Hook, line and hormone-free
Looking to make the USDA grade in the next year or two is Le Pain Quotidien, a chain of restaurants and bakeries in Europe, New York and Los Angeles where more than 50 percent of the raw product used is organic. The company's founder, Alain Coumont, is planning on certifying his bread first, since the company already uses organic stone-ground flour. In addition, the cafes use organic vegetables, teas, juices, eggs and milk.
The Belgian-born Coumont, who apprenticed with superstar chefs such as Alain Senderens and Joel Robuchon, has a passion for all things fresh and chemical-free. He even owns an organic farm, complete with olive orchard and vineyard, in the Languedoc region of France. "Food that has been grown in organically nourished soil is packed with nutrients and bursts with flavor," he declares.
More people are joining what Coumont calls the "organic revolution." Sales of organic goods have increased by 20 percent to 25 percent a year, the only part of the food market that is growing in the double digits, according to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. While vegan restaurants such as Real Food Daily in Los Angeles and Angelica Kitchen in New York City have long incorporated organic foods into their recipes, many traditional restaurants are now filling their menus with hormone-free meats, hook-and-line-caught fish, hydroponic vegetables and free-trade coffee.
"There's an increasing trend among restaurants to support local producers growing organically, even though [the restaurants] may not be certified," says Andrew Parker, a spokesman for Salem-based Oregon Tilth, the USDA-accredited agency that worked with Nora Pouillon to get her restaurant certified.
It often happens gradually. "Mainstream restaurants usually start by offering organic lettuce and apples, and then add fair-trade coffee because it's accessible and the price isn't that much higher," says Rose Welch, co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association, based in Little Marais, Minn. "From there, they add more organic items to their menus. Most high-quality restaurants are serving organic free-range chickens and hormone-free beef."
Restaurateurs are proud of their organic offerings, which are highlighted on their menus. If you don't see anything listed, ask for more information, suggests OTA spokeswoman Holly Givens. "And keep asking--because restaurants want to make their customers happy."
Look for items that support local, ecologically pure produce, suggests Leslie McEachern, owner of Angelica Kitchen. "I love the sense of serving things in season and procuring produce from local organic growers," she says. "My personal preference is to see that people are dealing directly with the farmer, giving them more dollars so they can stay in business."
Connecting to the earth
The days of unaware dining seem to be over. "Consumers want to know more about how the foods they eat are processed," says Brian Leahy, president of California Certified Organic Farmers, a Santa Cruz-based trade association.
It's a major shift in consciousness, notes Leahy. California had only six certified farmers' markets in the late 1970s; today there are 300. "I think we'll see more and more restaurants becoming certified organic," he says. "You're going to see more celebration of local organic food. Restaurants and local farmers are starting to tie the consumer back to the food itself. For most people, their biggest connection to the earth is through what they eat."
When McEachern started in the 1970s, it was a challenge to purchase directly from local farmers. "Before New York City opened any green markets, I'd buy produce for my restaurant from a farmer and his wife who'd come into the city," she says. "People would crowd into this tiny storefront, and I'd run back and forth to the restaurant with a hand truck. The word organic wasn't used then—at least not in the way it is now—but I was happy to support local farmers."
For McEachern, the idea of being USDA-certified has more to do with public relations than with necessity. "Many of the farmers I buy from are ones I've worked with for 15 years," she says. "I know them; I've been to their farms; I know their children. I know what their motives are. They're not interested in fooling anyone. It's the real deal."
The real deal for most organic-happy chefs, certified or not, is flavor first and last, yet the benefits do go past the palate. "Our guests want the health benefits of organic foods, and they believe in the cause, at least from the perspective of sustainable agriculture," says Bart Hosmer, executive chef of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara, Calif., which serves organic produce as well as free-range chickens and growth-hormone-free lamb.
"It's personal for me," adds Hosmer. "Obviously, the flavor of organic foods is far superior and it's healthier, but we're also helping the environment, and it's the right thing to do."
Hook, line and hormone-free