Ethics and Fine Dining – Chef Christine Keff talks Organic

Flying Fish hhas been in Seattle for almost eleven years now, and seems to be more of an institution than a restaurant. Last year, chef and owner Christine Keff caused a bit of a local sensation in the restaurant scene when she announced that the place was going to an all organic menu.

Seriously – Questions were asked. Meetings were held. Voices were raised.

It was interesting to watch the big names in the Seattle restaurant scene react. It was even more interesting to listen to what these chefs had to say about various food philosophies in the context of running well respected fine dining restaurants.

And then? Then there was silence as the chefs went back to simply running their restaurants. But being the ever curious person that I am, I always wondered in the back of my mind “What would happen to a restaurant after it decided to go organic?”. I sat down with Chef Keff to ask a little about her restaurant and what she has learned.

As way of a general introduction to the folks who don’t know your or your restaurant, Can you give a little background on your career and your restaurant? Sure. I’ve been cooking for 30 years. I never went to cooking school, instead taking a formal apprenticeship at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. I worked in New York for ten years and then moved to Seattle.

I then worked a bunch of places around town, some corporate restaurants, and then eleven years ago I opened Flying Fish. We were in the right place at the right time and have been pretty successful. We have a regular clientèle and loyalty, not just from Seattle-ites, but from people from other cities who frequent Seattle frequently. It’s been a fun ride.

Has anyone been a role model in either the way you cook or the way you approach running your restaurant? The best role model I ever had was the first chef I worked for at the Four Seasons. He had a very naturalistic approach to food, even at a time when a more formal approach was stylish. He always wanted to do, and did do, food that made sense, that had a basis in tradition even if it wasn’t traditional itself.

Do you find that this approach fits well in the Seattle area? It does. It fits particularly well in the genre that we’re in, using ingredients from other cultures to compliment the fish from our waters. We use a lot of Asian ingredients, but we don’t always do “traditional” Asian dishes. It’s not always like what you would have over there, as we use those ingredients but with different techniques.

I’ve traveled rather extensively in that area of the world and I feel that our food may play around a little bit, but we’re still grounded in tradition.

Why did you decide to go organic? I decided to go organic because I feel that what we are doing to the planet is arrogant and wrong.

I understand that “organic” has a long and honorable history as a word and as a concept and has a whole philosophy behind it, but really what drew me to it was the number of things that get killed by the way we farm. If you kill the bugs, then the birds don’t have anything to eat – it just seems terrible hubris to treat the ground and everything that lives off the ground the way that we do. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just got to me, I couldn’t really tell you why.

Do you remember when you started thinking that you had to do something? I do. It was a couple of years ago. It wasn’t entirely “spiritual” but it did starting thinking more about spiritual issues. I’m later in my life and I’ve been thinking a lot about something called creation spirituality that says things like “God is in everything”. If I really believe that, how can I condone doing the things that we do? By buying that stuff, I’m supporting it.

Fortunately Flying Fish is a profitable restaurant and I have a little bit of room to play where I can make decisions like that whereas people who are working a little closer to the bone sometimes can’t.

So I asked “what would happen if I didn’t support that anymore?”

How long did it take from saying “I’m doing this” to telling the crew “This is what we’re going to do”?It took me a couple of months to get to the point where I knew we were going to do it. Then I broached it with the crew and I said “Let’s do this within six months”.

Was there any resistance to this idea? Yup, there was.

From inside or outside the restaurant? In house, not from outside.

It’s harder. Organics, especially in produce, are geared to the grocery stores. Most organic growing and buying is geared for what sells in the grocery stores.

It’s different for restaurants when you need something all year round. Like shallots for example, they don’t appear in the organic section in the grocery store, so it’s very hard to find a consistent supply of them.
But we found them and have them. It was difficult up front, but in the end it means that any restaurant who wants organic shallots over the course of the year can buy them because we’re buying them. Our supplier has learned where to get them and has started stocking them. That’s how it happens.

What were some of the problems that you anticipated in going to an all organic menu? We anticipated price increases and we did see a little bit of that. We anticipated higher food costs, and initially we encountered one, but we managed to get that back down to where it was.

We had a small increase in price, maybe a dollar per plate. But we were still below many of the other fine dining restaurants. It didn’t price us beyond the reach of the customer at all.

Percentage-wise, can you say how much going organic had affected your food costs? It took a two point jump when we first started it. Two percent – which is significant. It was already low by industry standards, so it didn’t hurt us that much. Then we worked on getting it back down, and now it’s back down. Within four months our new chef, Angie Roberts, got it down.

To get the costs back down, we found it was simply a matter of manipulating the menu. Instead of saying “This case of broccoli costs half as much this other case”, we instead looked at paring higher cost items with lower ones. We can put higher cost broccoli with lower cost fish, and the costs even out over the course of the entire menu.

You’ve been organic for almost a year now. Where their any problems over the course of this time that caught you entirely off guard? What I didn’t anticipate was the staff resistance. I actually lost a chef over this. I was really surprised by that.

He was one of the people who thought that going organic means going “granola”, for lack of a better word. I had not anticipated that at all, because, for me, I wasn’t thinking about organic meaning “hippies” and “communes” and all that kind of stuff. For me it was something very specific. I was really floored by that. Eventually he just didn’t want to do it, and he left.

When I sat down with Tom Douglas, he said that he makes his food choices based on locality, sustainability and the organic. How much thought did you put into both locality and sustainability? I’ve heard other chefs say “It’s all about local. Organic doesn’t matter.” I think that’s kind of the other end of the spectrum and you don’t want to be there either. They both matter.

I’ve decided to draw the line in the sand with organic and not use fresh ingredients that aren’t organic, and I don’t specify if they’re local or not. It’s a first step and it takes the chemicals out of the equation.
We try to buy local as much as we can. But local here means a very short produce season. What do we do the rest of the year? Do we just go back
to buying industrial non-organic stuff? I won’t let people diminish the importance of organic just because they’re focused on local.

Organic is a sustainable practice. There’s no separation between sustainable and organic.

I think a lot of chefs have some sort of “heebee jeebee” about organic – “It’s always expensive”, “I can’t afford it”, “It’s granola and Birkenstock’s”, “It means we can’t have the great ingredients that we want”, when it doesn’t mean any of that at all. You can get fresh organic turmeric from Hawaii for example, and most people don’t even look for organic turmeric.

I think a lot of chefs put organic way at the other end of the spectrum because they don’t know what’s possible. They think that if they have an “organic” restaurant, it will mean having a “granola” restaurant.

What have been the more difficult items to get organic? Lemon grass was hard. Bean sprouts were hard, oddly enough. Evidentially it was the mung beans themselves that are sprayed with something to keep them from rotting.

There have been times when items simply weren’t available. This was the case with turmeric where all the fresh turmeric was gone, and all that was left was stuff that was rotting. So we’ve learned to keep certain items frozen.

What’s been the best part of the last year? Well, our lives are not a lot different than they were before. We just know that we’re doing this and it feels good. It feels good to make some products readily available to those who want to make those choices.

How have been the customers’ reactions? All good. They’ve appreciated it. We’ve given them added value and we haven’t put them through the ringer. What’s not to like?

Technorati Tags: Christine Keff, Restaurants, Organic Food, Fine Dining

Tags: , , ,