Celebrate local farms with Local Hero flavor-fest

By Ayo Babatunde, Staff Intern

"No farms, no food," Philip Hillenbrand, chef and co-owner of Bottega Cucina in West Springfield, said. Hillenbrand admits with a laugh that the phrase is not his creation. "It's actually from a sticker from the American Farm Trust," he explained.

However, to him, the phrase perfectly summarizes the important relationship between local farms and restaurants. This relationship is at the center of the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture's (CISA) 6th Annual Local Hero Restaurant Celebration. The celebration, taking place on Aug. 18 and 19, will involve area restaurants featuring locally grown vegetables, meats, fruits and dairy products on their menus.

Bottega Cucina will be one of 37 area restaurants to participate in the local flavor-fest.

CISA was founded in 1993. According to Philip Korman, CISA's Executive Director, the organization formed from the collaboration efforts of concerned individuals and non-profit groups.

Korman said, "The concern was about the challenges facing agriculture in the Connecticut River Valley ... We incorporated as a non-profit, 501(c)3 in 1999 and that year we also launched 'Be a local hero, buy locally grown,' which is our marketing and education program that enables consumers to know what is being grown locally."

Currently, the stickers urging consumers to be a local hero and buy locally grown are in most grocery store produce sections throughout the Pioneer Valley. The Local Hero program has also become a nationwide model of success for raising awareness and sales of locally grown farm products.

"The program was purposefully started to connect farms to the community," Devon Whitney-Deal, CISA's Local Hero Member Service Coordinator, said. "We wanted to make community members aware of the wealth of farmers that we have, and the wealth of fresh local produce that we have available to us."

According to Whitney-Deal, including restaurants became a natural extension of the be a local hero, buy locally grown program. She said, "We have Local Hero restaurants that are members of our local hero program. These restaurant members have made a commitment to buy local produce from Pioneer Valley farmers and put it on their menus."

She also said that the Local Hero Restaurant celebration is a way to increase awareness of the commitment that these restaurants have with their local farmer.

"It's important for community members to know that Local Hero restaurants are doing this and they're doing it really well," she added.

Whitney-Deal cited an informal survey as an example of the impact Local Hero restaurant members have on the Pioneer Valley economy.

"Through a verbal survey I took in preparation for this event, I found out that local member restaurants, collectively, are spending up to a million dollars on local produce and products. That is just fantastic and I think this is something that community members should know about. The Local Hero restaurant celebration gives a way to continue to encourage and thank these restaurants for supporting local agriculture," she said.

According to Whitney-Deal there is also a valuable educational opportunity present with the Local Hero restaurant celebration.

"Our restaurants can do such great things with a wide variety of products. Things like swiss chard and kale things that ordinary people, like me, are intimidated by because I don't know how to cook them but, when I go out to eat and I see that someone made it and it's delicious, that exposes you to the wide variety of products and possibilities with fresh local food that we have available to us," she said.

Hillenbrand of Bottega Cucina also sees the teachable moments created by the Local Hero restaurant celebration.

"In our restaurant, I can get personal with the customer because it's an open kitchen. I can talk to the customers and when I'm telling someone about the food or where it comes from there is a sense of pride in being able to tell someone that we either grew it or it took it from a local farm. It's a real wow-factor because there's just nothing like pulling and eating a tomato that hasn't even hit the refrigerator. There's a big difference with flavor," he said.

For the two day Local Hero restaurant celebration, Bottega Cucina's menu will feature Insalata Caprese, a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, and tomato basil bruschetta featuring tomatoes, red onions, garlic and basil from Red Fire Farms in Granby.

Another participating area restaurant will be Eighty Jarvis in Holyoke. Alex Aldrich, the general manager at Eighty Jarvis, said, "Since the inception of the restaurant, we've known that we wanted to use local products and support local businesses."

For the Local Hero restaurant celebration Eighty Jarvis' menu will feature a New England classic grilled corn chowder made with fresh sweet corn from Boisvert Farm, potatoes and bacon. Aldrich added, "Western Massachusetts corn at the peak of the season is just fantastic. That menu decision was really easy for us."

For more information about CISA, other restaurants participating in this year's Local Hero restaurant celebration, and a sampling of menu options, visit www.buylocalfood.com


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