A revolutionary movement is quite literally taking root in neighborhoods across the nation, including yours and mine. It may even be as near as your own backyard because locavores are sprouting up everywhere.
They infiltrate suburban neighborhoods and urbanized cities. They plant vegetable gardens in schools and community spaces and they advocate passionately for public education on sustainable agriculture and wild farming practices. They visit neighboring cities along Florida's Gulf coast -- Sarasota, Bradenton, St. Petersburg and Tampa -- to vend fresh, local produce and dairy; wild-caught seafood and locally sourced spices and honeys, in community farmers markets.
Their numbers continue to grow as each farm-to-fork bite fosters greater awareness about their cause.
By making a commitment to eating locally whenever possible, locavores aim to support the local economy, strengthen their connection with the food they eat, resist consumption of processed and industrialized foods and reduce their carbon footprints by purchasing ethically grown and cultivated, sustainable foods that are sourced within a local radius, thus reducing pollution and fossil fuel consumption caused by transport.
Chef Steve Phelps is a leading figure in Sarasota's locavore movement, which he strives to exemplify in the kitchen of his casual upscale restaurant, Indigenous, aptly named for its commitment to serving locally sourced, southwest Florida heritage cuisine.
Phelps began his career as a teenager in his hometown of Cleveland OH, where he says he was inspired by the culinary culture of the West End Market and by the close connection between local farmers and the restaurateurs under whom he trained. When he moved to Sarasota 12 years ago, Phelps says he experienced a sense of "culture shock'' due to the area's lack of a cohesive local food movement.
"In Cleveland, I was in the cultural epicenter of the city. I was living right around the corner from the West End Market where I would go to be inspired; I was working in some of the best restaurants in the city. … But Cleveland itself is also surrounded by Ohio farmland, so I was also very much used to dealing directly with farmers as a way of life. Moving here in 2001 was a bit of a culture shock. I think that in Sarasota the resources are here, but at the time they were very limited,'' says Phelps.
He attributes the contributions of local food advocates like John Matthews of the Suncoast Food Alliance for connecting farmers with like-minded restaurateurs and the public in recent years.
"It took me almost 10 years to open my own restaurant here, but those years were spent really getting to know the lay of the land. I came to realize that Sarasota needed a restaurant that really cares about where things are coming from; a place that makes the locals proud and a place that when people visit, they know they're eating local.''
From Conception To Birth
Phelps opened Indigenous in 2011 after serving as executive chef in acclaimed Sarasota restaurants, including Bijou Cafe, Mattison's Steakhouse on Longboat Key and Canvas Cafe.
In the less than two years since Indigenous opened its doors in downtown Sarasota's historic Towles Court, the restaurant has received numerous awards, including Florida Trend's Golden Spoon Award in 2012 and recognition in the Zagat 2013 Top Restaurants Survey, for its locally inspired heritage cuisine.
"People don't usually realize that Florida isn't just about pineapple salads and mangos and the 'Floribbean' style of cooking. That tropical style cuisine is there, but it arrived later with people who came on boats from the Caribbean. True Florida was all about corn, rice, fish and different grains, so I studied native Indian tribes like the Tocobagas of Tampa,'' says Phelps. "I want to educate people that Florida cooking is really about heritage food -- and that starts with sourcing local ingredients; seeking out heirloom grains and vegetables.''
When he isn't in the kitchen, Phelps can be found scouring farmers markets or hitting local trails on his bicycle, armed with a field guide and on the hunt for a little native inspiration and fresh ingredients for his restaurant's ever-evolving menu, which shifts with the seasons and peak local produce availability.
Although Phelps is the first to admit that some spices and other ingredients on the Indigenous menu are virtually impossible to source locally, he says that the restaurant strives to use locally sourced meat and seafood, dairy products, heirloom grains and vegetables and other local produce. Quinoa, kale and kohlrabi play starring roles on the current menu, which boasts a health-conscious cornucopia of seasonal summer greens.
"I'm trying to give you heritage recipes that are about true Florida and are properly sourced and healthy. It's working. The comment I get from the staff every other day is that a customer said they left feeling really good, like we've done something for them,'' Phelps says. "We're an educational restaurant. For every person who walks out the door and says to me, 'I learned something today' -- I've accomplished my career, and that is so satisfying. It's so cool.''
TRACE It From Catch To Plate
The "Hook to Fork'' section on the Indigenous menu, featuring Gulf and Atlantic fish from St. Petersburg-based seafood provider, Sammy’s Seafood, brings interactive tableside education to the next level by giving customers the opportunity to track their meal from catch to plate through the Sammy's Seafood TRACE program.
Each fresh-caught fish that passes inspection at Sammy's Seafood is shipped with a TRACE tag that includes a three-letter code indicating the fish species as well as its catch date and the name of the fishing boat. Customers who order "Hook to Fork'' fish at Indigenous receive a TRACE card with a QR code and boat-specific login information, allowing them to research the fish from their smart phones.
Through the TRACE program, sustainability-minded locavores can learn not only the date and location of the catch, but the method of catch (hook, line or spear) and information about the captain of the fishing boat that brought in the catch.
The husband and wife team behind Sammy's Seafood, Emilio and Katie Sosa, both hold masters' degrees in the marine science field and share a passion for sustainable aquaculture that inspired them to open Sammy's Seafood in 2002.
"When we got into this industry together, we decided we wanted to do it differently -- more responsibly -- than it's been done before,'' says Katie Sosa. "The fishing industry is not heavily regulated, typically, and if we're going to make fish populations last, we think it's important to educate the consumer; to get the diners involved.''
The goal of the TRACE program is to preserve the marine environment and seafood industry for future generations through supporting fishermen and women committed to sustainable harvesting practices that prevent overfishing, and through educating the consumer about the long-term value of sustainable aquaculture.
"We're in this industry because we like fish. We like what we're doing and who we are, and we want this industry to last for a long time. I see all the families and homes that the fishing industry sustains, and I want it to always be there, but the sea is not a vending machine that we can keep dropping quarters into and receiving endless fish. Maintaining and sustaining our oceans requires extra work,'' Sosa says.
Fueled By Awareness
Sosa cites the success of the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ), a government-regulated catch share system implemented in Florida in 2010, as an example of the value of sustainable harvesting practices. Since the implementation of the IFQ program, which Sosa explains as a kind of "checks and balances'' system for fisheries that prevents overfishing fish populations, the formerly threatened black grouper and red grouper have made it back into the acceptable green zone of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list.
"We wanted to take the responsibility step further -- right to the diners -- and with more than just grouper. We thought, 'Why not get the diners involved so that they can find out if whatever they're eating is a local, sustainable catch?' It's an easy sell because people have been really excited about it; they want to know,'' Sosa says.
Phelps says that fish and seafood dishes make up for approximately 75 percent of the sales at Indigenous despite the fact that the restaurant is not "known as a seafood restaurant'' because customers know and trust that the seafood in his restaurant is properly sourced, due in large part to the implementation of the TRACE program.
"This is very much a movement that is fueled by awareness. I believe that we really can change the way we look at food—and interactive programs like TRACE make it very evident that people want to be involved. They want to know about their food,'' Phelps says.
Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she generally can be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.