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Fast and Fresh 

Buy global, eat local

Sitting snugly on the refrigerated shelf at the Fresh Market among the rows of pestos, hummus, and andouille sausages is a container of D’Artagnan’s Duck Fat. So what, right? Even if you don’t know what to do with duck fat, don’t you wonder who does? And how has that need become so pervasive that duck fat is a stocked grocery item?

The answer may be our local restaurants. Our local chefs' desire to serve innovative dishes with high quality ingredients seems to be the engine pulling this train. (Some uses of Duck Fat are in confit, with garlic to season soups, or to slather on roasting peppers or eggplants.) Whatever a chef can create in his mind, he can now create in a dish. Right here in Charlotte. No wharf? Not a problem. We have same-day delivery. No locally made cheese? It's almost as fast to receive an order from France as it is from Celebrity Dairy near the RTP. Sometimes the purveyor is only a few clicks of a mouse. Just as eBay has changed shopping habits, the internet is also playing an integral part in changing our eating selections. No longer are restaurants at the mercy of local purveyors and literally, the sky is the limit.

Gene Briggs, Executive Chef of Blue said, "Now the door is wide open. I can order fish from the Caribbean, all caught in one day and shipped. And the company (Florida's Finest) even sends papers telling me how big the waves were the day the fish was caught."

The availability of seafood is perhaps the most noticeable change on local menus. One company responsible for high quality seafood in Charlotte is the M.F. Foley Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts ( Foley's was founded in Back Bay Boston in 1906, but has grown to a company serving customers from Bermuda to Hawaii. Foley's is known for high quality throughout New England and to discerning seafood lovers. Company buyers hand-select only "one and two day fish," the fish last caught before the boat returns to shore. Peter Ramsden, Vice President of Foley's, said, "Foley's has made a name for itself from its high buying standard. This quality transfers to the consumer's plate. The Charlotte market is changing quickly. Up until six weeks ago we air-freighted into Charlotte. With the growing market, now we can also truck it in once a week." Some purveyors of perishables prefer trucks since, as Ramsden put it, "fish is not a priority" for the airlines. Foley has paired with Charlotte's Finest to distribute locally.

Foley's specializes in such signature items as Georges Bank Cod Loin. Ramsden said, "Cod -- the fish and chip variety -- is held in low esteem, like frozen Alaskan cod. But ours has a loin cut, a two to three pound filet cut vertically. Blue has a center cod loin as an entree." (Note: Blue is rotating this item off their menu soon.) In addition to Blue, Foley's seafood may be found at Cosmo's, Mama Ricotta's, Morton, Noble's, Sonoma, Sullivan's, and Talley's Green Grocery.

Why are local chefs turning to outside sources? Chef Statos Lambos of Ilios Noche said he gets a better quality product. "I use a New York company that specializes in octopus and squid. This company specifically finds octopus in the Mediterranean waters off Spain and off Portugal -- which is similar to the octopus I would have in Greece."

But having products air-shipped can be expensive. Lambos also offers a medium striped bass, known as Lavarki, as a special. This fish is flown into Miami and then trucked into Charlotte. "It's our most expensive item at $25," reported Lambos. "But it is also one of our most popular items."

New products show up on Charlotte menus in a number of ways. Often a national company will cold call an area and develop a base. Recently a Chicago-based company has been offering Caribou meat. Some chefs search out products that others in the area are using. Briggs said he found out Dean & Deluca bought their cheese through The Cheese Works, so he did, too. The Cheese Works supplies many of the area's restaurants as well as gourmet shops.

Perry Greenblatt, the Cheese Works regional sales manager, said his company supplies cheese to such large food emporiums as Zabar's in New York as well as restaurants. "I just got back from France. We went to the best cheese shops in Bordeaux and Paris. I was almost disappointed. They have great French cheese, but here we offer the top cheeses from not only France, but Portugal, Switzerland, Australia, plus our own domestic cheese." He continued, "Some people think we're catching up with the rest of the world. But we've passed it." His company searches the world for excellent artisan cheeses that can be sold to their customer base in Charlotte with a phone call.

There are two downsides to this newfound accessibility. Chef Geoff Bragg at the Peaceful Dragon Tea House said, "We live in such a globalized world that everything's accessible. But then people lose track of the seasons. It disconnects you from the cycles of life. You can get strawberries from Chile in the winter." But Bragg is thankful for the availability of quality products. "Our most popular lunch item is a seitan (a vegetarian wheat meat) "chicken" wrap that I have had shipped in for two years."

Chef Bruce Moffett of Barrington also noted that these new purveyors have "great products, but you get caught up and then the company starts dictating the rules: I've got to order Monday to get Thursday or I have to order 40 pounds when I may only need 10." But Moffett agrees that his air-shipped line-caught fish from Hawaii and FedEx'd wild mushrooms from Vancouver are positive additions to his menu. Plus he added, "Then the local purveyors come back and tell you they can get that item to stay competitive. This in turn lowers the cost for everyone."

Contact Tricia Childress via email:

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