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Chefs are sourcing locally to connect with customers and rediscover their roots

Fish flown in from Japan. French cheese. Australian lamb. Greek olives. Imports like these have long been signifiers of fine dining, yet both chefs and consumers are starting to see an environmental cost from transporting them that goes beyond their price tag. In finding ingredients closer to home, they’re not just lowering their impact, they’re retelling the story of American cuisine itself.

Cassidee Dabney, executive chef at the Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., sees local sourcing as the foundation of their dining ethos. Some of the ingredients are as close as their onsite garden, while others come from nearby farms, but all go into a menu that showcases what they’ve termed “foothills cuisine.”

“Foothills cuisine is heartfelt food that stirs memories in people,” she says. “It’s about not being wasteful of anything and cooking very much within the season.”

Diners love the food’s connection to the picturesque hills around them, but preparing it comes with its challenges.

“You have to taste your tomato before you make the salad because it might have rained too much the week before and will need acid and sweetness and salt,” she explains. “But once the team has that connection to the food, they have a say in what the ingredients mean.”

At Wilmington, Delaware’s Bardea, chef Antimo DiMeo primarily uses ingredients from Delaware Valley producers, importing from Italy only what cannot be obtained nearby.

“The biggest benefit of pulling from different farms is the freshness and diversity,” DiMeo says.

Another benefit: His customers feel good about supporting nearby food businesses whose products are now given as much respect as the imports.

“It’s important to relay the message tableside,” DiMeo says. “People love to hear that we source our goat from Stryker Farms within 40 miles of here. It’s part of the experience.”

Local produce takes on global flavors at HoQ in Des Moines, Iowa. There, chef Suman Hoque draws on his childhood in Bangladesh and travels around the world as he builds relationships with suppliers.

“We started this restaurant so we would know where our food was coming from,” Hoque says. “We get 90 percent of our ingredients from a 30-mile radius.”

Thanks to his location in the food-rich Midwest, the cost of local sourcing has not been prohibitively high.

“The price is not much different with local food,” he says. Importers “have to pay for freight, while our farmer is half an hour away.”

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