How Locavores Are Killing Manhattan's Food Scene and Stealing Its Chefs
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For now the local movement is here to stay—restaurants proudly brandish their local ingredients, local food is becoming synonymous with "better" and people just cannot get enough of it—which is why New York City chefs are leaving for greener, less expensive, and yes, more local pastures. The food world's version of brain drain is documented by NPR's Jane Black, who explains that Manhattan's chef exodus stems from a chefs' desire for local ingredients. And those local ingredients are cheaper in cities like Austin, Madison, and Chapel Hill. "Those places have the added advantage of being more connected to the farms they buy from—something that is a badge of honor in today's restaurant world," Black writes.
"Because rent is just so much lower, it just gives you a lot more freedom to not drive yourself completely crazy and take a few more risks," David Levi, a native New Yorker who moved to Portland, Maine to open his new restaurant, told Black. Look at Portland's robust farmers' market and its farmers, and you can kind of see why Levi would choose to go there.
So basically, there's a perfect storm brewing of rent, expenses, and other food cities being cheaper. That is driving star chefs-in-training out of Manhattan, and all of it is underscored by this local food movement. So how do Manhattanites fix it? Isn't that problem, like many others, usually solved by sending said problem to Brooklyn?
Not exactly. Manhattan can't compete with cities like Portland and Austin when it comes to rent—that's a given. But it can't really compete with Portland and Austin on the local front either. Pierre Desrochers's book, The Locavore's Dilemma, released in 2012, touched upon this and explained how unfeasible and unsustainable urban farming can be. Those sentiments are echoed in pieces by Edward Glaeser in theBoston Globe and Stephen Budiansky in The New York Times—both explaining that dedicating slivers of metropolitan land to urban farms could end up doing more harm than good.
And perhaps the third nail in the coffin is that there's a giant pile of money still to be made. One of Desrochers's main points about local ingredients and "eating local" is that it's made for the affluent: "... they do it for the taste and stuff, which is fine, but it’s an upper-middle-class movement," Desrochers told The Grist in 2012. "Don’t pretend that local food can help feed the world or help people of lesser means; it will remain a niche market targeted at the upper crust of society." That means people, like Austinites, Portlandians, and Chapel Hillers are willing pay top dollar for the food, meaning more profit for chefs who can get those local ingredients cheaper; all of which results in more money in the pockets of these chefs.
Perhaps the final question is, if these good chefs are all leaving—who's cooking for Manhattan's upper-crust? Well, the answer could be the guy at McDonald's if worse comes to worst. Jane Black explains the plight of one Peter Hoffman:
Hoffman used to post an ad on Craig's List for his farm-to-table restaurant, Back Forty West, in New York's Soho neighborhood, and then watch the resumes roll in.
These days? It's either bupkis or a slew of applicants with just a few months of experience — at restaurants like McDonald's.
Bupkis—it's what's for dinner.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.