Was Meatopia’s Vision Too Utopian?



With the dust from Portland’s Cochon 555 pork-sourcing brawl just barely settling, another sustainable meat controversy is brewing here in New York City. According to the press release, July’s massive festival Meatopia was meant to be a sustainable meat showcase where participating chefs would “partner with a local farmer who will provide locally raised, sustainable meat for their featured recipes.” In a few cases this actually happened: La Esquina’s Akhtar Nawab made tacos with pork shoulders from Fudge Farms (Alabama) and Boqueria’s Seamus Mullen cooked lamb from his parents’ Vermont farm. But ultimately most of the meat served at Meatopia came from conventional sources. So what happened to the Utopian vision for Meatopia?

This year’s Meatopia, led by food journalist Josh Ozersky and Jimmy’s No. 43 owner Jimmy Carbone, was actually the 7th incarnation of the annual event. Meatopia began as an invitation-only, meat-centered celebration of Ozersky’s birthday. This is the first year the event was open to the public–resulting in a swarm of an estimated 5,000 attendees. This was also the first year Meatopia took on a green mission. Carbone came up with the idea of pairing chefs with local and sustainable farms and making the event a benefit for Slow Food NYC (of which he is an active supporter) and Just Food.

With just three months’ lead time, event producer Lisa Amadeo started contacting local farms to create a list of producers, like Flying Pigs Farm, willing and able to supply participating chefs with large quantities of meat at a discount (it was hoped that the discount would provide some incentive for chefs). Chefs were given this list, told that the branding for the event centered around local and sustainable meat, and encouraged to contact the farms on the list when ordering their meat.

A sustainable meat advocate herself, Amadeo felt personally invested in making the event work. Yet the organizers also felt they couldn’t make sourcing from the list of local farms a requirement for participating, especially since the chefs were donating their time and fronting the cost of the meat themselves. Overwhelmed by the logistics of putting on a large-scale food fair on an island with no potable water, due diligence on the question of sourcing fell by the wayside. Even now no one could tell me exactly how many chefs had found local sources for their meat.

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This left Slope Farms beef farmer and Meatopia panel participant Ken Jaffe feeling steamed. He was tapped to speak about sustainable meat and to make his meat available for the chefs. No one called him for his meat. Meanwhile, at the event, he conducted an informal poll of the participating chefs to find out how many had actually partnered with local farms; he couldn’t find any. Jaffe felt the event had been too large and well-publicized for the oversight to go unnoticed, so he contacted the organizers to express his alarm. “My concern is that it’ll make the whole local-sustainable thing look like a fraud,” he told me.

Ulla Kjarval, a partner of a farm located near Slope Farms and a food writer and photographer, was also disappointed with the event. “I recommended Ken Jaffe knowing he could help source the event and was disappointed to learn that they did not use his meat but still used his farm name on promotional materials.” She wishes the organizers had made a greater effort to facilitate relationships between chefs and farmers because in doing so “a ripple effect would have been made and local sourcing would have been given a boost. As it stands now we have a lot of work to do when it comes to distributing meat from upstate to downstate. We have multiple new processing plants opening, and it is imperative that chefs and institutions make a real commitment to creating meaningful relationships with local farmers.”

Carbone has taken responsibility for the miscommunication. “I’m sorry if [attendees] were misled about the event,” he says. “I was overeager. I wanted to have that message [about local and sustainable meat] out there. I wanted chefs to do local sourcing. It’s my fault… All I can do is make it better next year.” Amadeo was also disappointed with how few local farms were ultimately involved. “I did everything I could to make it happen. Unfortunately my efforts fell short. I really thought providing a list and talking with them [the chefs] and encouraging them and offering discounts would work.” As for Ozersky, though he admits there were some problems he still deems the event a success. “I don’t feel we have anything to apologize for. We threw a wonderful event. We were able to benefit Just Food and Slow Food and were were able to pull it off without it turning into Altamont.”

All three organizers want to make next year’s Meatopia 100% local–and they want to avoid asking farmers for a discount. A follow-up survey was sent out to the participating chefs asking (among other things) what organizers could do next year to facilitate a truly locally-sourced event. But what else would have to happen in order for Meatopia to be 100% local? What are the barriers? Why wasn’t local and sustainable sourcing a slam-dunk?

