The farm-to-table movement has been a hot topic for the last few years, with restaurants touting the fact that they use ingredients from local farms in their dishes. But the farm-to-table menu has been a trend since the 1980s for some U.S. chefs, says Mark Cupolo, chef and owner of Osteria Rocco in Rochester, NY.
"Farm-to-table has become the new gold standard," says Cupolo, "but most good chefs have been making the most of fresh, local ingredients for years." By taking advantage of what produce is in season locally, chefs can create innovative offerings that highlight the best ingredients within a short distance of their restaurants.
That's not to say that a farm-to-table menu doesn't bring challenges, however, especially in a region with a very short growing season, such as Western New York, where Rocco is located.
While Rocco's core dinner menu rarely changes, the restaurant also offers 10 specials, which change almost daily. Specials provide Cupolo the opportunity to get creative with the in-season produce and local deals he finds.
"We're very flexible with our specials," he says. Sometimes the staff doesn't decide until two in the afternoon what to add to the menu for the evening, depending on what fresh ingredients are available that day.
Regular customers enjoy the variety that the restaurant's specials provide and love that they can try a different dish nearly every visit. They come back for both the regular menu items and the surprise that the changing specials offer.
Finding Farm-Fresh Food
Cupolo has four main sources of fresh, local produce: the Rochester Public Market, where growers bring their harvests to sell; small farms that deliver directly to the restaurant; individual roadside farm markets that dot the suburban landscape; and Wegmans grocery store.
He visits the public market about once a week to see what's in season and what looks good and to generate ideas for what he might add to the menu. Small farms in the area check in with him a few times a week, letting him know what they have available and offering to deliver what he needs (he gets deliveries twice a week). Area roadside farm markets he visits include the Lehman Farm Market in Pittsford, NY (where the owner gets great tomatoes early in the season) and Gentle's in Penfield, NY. These are generally pricier than the public market, he explains, but they offer top-quality ingredients. Wegmans has relationships with local farms and carries a wide selection of fresh fruits and vegetables that Cupolo picks up daily.
From July to August, when the growing season is in full swing, the challenge becomes what to choose to use — there are so many options, he says. "From tomatoes to zucchini to eggplant, everything is in season, and it's hard to vary the menu enough to take advantage of all that is available." But he tries.
Buying directly from local growers is also an advantage for his budget. "My produce bill in the growing season is two-thirds lower than during the rest of the year, when I have to buy from commercial growers," he explains; they have to ship in basics like lettuce and fruit from the West Coast (or even further afield).
While much of what he needs can be ordered from commercial providers year-round, Cupolo elects to buy almost exclusively from local growers when what he needs is available — to make the most of what is fresh within his zip code.
"It tastes better and helps support our local farmers, which I think is important," he says.