Something happens when Chef Michael Peterson cooks that my hands somehow are unwilling to duplicate.
My wife and I recently dined at NuVo Modern American Cuisine, Peterson’s restaurant in Newport, and commented on how flat our culinary skills felt after eating his renditions of South American sea trout and seared scallops.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said, grinning. “So you don’t have to.”
Of course, Peterson might find himself equally inadequate as a farmer or miller or at managing a bison ranch. That’s why he depends on other small local businesses.
They do the things he can’t, and working with them moves the money I spend eating at his restaurant into their pockets and, hopefully, keeps rotating through local wallets. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, says Northern Kentucky farmer Nancy Ogg, who supplies NuVo with specialty herbs.
“It’s not exactly ethics, and it’s not exactly cost,” she reasons. “If I need, say, garden lime, we have this little local grocery/seed store/ hardware store — one of the last few real general stores around — and I buy their lime. If I drive over to Lexington, I might be able to get it for a buck a bag cheaper, but money you spend in your own community is more likely to stay in your own community.
“So you could call that ethics, but it’s not really altruistic because if you have a healthier community your business is more likely to prosper. It’s partly ethics, but it’s partly practicality.”
A matter of good taste
Practicality might also be a measure of taste, quality and service. Peterson says that dealing with local farms and small vendors is relational instead of an anonymous transaction.
“The main difference is you can actually go to the farm itself and see what they’re growing,” he says. “You can see any pesticides they put on their plants. They actually want you to go out there and look at the farm. Most people won’t let you do that. If I want a certain type of asparagus, they’ll grow that for me.”
In his experience, local produce holds up better than what’s shipped from out of state.
“I’ve noticed products you buy through stores only last about two days, but if you get them from local farmers they seem to last three to four,” Peterson says.
NuVo uses local growers and suppliers for as much as 75 percent of its food during the growing season. The restaurant never uses purveyors — the industry term for big box food supply stores — and Peterson says when he does have to order something it’s always organic.
“I don’t like pesticides or anything on my food,” he says. “It cuts down on a lot of the flavor. A lot of things they spray won’t let the plant grow well.”
The same additives that make broccoli stay fresh on the long ride from Texas to Cincinnati mutes the flavor and saps the life from the produce, he says.
Weisenberger Mills, which is just north of Lexington, has sold flour and cornmeal in Northen Kentucky since the end of the Civil War. Owner Mac Weisenberger is the sixth generation of his family to work as a miller.
“We have farms that supply us with grain, and when I package it I put a sticker on there that says ‘Kentucky Proud,’” Weisenberger says. “I generally put a sticker on there that tells what county it was grown in and who grew it.”
None of the mill’s grain is organic but most comes from family farms, and he knows nearly all of the farmers he buys from personally. Here again, buying local is just good business.
“You start putting a lot of freight on it and soon you’ll have as much freight as product,” he says.
Peterson says the single biggetst problem with depending on local farms is that the farmers are at the mercy of nature.
“Last week I had no farmers able to bring me anything because we had so much rain,” he says. “That’s our biggest drawback, or that they’ll run out. Other than that, there’s really not much of a drawback from using the freshest product you can get.”
It was just last year that NuVo moved from Florence to its current location in Newport. Peterson says it was always the plan to use local farmers as much as possible, and that goal became easier to realize by scaling down from a 100-seat dining room to one that accommodates fewer than 50.
Now the restaurant purchases just what it needs for the day, and everything is as fresh as possible. Sometimes that means buying from a local farm, and other times it means having a local connection with a small company that Peterson trusts.
“My definition of local is helping out a local company, not so much buying directly from Kentucky,” he says. “There’s a guy I buy from who sells South American sea trout. I think that’s local, because without (local buyers) he wouldn’t survive.”
The chef says he would like to see buying local catch on.
“I hope so,” Peterson says. “It’s a better product. It’s a better quality of food.”