These days you hear a lot more about living locally, eating close to the land and sustainable living than you did just five years ago. Here on the Island, these are hardly new concepts. Folks here have been living off the land and sea forever—and have been feeding visitors in this manner for just as long.
However, a restaurant that strictly serves locally sourced food as part of its mission—or selling point—is a relatively new concep, one borne out of both the public’s newly peaked interest in living locally and restaurateurs who take this concept seriously and want to serve the freshest possible food. Two restaurants, one new and one old, went into the 2011 summer season with exactly that in mind.
in West Tisbury is a new “farm to take out restaurant” that opened last June. The focus at 7a foods is to develop close relationships with producers, hand-select quality foodstuffs and provide them at their peak of age, ripeness and flavor to customers. The owners also pledge to educate customers about the origin, history, heritage and significance of foods.
The in Menemsha is an 80-year-old dockside seafood restaurant that was recently taken over by the Nixon family, who also own the and . A year after taking it over, the Nixon’s goal is for guests to experience the freshest, best-prepared seafood while giving choices that are the healthiest for our oceans. The Nixons do not and will not serve ocean wildlife that they believe to be overexploited, and supply the kitchen with fish caught by locals.
Both 7a and the Home Port promise their visitors foods prepared not just from the freshest possible ingredients, but from ingredients caught and/or grown on Island, by Islanders, whenever possible. Of course, “whenever possible” means that they’ve got a bit of an out to their pledges, but for both of these businesses, "whenever possible" often means simply crossing the Nantucket Sound or deciding that it is, in fact, not possible.
Wenonah Madison-Sauer, half of the husband and wife team that owns 7a says, “First, we use our own produce from our farm in Aquinnah in our recipes at the store. We also buy as much local produce as we can get our hands on, then source in Massachusetts next, then New England, the Northeast and so on.”
This can, at times, translate into higher costs, but more often, it translates into more man-hours. “I know when I get to bed at midnight, that I’ve got to be up and on the docks at 7 am the next morning to find out what fish I’m going to get for tomorrow night’s dinner,” said Home Port chef Teddy Diggs.
Similarly, Dan Sauer, chef and co-owner of 7a, finds himself up late at night grinding meat for the next day’s meatball sandwiches. These are sandwiches that will have to compete cost-wise with meatball sandwiches made from meatballs created who knows where, using meat from who knows where, frozen and shipped here in a climate-controlled truck. Sauer, a farmer himself, says he doesn't like to “haggle with suppliers too much,” to bring down their costs. “For local farmers, the summer is the only time of the year that they can charge higher prices. I don’t want to ask them to come down too much for us.”
Buying in bulk helps and being flexible is a necessity. Both chefs live by the rule that the ingredient dictates the dish. “It’s about the ingredients,” said Sauer. “We try to get the freshest possible ingredients and then do as little to them as possible, because they don’t need much done them to make them taste good.”
Diggs had a similar approach, using a chalkboard menu for the items that changed from day to day and a paper menu for the items that they knew would be easier to keep on hand, like lobsters and bluefish. However, the challenge at the Home Port was how to keep happy those customers who really wanted the tradition of the standard Home Port fare. “People really wanted their baked stuffed shrimp,” said Diggs. “If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have served it, but it’s also a business.” So he and owner Sarah Nixon set about researching where they could find the closest possible, small-scale shrimp operation, and they did, using a service called Sea to Table.
According to Madison-Sauer, “Our menu changes not only because local items go in and out of season, but because we make everything from scratch whenever possible.”
Both restaurants place enormous value on the relationship and respect they have with and for local producers. According to Madison-Sauer, “We are very thankful to Jefferson at The Good Farm and Richard at Cleveland Farm for providing us with excellent locally pastured chickens. They work together to provide great product for an extended period of time. If Jefferson doesn't have chickens one week, Richard does. It's great for us.”
“The whole thing about it is the people I worked with,” said Diggs. “The fisherman and farmers do their fishing and their farming with genuine care and passion. When I get excited about their product, they are excited about my excitement.” According to Home Port owner Nixon, “We bought more than $80,000 worth of seafood from our neighbors.” And according to Diggs, every lobster plate came with locally grown potatoes and corn.
For each establishment, there is a dedication to the community they serve that goes beyond just the food they’re buying from our farms or putting in our mouths. The Home Port has closed already for the season, but according to Nixon, they have made sure to continue the “long tradition of providing island kids with their first job. As I like to say, we run a restaurant and a youth development program simultaneously. And this is actually my favorite part of the job.”
7a is committed to staying open through the whole year. “We are going to be here for the community all year,” said Sauer. “We hope to be a place where you can get a good cup of coffee and something good to eat all year long.”
So is sustainable really sustainable? “That’s the million dollar question, isn't it?” said Nixon. The answer at both locations is that it has as much to do with choices the customers make as the owners and chefs. “It comes down to the same thing,” said Diggs. “Can you afford it as a person? As a chef, I think it’s my responsibility to make it possible and affordable. People are going to have to make their own choices. It is more about a way of living.”
Similarly, according to Sauer, “It all depends on the choices people make. They have to do more than just write a blog post about it; they have to actually make changes to their lives and the ways they think about food.”