THESE are difficult times for restaurants and the hospitality trade in general, but there's something very interesting happening if you scratch beneath the surface of headlines about closures, job losses and 'survival mode'. Restaurants that focus on serving good-value meals with fresh, local ingredients are not only surviving, they are thriving.
Lots of restaurants claim local providence on their menu – but you can spot the phonies a mile off. The authentic ones, the ones that are going the extra mile to ensure that pretty much everything on your plate has been sourced locally, are also easy to spot. They have an ethos of celebrating local and seasonal food that drives everything they do.
Menus are not static (or laminated!) – they are a moveable feast, based on what's in season and available. That requires a dedication, skill and inventiveness in their chefs that's still (unfortunately) rare. Suppliers are usually listed by name on the menu – the menu, in fact, becomes a celebration of the produce and producers as much as the undoubted abilities of the chef.
Going the extra mile on fruit and vegetables in particular can require an additional doggedness on behalf of the chef or owner. This is because fruit and veg are the most seasonal part of the meal – as all food growers know, some vegetables and fruit have very short seasons indeed.
At a much lauded new restaurant in Dublin back in early summer I was surprised to see butternut squash on the menu, which is definitely not in season in May and was therefore most likely imported from warmer climes.
So, it's particularly impressive when you come across a restaurant that is committed to using seasonal and local fruit and vegetables all year around. It's also not surprising to find the same restaurants are booming – customers are far more savvy and interested in these things then many restaurant owners give them credit for.
Two of my favourite restaurants – Bodega in Waterford and Harrys in Inishowen – have transformed their businesses by focusing almost completely on local food and particularly on seasonal vegetables.
At Bodega, owner Cormac Cronin tells me that he had his eyes opened by Slow Food's Terra Madre festival, which took place in Waterford back in 2008. Since then he has made a conscious decision to maximise the amount of local food on his menu and deal directly with local suppliers.
Key to this is a willingness to deal directly with smaller producers – fruit and veg come from local producers Tom Cleary, Gerry Walsh and Fancy Fungi. Salad leaves are sourced from Sean O'Driscoll's incredible Ballybeg Greens – a social enterprise that is getting locals working again and producing delicious, unusual, organic salad leaves and herbs in Waterford.
Bodega chefs are willing to go even 'smaller' than that. "Locals drop in some stuff on occasion," says Cronin. "A guy dropped in 8kg of field mushrooms that he picked with his son yesterday. He had a chat with the chef and he was delighted to know we would take lots of produce that he could grow."
From a situation where he could get the majority of his ingredients from a single supplier, he now has over 40.
Though the common view might be that smaller suppliers are more expensive, Cronin says the opposite is the case. "It is far cheaper dealing direct with supplier. You get fresher product and better value. Cutting out the middle men saves money."
In Harrys Restaurant in Inishowen, Donal Doherty has taken this a step further by becoming a producer in his own right. "It was in the back of my mind that to build our 'made in Inishowen' model we needed way more local herbs and vegetables," he says. "We had already started buying beef direct from farms and fish direct from Greencastle boats, but vegetables were still largely imported. Then, we were offered the use of a beautiful old walled garden four to five years ago."
Lacking growing experience, Donal set up a GIY group based at his restaurant to tap in to local growers, and then set up a FETAC horticulture course based at the walled garden. Perfect synergy – local people got valuable skills from trained horticulturalists, and Harrys got the produce. The taste difference, he says, was "unreal".
Realising that a part-time approach was leading to part-time quantities, Doherty brought organic production expert Dermot Carey on board to professionalise their growing.
His brief was simple – produce enough vegetables for up to 12 months of the year to drive our menus. "We now grow in over two acres and are more or less self sufficient for eight months of the year and have produce for all 12 months. Dishes go out with almost 100pc local ingredients and our food has never been tastier."
He admits that a change was required in the kitchen. "The garden drives menus by having to use what's ready. The other goal is to use less protein and make all dishes with at least 40pc vegetable content. It's definitely attracted a new customer base though and a very loyal one."