Many of today’s restaurant menus boast seasonal, local ingredients in their dishes. But what about organic — or even GMO-free? How far can and should restaurants go when it comes to sustainable sourcing?
Bradford Heap isn’t your average chef or restaurateur. He operates his Boulder, Colorado restaurants — including SALT, Colterra, and Wild Standard — according to a golden rule: Serve food unto others as you would have food served unto you. During his two decades in the business, he’s become increasingly interested in where our food comes from and building restaurants where guests can feel good about dining.
“I wouldn’t be a very good person if I had a good food supply for me but went ahead and served the factory-farmed stuff to everyone else in the restaurant so I could make more money,” he says. “It’s just my belief system.”
We asked Bradford all about his philosophy and approach to sourcing, and how other restaurants can take steps (big or small) to serve more sustainable food. Here are six ways to get started.
Write your menu according to the seasons.
Earlier in his career, Bradford had the opportunity to cook in Europe and learn what he calls the “un-American” way to create a menu: go to the market, then write the menu. As a young saute chef he would write specials without even thinking about seasonality (think snap peas in the middle of winter). Experiencing good, local produce changed his way of cooking and thinking about what he will serve.
Now, he writes menus seasonally, showcasing organic ingredients at their peak. His years of experience as a chef have helped him understand how to work that way; he and his back-of-house team are prepared with six different ways to work with asparagus and a great asparagus soup that uses the trimmings. Knowing how to use product in its season and building a library of recipes guests love for every time of the year is instrumental to his success.
Plan for the future (generations).
Bradford’s kids were two when he read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which led him to think about the world they were growing up in and would eventually inhabit as adults. Learning about the abuses of factory farming changed his perspective: he vowed he wouldn’t support it anymore in his restaurants. He serves pastured beef exclusively, because that’s all he will eat himself.
“I don’t think the things they spray on the corn and soy are really going to give me strength when I’m 80,” Bradford says. “I don’t want to support that. I don’t want to be part of the problem — I want to be part of the team that’s rowing the boat in the right direction.”
Build trust with guests.
Sourcing organic, GMO-free ingredients isn’t cheap, but it can work in your favor when guests can trust your brand and stand by what you offer.
“People have come to know over the past 25 years of me cooking in Boulder that I’m sincere and authentic about how I curate the menu,” says Bradford. He talks to his guests and chefs at the restaurants about helping people to be more conscious when they vote with their food dollars.
Forge relationships with producers you respect.
When it comes to sourcing, Bradford supports local cottage industries. One of his best friends has the largest organic farming operation in Colorado and plants around three dozen different varieties of lettuces and vegetables for Bradford’s restaurant menus.
Another friend began ranching on his land with local, organic, humanely raise lamb, then expanding to beef and pork. Bradford is thrilled to buy his product and support his business. He used to work with around 15 vendors, but now it’s just five or six. “One of the big thrills for me is to write checks out to my friends, not to Sysco.”
Working with small farms is more work for an operator, requiring multiple phone calls and visits. But the payoff is huge: “You don’t have to do as much with beautiful products,” says Bradford. A little sea salt and olive oil go a long way in showcasing ingredients at their best.
Make sourcing financially sustainable, too.
Those relationships have incremental benefits, too. If Bradford can commit to buying so many cases of vegetables from a farmer every week, then the farmer knows he can sell them and will do the work to grow, harvest, and deliver them — at a good price.
Providing good value for restaurant guests is high on Bradford’s priority list, making beneficial relationships even more important. With the right farmers and commitment, he can pay $2 or $3 per pound of organic vegetables instead of $8 (“I can’t go there,” he says). He will pay $4 to $5 a pound for speciality items that may be highlighted on a single dish, but he’ll purchase them thoughtfully.
It helps to be nimble with your menu, too. If a farmer comes in the back door with something they need to get rid of, the kitchen team is quick to help them out. Creating a good repertoire of dishes for each season and ingredient makes that process much easier and benefits both the restaurant and the farmer.
Do what you can — even if you can’t do everything.
In Colorado Bradford has a significant blank spot in his season; there may be snow on the ground well into May. After the first frost he moves into winter menus full of root crops and hearty greens, supporting the natural rhythm of the seasons. When fresh produce isn’t available locally, Bradford and his team buy organic products from California, writing their menus based on what’s the best value.
He also uses the filter of the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15: the former being ingredients that are very important to buy organic, as they have higher concentrations of pesticides, and the latter being ones that are relatively safe to buy conventional.
“Don’t give up,” he advises. “Even if you can’t do it perfectly, whatever effort you put in is a beautiful act of love for Mother Nature. I try not to be too hard on myself. When I’m 60 I want to look at the guy in the mirror and say I did my best — did things that helped the environment and helped people consider their choices around food.”