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Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

farm-to-table, Find Local Food, Molly Stepanski, restaurant

You either sink or swim under the grueling demands of a busy professional kitchen. Chad Edwards has been cooking in Gaylord restaurants since age 14, and was the chef for two establishments in the city before turning 21. After years of rigor and practice, Edwards’ was swimming full bore on October 28, 2010, when he opened The Bearded Dogg Lounge. And at this colorful cafe, “you may sit in a booth made from old doors or at the bar crafted from maple flooring from the local nunnery, at a gathering table, in a loveseat, or at any one of several antique dining tables.” You can tell a lot of love and ingenuity has been put into this place. And it’s not just the quirky, hand-hewn seating and masterful plating of food. It’s the flourishing garden in the adjacent field constructed and tended by Chad and his father that accents the menu’s favorites. It’s the fact that Edwards wants to create a line of his own bottled salad dressings and brews the restaurant’s Doggweiser Blonde Ale. It’s the fact that in northeastern Michigan, Chad Edwards is pioneering in an old way of doing things again.

Bearded Dogg_Chad and garden2This chef has seen the food industry change quite a bit in the years since he began cooking. He’s also noticed a huge shift in the quality of meat coming through his kitchen. “I’ve been dismayed by the state of beef coming through restaurants for years. I don’t buy it through typical channels anymore because I’ve noticed, cooking it as much as I do, the difference between now and five years ago; with more and more spent grain in their diets, the pH is changing in the meat and you can see it and taste it. I personally don’t feel comfortable selling it.” And after trying to navigate the northeastern Michigan world of local farmers that have incredibly limited access to USDA processors, his options were stymied. He couldn’t offer the kind of meat he wanted with the current resources available in his area, or at least so he initially thought.

There’s also the prevailing restaurant model in which many restaurant goers have become accustomed to getting what they want when they want it, and at an affordable cost to boot. If you’re going to run a predictable menu, and tap into that type of customer-base year round, you have to purchase from a food distribution service; you need to order as many prime ribs as demand calls for, regardless how many animals it takes or how they’re fed to keep those items on your menu. According to this chef, the beef can’t keep up with this factory standard, and we need to look at models that were utilized in times past.

So, he took matters into his own hands. When Nick and Danielle Owens at K&O Farms in Vanderbilt approached Chad with the idea of growing The Bearded Dogg’s protein exclusively, Chad said he’d, “always wanted to do it. It does take more time. It is less convenient. But, it’s well worth the process.” Edwards invested in his own 40 head of cattle directly from the farm and the menu will change accordingly once they’re ready. Chad acknowledges he’s making a big transformation. “I’m going to run tenderloin on my menu until I run out, then prime rib until I run out, NY strips, sirloins; my guy who’s farming the cattle will make stock and demi-glace. We’ll turn the rest of the beef into burger. And it’ll be the same with chicken, until we run out, and then do it all over again.” Danielle from K&O verified that the restaurant currently receives about 300 eggs each week, and they’ll also provide Angus beef, chickens, ducks, and Yorkshire Hemp pork as well. The menu will accommodate what’s available and what’s incredibly local (15 miles to be exact).

When asked if this contractual commissioning of farmers was a viable model for other restaurants and chefs, Chad confirmed, “Yes, but there needs to be an understanding between the chef and owner of the restaurant to know what it takes. And with farmers, too, we have to break out of the status quo. We have to accept it’s okay to run out of stuff. It’s truly building a fantastic relationship with my farmer. I want our local farmers’ stuff, and they want to sell it. I’ve reached out with open arms to the farmer. There are lots of bridges that can be gapped now, and that hasn’t been done because of inconvenience.”

Chad also acknowledged that as a chef and restaurant owner, his biggest achievement is to always keep his customers as his main focus. An ever-shifting, hyper-local menu is remarkable, but he recognizes that he’s “got to be sensible and bridge the gap between convenience and sourcing this way. Afterall, no ahi tuna is coming from the Great Lakes. Ultimately my greatest wish is that people relax, enjoy the food, mostly enjoy each other’s company, and notice the difference in quality of food.” Although bringing his customers the highest quality in food and ambience may take an extra time investment, Chef Edwards learned how to swim by jumping in the deep end from the beginning.

At the time of this writing, there are plans for a USDA Beef Processing Facility to expand into Grayling, MI, in 2019, in collaboration with the Grayling Northern Market project.

Molly Stepanski is the Local Food Coordinator for Northeast Michigan. She enjoys digging, planting, and hiking in the dirt; cooking up her own recipes; drinking wine; and eating lots of fresh, seasonal produce (and anything deep-fried, in accordance with her southern heritage). Contact her at molly@localdifference.org

 

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