April 13, 2006
By Beth Casper
Chef Paul Lieggi leans over to smell simmering lamb just before it gets served up with fresh vegetables at the Willamette University cafeteria.
That the meal is on the lunch menu at a college cafeteria seems odd. For a mere $5, diners are feasting on meals more likely to cost $15 at a sit-down restaurant.
But the price is only part of what makes the food here unusual.
The lamb in this ethnic meal is grass-fed and locally raised. It came to be served at Willamette because of the connection between chef Lieggi and the rancher, Dan Wilson.
The concept of chefs and farmers working together to promote local, sustainable food is not new — in fact, it's all the rage in trendy restaurants.
"Almost every restaurant in Portland is telling you where the product is coming from," said Deborah Kane, vice president of the food and farms program at the nonprofit Ecotrust.
However, as Kane pointed out, Bon Appétit — which manages Willamette's food service — was the pioneer in purchasing local food 10 to 20 years ago when it wasn't trendy.
"I feel as though Bon Appétit is a vanguard in pushing this movement forward," she said.
And it is these larger institutions that make the biggest impacts on the movement to purchase sustainable and local food, Kane said.
"This is absolutely a growing trend and one that people are more and more aware of," she said.
The fare in Goudy Commons, Willamette's cafeteria, shouldn't be called "college food." There are more than a handful of stations where diners can find a loaded salad bar, small plates of gourmet items, an Asian noodle station or high-end deli sandwiches.
On a routine weekday recently, patrons could choose among vegan crêpes with humus, carmelized onions and mushrooms; half-dollar-size sushi rolls; chicken satay; penne pasta bake with tomatoes, onions, fresh herbs, garlic bread and steamed broccoli; and steaming carved sandwiches. The food is so good that it draws far more than just students. Faculty, staff, legislators and other downtown workers regularly dine there.
Diners like knowing where their food came from and how it was grown.
"I like knowing that they are buying local stuff," said Willamette University sophomore Anna Balcom. "I know they also look for organic food and I appreciate that because that's what I shop for. I eat here more because of it."
For Lieggi, the connection with growers is essential to creating a fresh, flavorful and unique dish.
"Before (working with local producers), we got a list of standard produce items from larger companies," he said. "But now, depending on what's abundant and fresh, we make menus from that. I can come up with something a bit different than what's out there."
The benefits aren't all for the chef and his customers.
Farmers learn that food that traditionally would not make the cut for the grocery store may be perfect for a local chef.
At a recent trip to a local farm, Lieggi asked the farmer about some small broccoli plants.
"They were little shoots 3 to 4 inches high, and they weren't able to use them because they flowered early," Lieggi said. "I picked them and tried them, and they were nice and tender and tasty. We were able to buy those from him … and use them in a salad."
Farmers and ranchers also know that their food will taste its best because the time between harvest and chow-down is shorter than if the food had to travel to another state, for example.
"One of the reasons we really like to work with chefs is, boy, they do a nice job with the food," said sheep rancher Wilson, owner of SuDan Farms in Canby. "They are doing such a fine job of introducing that lamb to a lot of people who may have never eaten it. The consumption of lamb in the U.S. is 1 pound per person per year. If you can get it out there in front of people and they taste it and enjoy it, they will start buying it."
Jeff Rosenblad of Happy Harvest Farms in Mount Angel is able to introduce Lieggi's customers to varieties of fruit and vegetables that most people have never heard of before.
"One of our specialties is melons," he said. "We have a honeydew-cantaloupe cross called Harper's super sweet that you can't find anywhere in any grocery store. … people love it."
Occasionally, Mother Nature might put chef Lieggi into a bind. He has run to LifeSource or other grocery stores to pick up necessary items that just weren't ready for harvest on a local farm.
"We do have time where you definitely have to improvise or scramble and change a menu," he said. "It happens more often with specialty produce; if we are having them plant seeds for later on in the summer, some of that might not be ready for when we planned for a particular event."
The planting of two new garden boxes just next to Goudy Commons will certainly provide chefs with a steady supply of flavor-packed herbs.
"Herbs don't take a lot of space," said director of operations Francie Gilmer. "I think it will be a considerable impact on what we use for herbs on site. We can grow something ourselves and it will be so fresh. Fresh herbs just add so much flavor to the food."
Out on the farm
On a recent trip to Austin Farms in Silverton, Lieggi discussed the summer apple harvest with owner Neil Austin.
Austin has 1.5 acres of organic apples — and 10 varieties. They ripen at different times, keeping Lieggi flush with apples for a couple of months.
"Those are fabulous," Lieggi told Austin about the Liberty apples. "We use them in salads because they are the right balance of tart and sweet."
So far, the apple season looks to be a productive one, Austin said, and he hopes to serve up a lot of apples to Willamette University.
"My number-one priority is growing food without harmful chemicals," he said. "And if I do that and I don't have to drive far away to deliver my produce, that's great. Having (a buyer) as close as Willamette University is a dream come true."
For Lieggi, trips to the farms are just as inspiring as creating mouth-watering meals.
"I have a real connection to the food, just for me to see where it is coming from," he said.
And Lieggi also has a stake in the success of the apples — because a bad harvest means fewer locally grown organic apples for meals at Willamette.
"Well, keep your fingers crossed for a nice, dry spring and I'll have lots of stuff for you," Austin said to the chef, smiling.