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Below The Surface

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Food Miles SMACK DOWN!

How do you design an event that is educational, creative and fun at a Lake Aquarium and Science Center? Our educational team attempted to take this on with our Food Less Traveled event on November 11. The idea for the event came from our current changing exhibit, Conservation Quest~Power Play. Our team wanted to extend the local foods idea exploring the number of food miles it takes to bring a plate of food to our tables.

First we contacted the major players in this event, the restaurants. Many were on-board with the idea, responding enthusiastically to the food challenge. From the chefs we asked for recipes that would be judged on their local food source miles, their overall appeal, and (of course) their taste. Hoping for 100-150 guests, we asked the participating restaurants to have finger foods for 125 people.

We decided we needed an emcee, so we contact local foodie Cheryl Herrick of (a great food blog) and with her help we began the process of developing the program.

Oh, and we were selling tickets to this event…a first for ECHO! We gathered the team, techies and front desk personnel, and figured out an easy way to sell the tickets and established a mechanism for processing all of this information.

Next we had to figure out how many people would come so our chefs could prepare the correct amount of food. Hoping for 100-150 guests, we asked the participating restaurants to have finger foods for 125 people.

From the chefs we asked for recipes that would be judged on their local food source miles, their overall appeal, and (of course) their taste.

What we didn’t anticipate was the seriousness that the restaurants treated this subject. They celebrate and endorse the local movement every day. It was a challenge they were ready to take on as long as the playing field was even. “If someone is sourcing flour,” one restaurant emailed us, “better make sure their flour is local or add the miles.” The small amounts of salt and spice ingredients were considered Marco Polo – alluding to the explorer’s method of carrying small amounts in a small leather satchel – and thus considered zero miles. One chef preferred to use Italian olive oil because the flavor was better than the local variety. This put them out of contention with the local miles but raised the educational message that for this chef, flavor was paramount. Another restaurant sourced their apple cider from one location and their cider vinegar from another further away than a local orchard. His comment, “we’ve always done business together.”

So, how was the math done? We took the number of miles it took to get to each of the ingredients from the restaurant’s home location using Google maps and divided the total miles by the number of ingredients used. American Flatbread ended up with 9 miles; The Farm House Tap and Grill had 22 miles; Sugarsnap pulled in 23 miles; The Skinny Pancake recorded 36 miles; Cosmic Bakery & CafĂ© from St. Albans had 36 miles; and The Spot had 600 miles due to their Italian olive oil.

Ovens were set up, circuits blew, but the evening’s major players arrived timely with plates of food and ingredients. Our team used VT road maps to show where each restaurant had sourced their ingredients and pins were placed to indicate locations. This ended up as a very popular visual for both our guests and was photographed with pride by the competing restaurants.

In true New England fashion, folks arrived 15 minutes early for the event and our ending tally was ~123 people ~ a bull’s eye! Staff members were lined up with the guests (a metric of a good event) and the evening went by deliciously quick. Our new marketing director had cued in the media so our messages were broadcast by live TV, food journalists, and bloggers. Click here to view the news broadcast on WPTZ Food Less Traveled. Interns were snapping photos, carrying portable sound systems to broadcast the emcee’s conversations with chefs regarding their ingredients and pairings, and urging participants to cast their ballots.

As you can imagine the flavors were amazing and the choices were hard to judge for the participants. Several of the restaurants chose pork belly as an ingredient. Why? Not only does it taste good but this is the slaughtering season for pork and it is readily available. Hmmm, it made us pause to consider what other ingredients were available in November for such a competition. Also, how do you judge a pork belly dish against a cheesecake?

The votes were cast by attendees who were given one ticket for each of the following elements: taste, presentation and overall favorite. The overall winner was American Flatbread with their Duclos and Thompson Braised Pork Belly with Parsnip and Carrot Puree & Blueberry Infused Maple Syrup. They were also first with presentation and overall favorite. Taste was won by Cosmic Bakery with their Cosmic Maple Cheesecake. The guests left happy with the food quality, the restaurants were pleased with the lively event plus the media exposure and, of course, the smack down competition, and all players were asking if this was now an annual event that ECHO would host! The consensus was YES!

By Linda Bowden, ECHO’s Lifelong Learning Coordinator & Educator

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