eating what comes naturally

Southwest chefs take pride in locally grown and organic fare

Think globally, eat locally: That's the mantra of a growing number of Southwest chefs - and their customers, committed to food grown close to home and, often, organically.

Many reasons drive this choice - philosophy, health, politics - but the bottom line is simply this: It tastes better.

Declares Chef Lucia Watson, who launched Lucia's, 1432 W. 31st St., 21 years ago, &#8220My commitment grew out of a search for quality. That soon led to digging deeper into what you're buying. Wal-Mart is the world's largest vendor of organic foods,” she said. &#8220But I'd be less sure of what I'm buying. I'm committed to the local food system, where you can talk to the farmer. As they say, ‘It's 10,000 miles fresher.'”

Watson is one who walks the talk. She serves on the board of the Twin Cities-based Youth Farm and Market Project, educating inner-city kids in producing and eating home-grown foods; she also has served on the governor's Organic Advisory Task Force and the Land Stewardship Council.

Local sourcing may cost her a bit more, she said - costs she hesitates to pass on to her diners, whose price perceptions play a factor. Some seek her out because they can count on food that's untainted by chemicals. Others simply couldn't care less about health concerns but recognize outstanding flavor.

Her kitchen staff tends to work here because they're likewise committed to the cause, she said. Servers also pass on the excitement to their customers: &#8220The farmer just brought this in this morning!”

Watson doesn't flaunt her beliefs in marketing programs. &#8220I'm not like [vanguard movement leader] Odessa [Piper, of Madison, Wis.], who lists every producer on her menu. I try to strike a balance and let the servers talk to customers who are interested. The bottom line is, this is a business and I've got to meet a payroll, so my mission hasn't changed in 21 years: Offer amazing food at reasonable prices in a friendly atmosphere.” And if it's politically and nutritionally correct, all the better.

Lynn Gordon of French Meadow Bakery & Caf, 2610 Lyndale Ave. S., is another trailblazer whose convictions paved the way to the bank. Necessity drove her to open her all-natural and organic enterprise 21 years ago when she was unable to find any yeast-free, additive-free products to feed her young family.

&#8220The times are changing, but I've always been one step ahead,” she said. &#8220It was tough at first; we were totally alone. I called on [grocery chains] to offer my products - no herbicides, no pesticides.” No thanks. &#8220Now, the natural/organic segment is the fastest-growing in the food industry,” she states. &#8220What was once a hard sell has come into its own.”

Her customers span the gamut from sprout-eaters on bikes to gourmands in Beemers: &#8220diamond rings to rings in their noses,” she laughingly defines her eclectic and loyal fans, among whom you'll occasionally spot a Hollywood star, editors of Bon Appetit and other out-of-towners who swear by the goods she now supplies to co-ops across the nation.

Driven by customer demand, Gordon has strayed from the straight-and-narrow of her vegetarian beginnings to offer fish, chicken, bison and - yes! -even bacon, but all hormone-free and sourced locally. Her empire now includes a pair of cafs and an organic wine-and-martini bar at the airport and an in-store SuperValu deli in Indianapolis, with more of both to come. London, Japan and Shanghai are calling, too.

Kim Bartman, owner of Caf Barbette, 1600 W. Lake St., is revving up her commitment to local, organic products (despite what she perceives as higher food costs) by extending her philosophy to its sister venue, Bryant-Lake Bowl (BLB), 810 W. Lake St., now featuring organic chicken wings and burgers from grass-fed Minnesota beef. &#8220Our customers are the kind who care,” she said.

Barbette's Chef, Peter Botcher, swears by the better quality this provides him. &#8220Plus,” he amends, &#8220sometimes it can be less costly, with summer's abundance. And by partnering with BLB, we can [cost-effectively] buy a whole side of beef.”

Going this route is, for him, a no-brainer. He cooks with local chicken, beef, lamb, eggs and butter because, &#8220Taste is the bottom line. And the better the raw material, the less work I have to do with it,” he laughs.

Doug Flicker of Auriga, 1930 Hennepin Ave. S., said of his conversion, &#8220I had a growing consciousness that this was the way to go.

&#8220Since back when ‘organic' first started taking off, there's been a huge jump in quality. At first, it was difficult to rely on local vendors for consistency, plus our growing season is only four or five months. But now, we're buying 90 percent from [local] places like Roots & Fruits. And finding chicken and pork has become much easier. With beef, there's more waste - but it's getting there.

&#8220Our staff has an organic background,” Flicker continues. &#8220Among our customers, some are organic-conscious, while others just value good food.” It costs them a bit more, Flicker acknowledges, &#8220I can pass that on with fish and chicken; they wrap their hands around it - but with things like asparagus, it's more difficult.”

Yet he cooks this way because, he insists, &#8220It tastes better. Buying local means it's closer and usually handled better. I'm not political about my beliefs,” he adds. &#8220I don't stand on a soapbox and preach. I just say, ‘This is a good thing - good for customers and good for quality.'”

Namaste, 2512 Hennepin Ave. S., a Nepalese restaurant that debuted in April, states it right up front on its menu: &#8220The quality of our ingredients and the freshness of the food is very important to us. In preparing our dishes, we try to use natural or organic products as far as possible free-range chicken from local farms; free-range lamb; fish and shrimp from one of the best suppliers in town.”

Swadesh Shrestha, co owner with his brother, Sonny, came by this way of eating from their father, who's involved in the Alternative Agricultural Association of Nepal. &#8220We grew up on fresh food; local origin is in our blood. This is the way we eat, ourselves - food given by the Earth, which has to come to you like it is, not in a different shape - so we'd feel uncomfortable offering anything else to our customers. You can definitely taste the difference,” Shrestha said.

His father operates a co-op in Nepal, from which Namaste sources its tea.

Presently Shrestha sources most other products from The Wedge Co-op. &#8220They inspired us and helped us. Now, we're getting to know the organic farmers. Where I come from, so many people are hungry, so there's no waste here in our own kitchen. We cook everything to order. People know me and trust me not to sell anything from cans and boxes. People in Minneapolis are starting to eat more healthily,” he said, pleased to note.

For local diners, it's win-win. By tending to our health and taste buds, we're supporting nearby producers and the culinary experts those who believe in them.