By Rhonda Gruska
We just got back from visiting our son in one of our favorite food cities, Portland. Shortly after our return I went into one of my “Davis is not a food town” rants when some poor unsuspecting person said something about the high quality of a local eatery’s cuisine.
The rant went like this: the sad reality is, here in the Farm to Fork Capital of CA, in Yolo County, and definitely in Davis, the food served at most restaurants is coming off a Sysco truck (even at the Co-op!).
We find that ironic, given the fact that our local farms provide ingredients for many excellent restaurants in SF and a growing number in Sacramento.
Based on what we know (and we personally know a lot about what goes on in restaurants in Davis and learn more every day from our customers and our staff) there is little to be proud of in the food department in Davis.
The individual politely listened to my rant, thanked me for the information, and then asked me to consider writing a food column to help educate eaters. I was thrilled with the positive response and, as I live, breathe, and eat food, saw this challenge as something I could really sink my teeth into.
Yes, I will do it! And what better venue than the Davis Vanguard, a grassroots media organization that promotes critical analytical thinking and discussion about what is going on in our community?
In my first column, I want to find out if you aware that when you eat at a place that can’t tell you where the food came from, chances are extremely high that a majority of the ingredients, or even the menu items themselves, come from Sysco or some other corporate food purveyor? Sysco Corp. made news last December when it merged with US Foods.
Sysco is one of 10 channel partners with Entegra, a subsidiary of Sodexo, with 193 distribution facilities serving approximately 425,000 customers. During fiscal year 2013, the company generated record sales of more than $44 billion. Sodexo operates the food service at UC Davis and many other institutional food service operations.
Sysco has grown so large because commercial ingredients and prepared foods are not only cheap, but efficient.
While chefs have long relied on shortcuts like canned tomatoes, it’s entirely different to pass off one of Sysco’s ready-made salads, sides, entrees, and desserts as housemade. Commercially prepared foods can be purchased in bulk and stored in a freezer for months. Then you save money on labor by not having to hire what we call “a real cook.”
For example, a potential hire with what appeared to be a decent amount of cooking experience on his resume came in for a stage (cooking audition) and asked Tony, “Where do you get all of these sauces?’ “Uh, we make them,” Tony replied.
The bottom line in the food industry these days is that even if you aren’t at a fast food joint, chances are you could be paying for a meal that requires nothing more than the ability to “heat, assemble, and serve.”
We change our menu constantly, sometimes daily, using fresh, local, organic, ingredients. Our food and labor costs are high, but we think our customers are worth it (and we eat here every day and want to stay healthy, but that’s another article).
Needless to say, knowing what we know, it’s very difficult to dine out in “the farm to fork capital of the world.” When we do have time and money, we support restaurants similar to ours.
As our bartender son in Portland informed us, “Many people, who work in the food and beverage industry in Portland, consider themselves artisans. They perpetuate artisanship by supporting other artisans.” A former Monticello employee who recently opened a restaurant in Portland told us, “If a Sysco truck drove up, it would destroy our credibility in Portland.” Now that’s a “food town.”
As the owner of Monticello, a seasonal cuisine restaurant in Davis, along with my spouse, Chef Tony Gruska, and local organic farmer Jim Eldon, we live the “Farm to Fork” life. Tony’s culinary philosophy is that great cooking starts with great ingredients. And great ingredients come from small farms like Jim’s Fiddlers Green in Capay Valley.
Tony was recently included in Sac Town Magazine’s Home Grown Edition and was referred to as one of “the regions fiercest champions of the farm-to-fork movement.”
Monticello’s menu incorporates the most beautiful and flavorful seasonal produce, reflecting a serious commitment to the sustainable future of Yolo County and the region.
Prior to the restaurant in Davis, Rhonda and Tony owned the Monticello Bistro in the farming community of Winters and Tastebuds Catering.