Chef Boy Ari digs a food chain that feeds itself. Can you dig? I’m talking about a food system that nourishes the people and ecosystems that produce, process, deliver and prepare the food we eat. How we treat our food chain comes down to the choices we make at the table. To make informed choices, we need to know where food is coming from, and how. More often than not, if we choose locally, we are ensuring a stronger, more effective, and more secure food chain. And that’s only part of the good part.
The best part is: around here anyway, local food is some of the tastiest eats available.
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to dive into a sweet and savory confluence of local flavor at an event called Montana Mornings. This demonstration breakfast was the kickoff party for a new initiative from the Farm to College Program, a collaboration between Environmental Studies graduate students and University of Montana Dining Services. Held in Copper Commons, Montana Mornings was also an attempt to survey student interest in eating a local breakfast. If survey says “Yes, please” they hope to make Montana Mornings a regular campus culinary option.
At the door I met Berg Dog as he was leaving. He looked highly satisfied. “Get the pancake special,” he counseled. “You get all of the food groups: meat, eggs, potatoes...and pancakes!”
I inspected the menu. Oh. My. Wow. Labeled to the hilt, this menu provided me with the necessary information that I normally have to bug the servers for, usually in vain. It was the menu of my dreams.
I learned that Berg Dog’s pancakes (and the waffles) were grown, milled and mixed by Great Grains Milling Company in Scoby, Mont. The potatoes were from Terrapin Farm near Kalispell. And the steak and eggs were from Montana Natural Beef Co-op in Ronan and Good Eggs in Moeise, respectively.
And remember kids: The condiments that you use can propel great food even higher. So fa craps sake don’t just stand there! Pour some Apple Cider Syrup (from Cherry Apple Farm in the Bitterroot) onto some Cream of the West Breakfast Cereal (Billings), and you are ready to gulp down some bliss.
Getting busy on this Montana morning was World Famous Omelet Guy (WFOG), doing the horizontal frying pan juggle at a medium-to-furious pace. Even if you’ve never seen WFOG, you’d still be able to pick him out of a crowd. “I’m calm today,” he said. “We have guests who don’t know me.”
WFOG was working behind a table of single burners, little personal-sized frying pans, and select raw ingredients, including beaten raw egg, oil and various omelet-filling items.
“You pick out what you want, and I work my magic,” he said. I chose shallots, shiitake mushrooms and cheese. All from Montana. After he worked his magic, I topped it with Senorita’s Salsa (Belgrade). Upon consumption, I concluded that his magic had worked quite favorably. But here’s the truth: Magic or not, the finished product can only be as good as the raw materials.
“You never want to violate anyone’s omelet space,” continued WFOG, while he worked. “That’s how you become world famous. For example, you don’t mix the meat pan with the veggie pan. They get rabid about that. And rightly so.”
On his way to the Montana Mornings news conference, I cornered UM President George Dennison by the cash register and asked what he thought of it.
“This is a critical project,” he said. “It’s important to keep money circulating locally. We always have to think and act locally if we can.”
Chef Boy Ari can only agree. The average dollar spent at a local business will bounce around the local economy seven times before leaving. At the news conference, WFOG (Mark LoParco, director of Dining Services) mentioned how long he has wanted to do something like this, and credited its manifestation to the four grad students who, with guidance and room to run provided by professor Neva Hassanein, powered the initiative to this exciting milestone.
“I’ve worked with a lot of students,” said LoParco, “but none as passionate and thorough as these. They deserve all the credit.”
Indeed, hats off to Claire Emery, Kira Pascoe, Shelly Connor and Crissie McMullan for pulling it all together. With more than 200 people eating, it was more breakfast diners than Copper Commons has seen in a long time. Short exit surveys were very positive as well, with more than 75 percent saying they would be willing to pay significantly more, if necessary, for this quality of food.
Behind the scenes, the cooks were visibly and audibly excited about cooking food of such high quality, noting things like the color of the yolks, the smell of the meat. So, if the folks who are cooking, selling and eating all agree on a collective thumbs up, how could they possibly not continue Montana Mornings?
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org