A Prescription for Sustainable Eating with Chef Derek Emerson
“We are part of nature. We depend on it. It’s really what is giving us our nourishment, and we need to treasure the farmer, we need to take care of the land. That’s a beautiful pleasure of life.” ~ Alice Waters
It’s a funny thing when we realize that sometimes we humans have to go the long way around to get back to what is natural and healthy for us and for our planet. The sustainable food movement is a concept that some might say fits that bill. We had to get so far removed from the reality of our food that we had lost any relative connection to the land, the sea, the farmers and fisherman, or what the food was really like before it was “fooled around with,” before we learned something very important. When we lose the connection between what we eat and where it comes from, and we can’t take the time to savor and enjoy it, it fails to be nourishment and becomes only sustenance, if that.
Fortunately, the movement toward sustainable practices in farming and eating is growing. It has risen from a few voices of reason to a full-fledged revolution of consciousness, in which more people are realizing they can make a difference in the environment, in their communities and at their tables, by supporting local growers and producers, and choosing fresh and seasonal food.
Well-Being spoke with award winning Chef Derek Emerson of Walker’s Drive-in and Local 463 Urban Kitchen about his sustainable approach to food and cooking and the strong connection he feels with those who grow and harvest the food he serves.
“For years, we in the south have based our menus on what was fresh and in season,” Emerson notes. “In our restaurants we try to hold to that tradition and make the most of the foods that are grown locally, are fresh cut or picked, and haven’t been shipped over great distances under less than ideal conditions.”
Whether it is farm fresh produce, locally produced grass fed beef, pork and chicken, Gulf seafood or bread from a local bakery, Emerson and his staff make every effort to buy what they serve from sources close to home.
“We even use Brown Bottling Group for Pepsi because it is a locally owned company,” Emerson adds. “When we can’t get a product from our own community, or state we try to at least find suppliers in the southeast, or sources we know are producing or harvesting their products using sustainable practices.”
For example, Walker’s and Local 463 only serve salmon and trout that is wild caught. The catfish they serve comes from Mississippi producers and is delivered fresh weekly and the Gulf seafood that is served comes tagged showing where, how, when and on which boat the product was caught. It turns out Mississippi and Alaska each have some of the most stringent regulations on their fishing industries to prevent over-fishing and other unsustainable practices. At Emerson’s restaurants, only U.S. farm-raised or U.S. caught fish are on the menu.
“You don’t have to hike in the mountains to commune with nature. You just have to eat.” ~ Anna Lappe
“Part of our commitment to serving fresh, local food, is educating our diners about the source and the quality of the food,” Emerson continues. “Making the effort to serve only the freshest, highest quality product can cost a little more, but it is so worth it in terms of the flavor and nutritional value of the meal, and also in terms of how it supports local growers and suppliers. There is a direct connection from the food that we serve back to its source, whether on a farm in our community or in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Emerson contends that the relationship he has with his suppliers is not only good for the quality of his end product, but for the local economy. It is, in fact such an interdependent relationship that he and his suppliers work together at the beginning of the growing season to plan what and how of much of their products he can use.
“To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” ~ Wendell Berry
“We depend on the farmers to provide fresh homegrown produce and meats and they depend on us to buy their products,” Emerson notes. “When one of our farmers has more of a particular item than he can sell, we try to buy what is left so he doesn’t have to take a loss on that day’s harvest. With the two restaurants and the number of employees we have, if we can’t use all of it in the restaurant, we can share it. When our suppliers succeed, we succeed.”
Emerson’s menus also reflect what is in season at any given time of the year.
“Of course there are always favorites like asparagus that I have to look outside our area to have on the menu year round, but otherwise, we make the most of what is in season and plentiful while it is fresh, like heirloom tomatoes, peas and beans, berries and melons. We are so fortunate to have the great variety of produce that can be grown right here in our area.”
“When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.” ~ Alice Waters
Emerson also believes that diners at his restaurants should not only be served a quality product, but they should also receive quality service.
“We want our customers not to be afraid to ask for something special,” Emerson explains. “If they have dietary guidelines they need to follow, we will work with them any way we can. People shouldn’t be afraid to ask for and expect good service. We are a service industry and it is our job to provide not only good, healthy food, but also a positive dining experience. They shouldn’t have to settle for less.”
Derek Emerson, his staff, and his suppliers embody what is good about the sustainable food movement – respect for the planet, respect for the people whose toil provides the food from the earth or from the waters, respect for the way in which the food is prepared to enhance it’s natural goodness, and respect for and by the people who will enjoy the meal. It is the recognition that food is life and how we treat it and what we choose to eat directly affects our individual health and wellbeing, and the health of the planet we share.
Just a few of the local farmers that provide fresh fruits and vegetables for Walker’s and Local 463 are the Beeson Family Farm in Philadelphia, Amorphous Gardens in Canton, Reyers Farms in Lena, and Don Kazery, Jr. in Jackson. Emerson and his staff also visit local farmer’s markets where they purchase farm fresh eggs, locally grown beef, chicken, and honey.
Walker’s Drive-in in Jackson, MS and Local 463 Urban Kitchen in Madison are owned and operated by Chef Derek Emerson and his wife Jennifer Emerson.
“Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts, but to cook well one must love and respect food.” ~ Craig Claiborne
dig deeper: Check out In Season: Culinary Adventures of a Pacific Northwest Chef by Greg Atkinson, for an entertaining and informative approach to cooking and his lifelong affection for food and the pleasure of sharing it.