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Sustainability is more than a marketing term

This is part of Restaurant Hospitality’s special coverage of the 2013 South Beach Wine & Food Festival held in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 21-24. • See more from South Beach

Panelists, from left: Ben Ford, Ziggy Marley, Seamus Mullen and Bruce Sherman

Many chefs talk the talk about cooking sustainably. Then there are those who walk the walk. Three chef disciples of sustainable cooking practices — along with reggae icon Ziggy Marley, who has a line of organic cooking products — discussed the importance of cooking to preserve the health of customers and the planet. Ben Ford, chef/owner of Ford's Filling Station in Culver City, CA, which is committed to sustainable cooking; Seamus Mullen, chef/owner of Tertulia, a New York restaurant dedicated to the sustainable cuisine of Spain; and Bruce Sherman, chef of North Pond in Chicago and a board member of the Chefs Collaborative, joined Marley to discuss sustainability.

What's so important about sustainability?

I feel like the first line of defense for my customers. They've come to expect from me that I will cook them clean food, and I take that responsibility seriously.

Mullen: For those of us who work in restaurants, it's up to us to support local farmers who provide the best ingredients. The expense of shipping food worldwide doesn't make sense, and the products simply aren't better than what you'll find in your backyard. Chefs have to take on the responsibility of making the change toward sustainability happen.

Sherman: For me, it's about feeling good about what I do. I don't want to just cook 'cool' food that attracts media attention. I want to give my customers food that connects with their soul. I like the idea of supporting a small family of farmers so they can make a living doing the good things they do. In other words, I want to leave the campsite in a better way than I found it.

Marley: In Jamaica, it's the way we eat. We eat what the farmers down the road grow and collect from the trees when it's ready to be eaten. Not before. We appreciate the cycle of nature. We don't impose our will on nature or demand ingredients that aren't ready to be eaten.

Mullen: What's so frightening is how different we eat now than we did a generation before us. Technology in farming has pushed us to the extreme. Now this generation of people is developing so many food-driven diseases like diabetes because we're not eating the right foods at the right time. But because more chefs are now insisting on sustainable farming practices, the cost of grass-fed beef is now nearing the cost of grain-fed beef.

Sherman: Chefs have a responsibility to also make sure that sustainable, organic foods are made available to more than just the one percent of the well-to-do population.

Marley: Some things are simple. For example, I grow my own tomatoes and eat them. I don't go to the grocery store for tomatoes that have been shipped from a long distance away.

Mullen: Part of the problem is that it's way too easy for people to go to the grocery store and buy something instantly. We need to spend more time about the food we eat. If you think about what you're putting into your body you won't be so quick to buy something from a grocery store that arrived from across the country.

Ford: Like what Ziggy said: If you put your hands in soil, you'll make a connection with the food you eat.

Sherman: To that end, we give all our customers seeds so they can do just that: grow stuff at home.

But how do you make sustainable food items available to people of lesser means?

In Los Angeles, we have more farmer’s markets than anywhere. And in cities around America, community gardens are popping up.

Sherman: Schools are also beginning to teach kids about growing produce. Community gardens are a solution on one level. Another is to raise taxes on the food that is no good for you.

Mullen: The problem isn't that organic food items are too expensive; it's that bad foods are insanely cheap because they're subsidized. We are feeding our kids junk and we have to create a demand for clean, organic food. A tomato from a local garden is simply way better than one grown from far away.

Marley: America has a huge influence on the rest of the world, and in many cases it's been a bad influence exporting its fast food restaurants. It's time for America to have a positive influence on the rest of the world.

Restaurant Hospitality editor Michael Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 21-24. The event, now in its 12th year, attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs, and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is several trade talks designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson’s reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.

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