Hari Pulapaka is the executive chef and owner of Cress restaurant (www.cressrestaurant.com) in DeLand, Florida. He's also an associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Stetson University. On Aug. 19, Pulapaka is leading a session at the Farm to Table Experience in New Orleans about what he calls the "traceability index for food," a model he is developing to assess how well a regional food system is connected to its food sources.
What is the current state of the farm-to-
Pulapaka: In my view, the meaning in the hospitality industry and the food advocacy world means different things for different people. A lot of consumers think it's all about local food. That's a component ... but that's not necessarily what farm-to-table is about.
People like labels like "organic," "pesticide free," and the unfortunate "all-natural," which is definitely problematic because most things start out natural. To me, it means to some degree knowing where your food comes from and how it's produced. Just because you know where something comes from doesn't mean that it's good for you.
And to a lesser degree, just because you know something is well-raised doesn't mean it's going to provide a good carbon footprint. In the ideal world, it would be local food that's grown really thoughtfully and consumed locally and minimally handled. That's the (chef/author) Alice Waters model. But in the practical world of massive food chains and distribution chains and food traveling huge distances to get places, I think the most we can ask for, at the very least, is that it be produced thoughtfully and processed minimally.
How have restaurants marketing farm-to-table mislabeled or abused
P: There are chefs in some restaurants who are doing the best they can, and to say that some place really knows where every ingredient comes from is really unrealistic. No chefs know exactly where every ingredient comes from. Most chefs, like me, try to showcase the in-season ingredients that are growing locally because we have connections with our farmers and the land that they take care of and so we try to celebrate our terroir by doing so. There are always restaurants who don't necessarily believe in that, who are always worried about the bottom line and have a perception that because they have to buy something locally they're going to end up paying more ... yet, they will happily jump on the bandwagon and put labels on their menus that say "locally sourced." There are two ways of misrepresentation here: You can just say "locally sourced" or you could actually name a farm. If you (falsely) name a farm ... that's a blatant disregard for somebody's farm. ... You're actually duping the customer and ... you're compromising the farm and the farmer. By serving some commercial product ... in the name of the artisan, you're really just hurting the artisan.
How can the movement improve going forward?
P: I am a firm believer of demand driving supply. I think consumers have more to say and can affect how things change for the better than the artisans and the chefs and the restaurants (can). The question is, really, how can we build a culture that recognizes that this matters? We can — through the education system, through the political system and through the industrial system. It's systemic. Have you seen a debate question during this presidential election where the moderators have asked about food? I haven't. So that's one aspect. And of course, there are ways to use the machine of academia to inspire the youth of today and the leaders of tomorrow. Food studies programs are sprouting up at different institutions, and that's one way to make things better. Food touches on every subject matter that there is. It touches on technology, it touches on nutrition, health, politics, economics. It's just a part of so many things.