To begin with, everyone seems to have a different idea about what local and sustainable meat means. In talking with chefs, Amadeo found that many considered animals raised without hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics sustainable, even if they come from a large operation like Creekstone (as did much of the meat for Meatopia). “The definition of sustainability differs for everyone. We [the organizers] have to define what our notion of sustainable is. I think people can very easily overlook the word sustainable and think, okay, I know what that means.” The same goes for local. Does local mean from New York State? Is Virginia local? Compared with meat from Patagonia or New Zealand even beef from Wyoming is pretty darn local.

A significant barrier to local and small-farm sourcing for meat is the level of flexibility it requires for chefs. Fatty Cue’s Robbie Richter (who worked on equipment logistics at Meatopia but did not cook his own dish) does source from Heritage Meats and local producers. He says pulling off the local/sustainable meat act is a lot harder than it looks. “We’re all in favor of local/sustainable meats but unless you have an established relationship [with a source] it’s hard for a chef to make it happen for just a one-time deal.” While a chef can call up a large-scale distributor like Sysco and request specific cuts to be delivered the next day, small farms need at least 7-9 days’ notice for an order. “A restaurant has to be a fortune teller, guessing how much of an ingredient they’ll need for a given night over a week in advance. You also need to be flexible with the menu–even the restaurant design needs to be configured to support this different model for sourcing.”

Amadeo also points out that it’s hard for small farms to supply large quantities of meat all at once for a given event. Many of the farms she contacted were excited about the event but unable to produce sufficient quantities of meat for the chefs, and many were also unable to provide the kind of discount she thought chefs were looking for.

In fact, the very model of ordering large quantities of the same cut for a one-day event is, well, unsustainable if you’re trying to do local, small-farm sourcing. Jaffe gives the skirt steak–there are only two per animal–as an example. “You cannot serve 7000 people local, sustainable skirt steak. If you serve 3 ounces per person that’s about 1300 pounds, which is about 1000 steers’ worth of skirt steak with the other 99% of the animal left to sell. That’s not the planet we live on.” Meanwhile most small-scale farmers are set up to sell whole or half animals. Clever and resourceful chefs at restaurants like Diner and Bubby’s (who both buy Slope Farm beef) do know how to make use of large pieces–and that’s how they make local sourcing work. In recognition of this, Ozersky and Carbone are now considering a whole-animal approach to the next Meatopia in which they would do the sourcing themselves and then challenge participating chefs to make use of as much of the animals as possible.

Jen Griffith, Farm Network Coordinator for Just Food, agrees that moving to more sustainable meats will require a shift in how people use resources. “Over time we’ve created this system where we want uniformity, especially in the restaurant world.” She also points to the need for better infrastructure supporting local and sustainable meat sourcing. “I think [Meatopia] points to an issue that we’re facing as a city where we’ve put a lot of mechanisms in place through our markets and CSAs, and we have some really strong relationships with local vegetable farmers. But I think we need to do a lot more work especially with meat and dairy. We need more infrastructure. We see meat as the next frontier for the city, and we’re looking for the resources to help us move forward on that.”

Jake Dickson of Dickson’s Farmstand says his “whole business is designed to surmount the challenges of local sourcing. I buy everything direct–no middle man.” Dickson ran an educational booth for Meatopia at which he marinated and roasted half a Berkshire pig from Sir William Angus Farm (Hudson Valley). For his butcher shop he spent 2 1/2 years building his supply chain of farms. All of Dickson’s meat is processed at a slaughterhouse where he used to work and is then aged in a custom-built refrigeration system.

Still, Jaffe hopes that nonprofits like Slow Food and Just Food will at least unlock some of the distribution challenges chefs and consumers both face. “I think [Meatopia] is a clarion call to them to make distribution work… If you’ve got all these people showing up to eat local/sustainable meat and traveling to an island, the demand is there.” He envisions restaurants joining together to share purchasing, dividing whole animals between chefs. He adds that farms could work together more to share shipping costs to New York City.

