The menu at Momofuku Toronto is typically rich in trout, caviar and ramen fixings. But these days, the kitchen is overflowing with fresh ramps.
“We brought in 20 kilos last week,” says Riley Krieger-Mercer, the restaurant’s director of operations. “Chef Eric [Seto] is making ramp butter and pesto. He’s pickling ramps. There will be charred ramps on the charcoal grill.”
A ramp is a wild plant related to leeks, garlic and scallions that grows briefly every spring in woody areas of Eastern Canada and the United States, within a day’s drive from Toronto. They’re the kind of local, seasonal ingredient that countless Canadian restaurants, like Momofuku, have had to pivot to using in the face of COVID-19. Indoor dining shutdowns and capacity restrictions may be a thing of the past, but the food service industry is now facing a new set of challenges as diners return to restaurants: disruptions to the supply chain.
A 2022 Restaurants Canada report on menu inflation found that supply chain disruptions for food and tools has affected 96 per cent of restaurateurs. Some have responded by raising menu prices – by 5.3 per cent, on average, the report found – others have responded by looking local, relying on a supply with fewer nodes in the chain.
“[COVID-19] variants around the world hit different economies at different times in different ways, and so predictability became an issue,” says Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “When it comes to logistics, you have to plan and you want to know when ingredients will arrive. And that was almost impossible.”
With the traditional ingredient supply chains disrupted, Mr. Krieger-Mercer says Momofuku Toronto has doubled down on seasonal, local sourcing from farms in the Greater Toronto Area. He says that often means making the most of the ingredients that are abundantly available nearby at any given time – and right now, that’s ramps.
“If we’re going to put something on the menu, we need to know that it’s actually coming in and the supply chain has been very unpredictable,” he says. “But if we’re in touch with the people that are actually growing vegetables directly, it helps us with menu planning.”
Solomon Mason, executive chef at Toronto’s Aloette restaurant says his team also began to look close to home for ingredients ranging from mushrooms to bread when their usual suppliers became uncertain.
“We’ve had to search more locally for products, which in turn, has actually been great, because we’ve been able to find a lot more suppliers within the GTA, and create new relationships with these people that we probably wouldn’t have had if the pandemic hadn’t happened,” he says.
“Sometimes the supply crunch is very sudden,” Mr. Mason adds. “A more open dialogue with our suppliers really helps to mitigate those issues.”
A similar sentiment lingers south of the border, where Zach Morris, owner of Bloomsday restaurant in Philadelphia, resides. He says that developing close connections with his local suppliers has been key to weathering ups and downs throughout the pandemic. “The level of trust is so deep at this point,” he says.
Local sourcing also forces chefs to get inventive in the kitchen, allowing the ingredients that are seasonally available to shape what’s on the menu. Having close relationships with the people who provide them makes that easier.
“These smaller suppliers, they can help educate us and our team,” Mr. Mason explains. “If I’m working with Mark’s Mushrooms, he knows a whole lot more about mushrooms than I do. It’s finding inspiration in someone who’s so highly specialized.”
This, in turn, fosters more transparency in the supply chain, which Rod MacRae, Associate Professor, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, says helps restaurateurs ensure that their suppliers are following the sustainable practices they say they are, such as averting pesticides or relying on renewable energy sources. It’s for this reason that purchasing local ingredients has the potential to be more environmentally friendly.
“The real big issue with environmental damage is whether the local producers are producing sustainably,” he says. “Typically, the longer the supply chain, the more difficult it becomes to ascertain what the production system is.”
Anyone who has ever bought produce at a farmers’ market, however, knows that local ingredients often don’t come cheap; but Mr. Mason says that with inflation driving up the cost of food across the board, the restaurant’s local suppliers at least offer more predictable pricing.
“Local products, they’ve always been a little bit more expensive than some of the international ones that we would get, but the thing that we like about them more is the consistency in the price,” he says. “If we’re, for example, getting beef from the States, the price might fluctuate 25 per cent in two weeks, which, for a restaurant, is totally detrimental.”
Mr. Krieger-Mercer adds that using local products can make diners more sympathetic to price increases. “It’s a very conscious, mindful way of doing things and, for sure, it translates into the dish price sometimes,” he says. “Many of our guests understand that – they get it – and that’s why they come back to us.”
Aloette has raised its prices between 2 per cent and 5 per cent because of inflation, and Mr. Mason agrees that diners are willing to pay a higher price if it means knowing where their food comes from – this can make local sourcing financially viable for restaurants. For some diners, a locavore menu isn’t just a logistical necessity, it’s something they’re excited about.
“People are willing to pay a little bit more for more premium product,” he says. “Especially when they can hear the story behind it.”