingrained when, after graduation, I took my first job with Holland America Cruise Line. In every port, during the two years I worked on the ship, a celebrated local chef came onboard and showcased the local cuisine. In my mind, “exotic” became synonymous with great chefs. I believed, without accounting for seasonality or a sense of place, that all truly inspired chefs served their guests food from different lands.
By the mid-1980s American Regional Cuisine was making a splash, and although many chefs were still looking toward the exotic, some were exploring regional, seasonal foods. In 1990 I became the Executive Chef of The Putney Inn in Putney, Vermont and immediately fell in love with the local products and decided to create menus around them. I continued, however, to rely heavily on specialty items, often imported and often out of season. Enter Gary, CC2000, Puerto Rico, and a new way of thinking. The conference profound effect on me, and for the first time in my culinary career, I began to realize the importance of local regional food supplies and started to understand the meaning of sustainable food choices.
Shortly after my trip to Puerto Rico, I was invited to attend the inaugural meeting of what would become the Vermont Fresh Network. The organization was the brainchild of one of my idols, Roger Clapp, Deputy Commissioner for Agricultural Development at the Vermont Department of Agriculture. His goal was to create an organization that would bring chefs and farmers together to promote Vermont’s bounty in a project funded by local tax dollars. I was extremely excited to be in attendance at that first meeting. One of the items I was hoping to source was local lamb. I spoke with all of the lamb producers and told them that I was looking for locally produced lamb racks – approximately 100 per week. To my surprise, in retrospect my naiveté is almost embarrassing, they all told me that they could not provide the lamb racks. They asked, “what will we do with the rest of the lamb?” I responded, “that’s your problem,” and they rightfully responded, “no you’re the chef, it’s your problem.” I was, at once, dumbstruck, and enlightened.
I immediately ordered a whole lamb, and when it came in, proceeded to help Frank, my butcher at The Inn, break it down and figure out how to buy and sell the whole lamb, as opposed to the lamb racks. It was an amazing learning experience, not only for myself, but also for the staff, the owner of the Putney Inn, and our guests as well. We learned a great deal, and today, one of our number one sellers at The Inn is our lamb sampler. We buy whole lambs and sell an assortment of cuts on one plate for dinner—a sustainable solution that benefits the restaurant, the farmer, and the consumer.
Not too long after my lamb revelation, my young nieces, Abby and Brittany and nephew, Justin came to visit me in Vermont and I decided to take them strawberry picking at Harlow’s Farm. When I told them how we were going to spend the day, one of my nieces said, “Aunt Ann, I’m too little to pick the strawberries, how will I reach them?” I was shocked that children, and especially the niece of a chef, did not know how strawberries were grown—their only source of berries had been the grocery store.
It struck me then that as a chef it is my responsibility to teach the next generation about our food supplies, sustainability, and seasonality. My own journey toward sustainability and an understanding of how our food is produced has taken many years and has culminated in this book, which I hope will inspire you to understand and be passionate about your food. I hope that at the very least, after reading this, you will pay more attention to how your food tastes, where it comes from, and whether it is produced in a way that is sustainable for generations to come.