Finally, we consumers have to look our role in the local/sustainable meat movement. While the issue staying true to local/sustainable ethics in Oregon was explosive enough to drive a chef to break an event organizer’s tibia, here in New York the talk was all about how quickly Meatopia ran out of food and how long the lines were. People have told me they attended Meatopia specifically for “meat they could believe in.” But after pouring over Facebook discussions and food blogs I couldn’t find a single comment from anyone asking where the farms were. If nothing else, Meatopia teaches us that we are at the point in the sustainable food movement where we cannot take general claims made with buzzwords for granted. And we can’t get by on good intentions. We need to better inform ourselves and show up ready to ask questions.

On September 19, Jimmy Carbone will be producing another big meat event on Governor’s Island. This time he is focusing just on pigs–and he’s buying the meat himself from Violet Hill Farm and The Piggery. I don’t know about you, but I plan on showing up for this event to see how Jimmy makes it work. It’s his big chance to redeem himself, and for his sake and the food movement’s sake I hope it’s an authentic, rousing success.

Photo: josespiano

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  1. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Adriana,

    You've done a great job in covering the different perspectives and challenges of buying meat from outside of the production agriculture system. A lot of folks have asked me how to source certain cuts in quantity (e.g. briskets for BBQ competitions) and it's just not practical for most producers who directly or more directly sell to their end customers. There are just two briskets per head of cattle; plus, the relative size and often the fat content of briskets from 100% grass-fed beef is quite different than those from conventional beef.

    The more consumers and chefs who understand there are only 70-80 lbs of traditional steak cuts in an 1,150 lb. head of cattle, and who invest in the time and sheer joy of discovering the less well-known cuts, the better we'll all be.

    Also, cattle are ready when they're ready, no different than peak seasons for apples or wine harvests, etc.

    One thing I don't understand in the Meatopia story is why the organizers were looking for the farmers to provide discounts. Wouldn't the ticket prices (or other salable goods available during the event) be designed to cover the cost of the meat?
  2. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Thank You for using my photo.
  3. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Not that I typically enjoy talking to myself in comments but now that I re-read the article, I suppose I can answer my own question. Had folks paired with specific farms or ranches, the opportunity to have one's farm or ranch featured in an event like this would easily merit wholesale pricing or even a barter. Volume discounts make sense, too. But then there's the availability issue. Some tweaking of the model and this could be a great event moving forward.
  4. Becca
    Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Speaking of buzzwords... since when does 'local' or 'organic' = sustainable? I agree that sustainable needs to be defined.
  5. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Terrific job on this story. Perhaps if the restaurants were required to source from one of the suggested farms before being accepted to the festival, the local/sustainable message would have been sound. But it probably would have been a much smaller event, with only those (two or three?) restaurants, and hence far fewer people. Sounds like a LOT of other food events I've seen. Though the tragic flaw of blind faith on the organizers' behalf proved Meatopia in some ways a false promise, I hope that it illuminates to a MUCH larger crowd these issues about "local" and "sustainable" meat. I hope the restaurants involved who didn't source from the suggested farms at least considered the option, learning a bit about what might have to be changed about their business -- and the meat business -- to use them. And I hope that everyone involved knows why striving for this is worth the effort: because local, responsibly grown, "good" meat -- however you want to define it -- is just better! And I'll bet everyone can taste that at the next event on Governor's Island with Violet Hill and The Piggery (or at all those places that serve it regularly like Fatty Cue, Diner, Jimmy's No. 43, etc.)
  6. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Thanks for the article! I agree that defining "local" and "sustainable" is critical, and in this particular case problematic. The event organizers expected that the chefs would source meat according to one version of those definitions, perhaps without communicating to the chefs what they intended.

    For me, the most interesting aspect of this controversy is that, even when given information about smaller producers, the chefs chose not to buy from them. Adriana, you do a great job of identifying the infrastructure and budget limitations to getting meat from smaller scale farmers, but it sounds like there's a cultural component too. Chefs are trained to prepare, and we are conditioned to expect, thousands of the same cut of an animal, which often means using a small portion of thousands of animals. A no-waste culture might have started with the premise that the organizers ultimately came up with: Source and use whole animals. What a challenge it will be to shift the mental model of what it means to prepare and consume meat!

