The Importance of Locavore Dining
By Paul Lynch Chef, FireLake Grill House, Radisson Plaza Hotel, Minneapolis | August 25, 2013
Eating locally grown food has been a vital part of my life for as long as I can remember. In my youth, there was never a time when I was not a farmhand and sous chef for my mother. I grew up in Texas where the food had a distinct feel and flavor to it that directly reflected the community that I grew up in. The bright colors of the crops that came from the land I grew up on popped out of dishes across restaurants and onto dinner tables throughout my town. Our family garden produced fruits and vegetables that made up the flavor of my childhood and created a very specific taste of place for me. The foods that my family and I enjoyed together had very specific flavor components from the area we lived in that were woven through everything we cooked.
I got my degree at the New England Culinary Institute where much of the curriculum focused on providing the same idea of the taste of place that I ascribe to the Texas of my childhood. It is a way of cooking, and of life, that I was immediately drawn to and something that I felt was the right way to approach food. When I moved to California after living in Texas, I realized just how much place and land has an impact on the food we eat. As a chef working in a new part of the country, I was aware of the fruits and vegetables suddenly available to me and wanted the food I cooked to feature those ingredients.
I have never been one of those chefs that goes from kitchen to kitchen with five recipes that I cook no matter where I end up. The food I create in one place should never taste the same in the next place because no place is the same as the last. The first and most important thing I do when I cook in a new local is spend the time to understand what the local ingredients are and the local techniques that influence those ingredients. Nothing defines a society or a culture like its food. Food is a reflection of the heritage, the people, the land and how a society has evolved, and I believe that is true of all cuisines across the world. Cuisines form around these cultural influences and help to, in turn, define and enrich the culture itself. This is why it is crucially important to me to understand where I am and to let the heritage of that land speak through me to be reflected on the plate.
When we first dreamed up FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar a decade ago, a driving force behind the concept was to make it about a taste of place and to be centered on regional, local, and sustainable cuisine. It has always been important to me that the food we serve tastes like it comes from Minnesota, especially since we are located just next to the Mall of America, the second largest tourist attraction in the nation with 40 million visitors a year. When tourists and local guests come to my restaurant, I want them to experience the flavors of the area, and that is something that we take very seriously here. This means understanding a cuisine that has been developing for centuries, beginning with the Native Americans and the settlers, and including the strong Scandinavian community that has built up in the upper Midwest.
I believe that embracing the cuisine of Minnesota, or any state for that matter, by definition, means working in harmony with the land we live on. Here in Minnesota, we sit in the breadbasket of America, and we are fortunate enough to have an unbelievable wealth of farmers, cheese makers, ranchers, and dairymen. Hunting has also had a strong history in the upper Midwest with the convergence of the plane lands with the water and forests. Minnesota produces some of the best poultry – pheasants, partridge, quail, and duck – in the country and that is why it plays such a heavy role in our menu. Layer on top of that the availability of fantastic fresh water fish and some of the best pork in the country, and it makes for an incredibly diverse and distinctly Minnesotan cuisine.
In sourcing local foods from Minnesota and other colder climates, I think a lot of people get hung up on produce, though I think what sets the state apart is the high quality and availability of the bounty here. People often forget about the abundance of cold storage crops and meats that sustain us over the cold winter months. Additionally, with the technology we now have available to us, I can get juicy tomatoes and bright, leafy greens throughout the year from hydroponic gardens less than 25 miles away from my restaurant.