Fowler is the founder and executive director of Syracuse First, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating consumers about the benefits of buying local. Established in June 2009, Syracuse First has already made a significant impression on the community, with more than 100 member companies and growing.
“The response has been extremely positive,” says Fowler. “People are becoming more aware, and that’s what Syracuse First is all about.”
But Fowler, who grew up in DeWitt, wasn’t always so optimistic about the Central New York region, an area he says “lacked energy and a sense of community.” His feelings were only confirmed last year, when Fowler did a casual survey to gauge Central New York’s awareness when it comes to the local economy. Fowler asked 100 people what they think about before making a purchase. The top three responses: quality, convenience and cost. Only one respondent added “ownership” to the list.
Chris Fowler of Syracuse First: “Food is the gateway to local thinking.” “That showed me that people aren’t thinking about how their money works, where it’s going when it leaves their pockets,” says Fowler.
With that, Syracuse First was born. Although Fowler’s goals were lofty, his first order of business was to change the way area restaurants think about their food. “Food is the gateway to local thinking,” says Fowler, who explains that there’s a paradox when it comes to the restaurant industry. National chains like Chili’s, Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday source their foods from warehouses sprinkled all over the country, Fowler explains, and when consumers eat at these chains, their money goes to the huge national corporations.
So the solution is to eat at small local restaurants, right? Not exactly, cautions Fowler. Some independently owned eateries source from the very same national vendors. “So if a local restaurant owner is asking people to support his business, yet he’s turning around and supporting national sourcing instead of local farms, it’s really doing his business a disservice."
Instead, Fowler and Syracuse First encourage restaurant owners to source locally, “whether it’s simply greens, meats or just getting bread from the local bread maker,” he says. And considering the rich agriculture of Central New York, finding delicious, local foods is far from a challenge.
Outstanding in a field: The crew from Empire Brewing Company makes weekly forays into their Cazenovia organic garden; they are (from left) John Sullivan, Dave Katleski, Ray Kasler Tim Butler, Adam Eagan and Kevin Griffin.
No one knows that better than Dave Katleski, founder and owner of Empire Brewing Company, 120 Walton St. (475-2337). The downtown staple has been turning local ingredients into flavorful, beer-friendly fare since 2007, when Katleski jumped on board the slow-food movement. The antithesis to fast food, “slow food” is a basic viewpoint that champions the use of local food sources to reduce the carbon footprint and support the local economy. “It’s a socially conscious idea, and to me, it’s just the right thing to do,” says Katleski, who, after discovering the movement, began working with local farmers to find sustainable ingredients like farm-raised beef, chickens and organic eggs to help revamp Empire’s menu.
Three years later, Katleski’s diligence has paid off. Today, Empire’s menu features locally raised Kobe and black Angus beef, which give the eatery’s signature burgers their rich, juicy, fresh taste, he says. Vegetables, fruits, potatoes, herbs and hops for the brewery’s handcrafted beers grow just miles away in Cazenovia, where Empire’s own organic garden flourishes. In total, Empire works with 30 local farms to create a menu that is seasonal, flavorful and fresh.
“I’ll pick the lettuce from the garden and use it hours later,” says Katleski, who explains that Empire’s goal is to be 100 percent self-sustainable. “We’re not there yet, but that’s the hope.”
And besides being environmentally and economically friendly, Empire’s local philosophy is nothing short of scrumptious. “Our meat tastes cleaner, our vegetables have a more earthy flavor to them,” says Katleski. “I tasted the Brazilian chowder the other day and I knew immediately they used our garden fresh cilantro. The flavor just pops. It tasted the best it’s ever tasted.”
Alicyn Hart, Eric Woodworth and Owen Woodworth show off some of the pigs they are raising to ultimately be served at their Cazenovia restaurant, Circa.
Good taste is something Alicyn Hart knows all about. As head chef and founder of Circa, 76 Albany St., Cazenovia (655-8768), Hart’s commitment to the local movement is almost as strong as her flavors.
A native of coastal Connecticut, Hart grew up eating fresh fish and produce from local farmstands. At 15, she got her first job at a fish market. “Food was always something I was interested in,” she says. As a young adult, Hart traveled extensively through Europe, working in the kitchens of small bistros, where fresh, locally grown food from tiny village markets was the only choice on the menu. “It’s not like the Sysco truck pulls up to a bed-and-breakfast in Austria,” Hart says with a laugh. “Using local ingredients is just the way it’s done there.”
