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Is Sustainable Really Sustainable?

Two Island restaurants have taken farm to table—and sea to table—to heart. So, is it worth it?

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.”

Michael West October 20, 2011 at 01:19 PM
Sustainable starts at home. Until that happens, "sustainable" food ventures will be another form of ecotourism -- A luxury in the minds of families who may not be able to "afford" sustainable practices because they do not connect their eating with their health. This is a not a simple transition for most families, and few will embrace it readily. It is good that some restaurants are buying some things "sustainably," but the majority of what our local restaurants purchase is not in that category. There are exceptions, like Detente and 7a. Maybe the Home Port, too, has a few "sustainable" offerings. Congratulations to them. Yet they supply the more prosperous among us, rather than the rest of us. Bear in mind that sustainable doesn't just mean locally grown at a farm. There are sustainable organic producers off-island as well. While I applaud the influence of the Slow Food movement in shifting toward the local farmer (and food producer), it really isn't enough. Your health depends directly on your eating and the exercise you take the time for. A plant-based diet has been scientifically proven to be healthier going forward and even restorative toward health already in jeopardy due to poor eating habits. I'm a Slow Food member, but I'm not sure the movement really understands what is actually at stake. It is more than economics, it is health.
Anne Reveruzzi October 21, 2011 at 01:49 AM
Most people want to eat healthy, but the cost of food-veg.&fruit is so expensive. the avarage family cannot afford farm produce. Unless the economy improves, sustainalbe food wil not be available for the middle class!! Unless the business on the island price the products to year round residents and not just the rich, we cannot afford any of these things. Wake up people!!
Scott Ryan October 21, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Certainly State Road has a commitment to serving exquisitely prepared, locally produced and sourced products as do the ones mentioned here, too. The Kenworths are wonderful supporters of the Island's growers, producers and seafood harvesters.
Michael West October 21, 2011 at 08:52 PM
Both Anne and Scott make good points. To eat healthy, you should be buying organic products, but it can be 50% to 75% more expensive than the stuff that is soaked in pesticides and who knows what fertilizers. I have found that Elio's two markets have good organic products and are mostly cheaper than either Cronigs or Stop and Shop. Stop and Shop does have pretty good organic kale and bananas, but you have to be willing to go to all three markets and comparison shop to really stay on your budget. Bear in mind that eating an organic plant-based diet will keep you healthy and out of the medical system, so consider that you will have lower health care costs and fewer days out of work due to illness. That's for real. As to State Road, the Kenworths have had one great restaurant after another and have been enthusiastic supporters of local producers. I cannot afford to eat there as much as I used to. In fact, it has been almost a year since I could afford to go, but I do look forward to that. And I would look forward to it even more if there were raw vegan, vegan or even vegetarian items featured on the menu. There isn't much for us in the restaurants around here, sad to say. Maybe one day soon, someone will take a chance and succeed in doing that.
Scott Ryan October 22, 2011 at 01:24 AM
MIchael is so eloquent and offers such good advice so the last thing I want to do is sound disputatious, so this is merely offered as information rather than point counter point. Sort of a public service announcement!......State Road, and it should be clear I am an unabashed fan of the restaurant and the Kenworths, but State Road does offer several items which would appeal to a vegetarian and many are reasonably priced. The seitan "sausage" dish, for example, is excellent and there are several more,too. Just thought I would throw that out. It is very true, though, as Anne and Michael both state, that the average working couple trying to feed their children organic fruits and veggies have a very hard time finding affordable produce. Things are better in this regard, but still tough.
Michael West October 22, 2011 at 04:02 AM
Thanks, Scott. Good to know!
Teddy Diggs October 26, 2011 at 08:09 PM
First, I must express how lucky I feel to be part of a unique community that is organically intertwined with nature. Daily, since my arrival on Martha's Vineyard, I am presented with the opportunity to connect to either the people working the sea and land or to the environment itself. It seems as though those who live and work on this beautiful island have an innate social responsibility. I have appreciated reading your comments made on the article and feel as though I could share a bit more of our intentions. Through care, ability and hard work we are lucky enough to run a business in which we believe should be the standard to operate a restaurant. Sustainability has become a tired buzz word that pertains to many schools of thought. It is my view that sustainability is more directed to humans and communities rather than to food production. To my point, sustainable farming is sustainable to the farmer not to the product the farmer is growing, raising, or harvesting. Purchasing from local farms not only sustains a way of life but also supports (read: sustains) a particular family or group. I buy food grown locally because it taste better. Local product is fresher, in season, grown naturally and also helps to financially support the community that I am serving.
Teddy Diggs October 26, 2011 at 08:10 PM
We, as humans, should look at our ocean the same way. Purchasing sustainable sea life should pertain to the benefit of fishermen and our harbor communities. With that sense we should buy sustainably, but with a deeper thought in mind. Are we purchasing, serving and eating sea life that is restorative in nature? Meaning how and where was my fish caught? For the every day consumer this is difficult, that is why we chose to serve specific species on our menu at the Home Port. We encourage our customers to ask the questions, where and how was my food caught, and why did you chose this particular fish over another one.
Teddy Diggs October 26, 2011 at 08:11 PM
It has become a dedication of mine to study fish populations and their resources in hope that my daughters generation may see a resurgence of many fish species that are no longer available in the waters off Martha's Vineyard and elsewhere in the world. Barton Seaver, a dear friend and a national geographic explorer with a strong voice for sustainable food , says to sustain a dying ocean is worthless, we must restore it. It is possible to do this while still enjoying the bounty that the sea has to offer, responsibly. Trends begin influence to the public. If a restaurant can make it a standard in their operation to support the local community, both with food and finance, and also support the re-growth of our damaged ocean eco system, does that not lead in a direction for the community as a whole to begin a change? The word movement can be defined as “a series of actions taking place over a period of time and working to foster a new standard.” What we strive to do at The Home Port restaurant should not be thought of as a luxury, rather an effort that may enable growth.

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