After apprenticing for three years in Europe, Hart struggled when she returned to the United States. “I had a hard time finding food that tasted good, that hadn’t traveled across the country,” she says. Living in Cazenovia with her husband Eric Woodworth, originally from Nelson, and teaching culinary arts at BOCES, Hart grew more frustrated with the lack of support for local agriculture. “We’re surrounded by farms and I couldn’t get a local kernel of corn!” she says. “I was like, ‘Where’d all the food go?’”
In late 2005, Hart and her husband had a light bulb moment: The couple decided to open a restaurant whose menu was in line with their lifestyle and buy local philosophy. Although achieving the goal required months of research, networking with local farmers and searching for tasty, consistent products, Circa opened in February 2006.
“I think in terms of what’s freshest, what’s the best quality,” says Hart. “So I knew my restaurant had to be congruent with that."
Today at Circa, Hart’s menu—which changes almost daily—features the best of seasonal, local ingredients. Small producers provide Circa with everything from breads to cheeses to dry beans. At Circa’s own farm in Nelson, Woodworth raises hogs and chickens and grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, all of which eventually end up feeding her loyal clientele.
This week, Hart hopes to create dishes that incorporate fresh cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash and sugar snap peas. “I just take what’s growing out of the ground and try not to mess it up,” says Hart. “My travels have influenced my style, but it’s really such a simple thing.”
For another belly-filling example of the local movement, take a trip to Sparky Town, 324 Burnet Ave. (422-8401). The funky eatery in Hawley-Green opened in early 2008, with Linda “Sparky” Mortimer at the helm. Mortimer, a transplant from Brooklyn and a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, moved to Syracuse 20 years ago, and brought her unique take on homestyle cooking with her.
Linda Mortimer of Sparky Town: “There’s something very clean and appealing about homegrown, local foods.”
“In culinary school, I learned the importance of organic, regional, seasonal food,” says Mortimer. This philosophy shines at Mortimer’s namesake, where “fresh, healthy comfort food” makes up the menu of soups, sandwiches, salads and other casual favorites like Sparky’s homemade, “Velveeta-free” macaroni and cheese.
Farms in Baldwinsville, Kirkville and Pompey provide ingredients for Sparkytown’s seasonal dishes, like roasted turkey in the winter and crunchy salads loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer.
Supporting local farms not only makes Mortimer “feel good about how I’m spending my money,” but also gives Sparky’s eats their bold flavors. “There’s something very clean and appealing about homegrown, local foods,” she says. “Tastewise, you can’t get any better than fresh asparagus or just-picked sweet corn.”
Still, Mortimer admits that choosing to go the local route can be a bit more expensive, especially since most of her menu is organic. “You have to spend more for better quality,” she says. “But if you can make the choice not to put pesticides and hormones into your body as well as support the community, then it’s worth it.”
Still, Sparky Town’s menu isn’t overly expensive. “Some aspects, it does cost a bit more,” Mortimer admits. “If you’re buying organic, it does cost a bit more. I try really hard not to let it reflect too much, but my prices may be a little higher, but in the end, it’s worth it.”
The latest restaurant on the local train is Dolce Vita, 907 E. Genesee St. (475-4700). The cozy bistro opened last year and, exactly one year later, in June, the restaurant introduced its Central New York-inspired menu. “Besides salt and pepper, every item is local,” says Jason Jessmore, Dolce Vita’s executive chef. A fervent believer in the local food movement, Jessmore worked with Syracuse First to help devise a menu that highlights the best ingredients Central New York has to offer.
Beef, chicken, herbs and greens are purchased from local farms, and Jessmore makes a point to visit the Central New York Regional Market every week, searching for the freshest, tastiest ingredients. “There’s nothing better than cooking food that was picked out of the ground yesterday,” says Jessmore.
But besides the obvious taste difference, Jessmore says buying local makes the most economic sense. “People complain about potholes in the roads here. Meanwhile, they’re going to Applebee’s and sending their money to a different city, different state, and supporting a completely different area,” he explains. “It’s so important to keep our money here and keep our community profitable.”
Although Dolce Vita’s local menu is only about eight weeks old, customers are already responding to the new flavors. “People are really excited about it. They love the concept,” says Jessmore, who notes that he’s getting “more creative” in the kitchen and as a result, the menu is evolving. “Our regular dinner menu has changed a couple of times. Mother Nature forces us to keep updating it as different fruits and vegetables become available.” For example, Jessmore has recently been using local berries, which are at their peak, in everything from desserts to chicken dishes. “I’m having a lot of fun with it!” Jessmore says.
So while it’s no question that restaurants like Dolce Vita are increasing the local-movement’s popularity, could it be that the focus on local eating is only a passing trend? “No way,” says Jessmore. “It’s the direction we’re heading. Today, there are enough people who are promoting it, believing in it and following it that it’s become a lot more than a trend. It’s becoming a revolution.”