    Finally, I'm all for accountability, but I also want to point out that, even if this event didn't accomplish all of its stated commitments to local farmers, Jimmy works tirelessly for the food movement in this city. We can always expect more of people, but let's not overlook what an important role he and his restaurant serve in our cause and our community.
  7. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Without repeating (too many of the) comments that were already made in response to this eye-opening and well-written article, here are a few additional points I pulled from this article:

    1) “I did everything I could to make it happen. Unfortunately my efforts fell short. I really thought providing a list and talking with them [the chefs] and encouraging them and offering discounts would work."

    --An event of this magnitude needed a bit more than a list and wishful thinking. As Lizzy pointed out in her comment, this event was designed to take the chefs out of their comfort zones. It could have been used as an introduction and a first step in facilitating the connection between chefs and local meat purveyors. A busy chef doesn't have time to connect with an unknown (albeit, local) farmer/purveyor without outside help and guidance. In this case, the chefs were left to do things on their own, and it's not surprising that they didn't--why would they? Did they even know how?


    2) "Amadeo also points out that it’s hard for small farms to supply large quantities of meat all at once for a given event. Many of the farms she contacted were excited about the event but unable to produce sufficient quantities of meat for the chefs, and many were also unable to provide the kind of discount she thought chefs were looking for."

    --- Why on earth were these farms only given 3 months advance notice? Farms operate on a yearly (if not longer) cycle. Farmers have a pretty good idea of how much meat they're raising, especially because gaining access to slaughter facilities takes so much planning ahead. Throwing a curveball into their overall yield of meat is tricky, so even if some of these local farms had been contacted--how many would have been able to provide the meat necessary? Besides, a discount on their meat simply devalues their amazing products and goes as far as to penalize the small farmer.


    3) "Jake Dickson of Dickson’s Farmstand says his “whole business is designed to surmount the challenges of local sourcing. I buy everything direct–no middle man.” For his butcher shop he spent 2 1/2 years building his supply chain of farms."

    -2 1/2 years! 3 months! Raising, slaughtering, and marketing local meat in an effective and profitable way= there's no quick fix or answer. But there are people out there, like Jake, who could have served as advisers to both the chefs and farmers who were seeking to connect with each other.
  8. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Lizzy, yes, sourcing locally means learning to do more nose-to-tail cooking rather than relying on the usual prime cuts. I think it also means going against our current fast/now/last-minute zeitgeist and going slow, planning far in advance.

    Your point about Jimmy is well taken. I was impressed by the way he made himself accountable. I've noticed how active he is in the sustainable food community, esp. w/Slow Food NYC, and I respect that. I think he's a true believer and in it for the long haul.

    Meaghin--yes, 3 months vs. 2 1/2 years indeed. I think that light bulb has gone off in Jimmy & Josh's heads because they're already planning Meatopia 2011 now.
  9. Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
    I do want to commend Jimmy Carbone and Josh Ozersky for partnering with such worthwhile organizations like Slow Food and Just Food. Also commendable is all of the work that Jimmy has done for the local food movement in NYC.

    I'm hopeful and positive that steps are already being put into motion for an even better event next year.
  10. Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
    Other commenters have mentioned this but I can't get my head around the idea that the producers invited to participate were supposed to be "willing and able to supply participating chefs with large quantities of meat at a discount." There are loads of reasons why their costs are higher than industrial meat producers and I don't see why they ought to be expected to compete on price. As a consumer, as someone who has never worked in the business of either producing or cooking food, I am well aware of that, and when I buy meat at the greenmarket I'm not doing so because I think I'm getting it at the lowest price. The idea that restaurateurs who are interested in participating in an event like this need more incentive than I do, or that taste and sustainability and etc. are not incentive enough, seems very strange to me. Likewise, the idea that "branding" an event like this begins months in advance but things like supplier coordination apparently do not doesn't make any sense to me. Why bother putting so much effort into promotion if there isn't something genuine to promote?
  11. t
    Thursday, July 29th, 2010
    of course its too utopian. meat isnt sustainable. and by the way, youre still slaughtering animals in the prime of their lives, just like michael vick. you just get your kicks from it when you eat them.
  12. yay food
    Saturday, July 31st, 2010
    meat is perfectly sustainable, if the focus remains on whole animals, as already noted, and also if we move beyond the american paradigm of cow/chicken/pig and very occasionally lamb/mutton as the only meat options out there. there's bison, goat, elk, rabbit, etc. a diverse notion of meat really improves sustainability.

    imagine a meatopia featuring local edible animals of all types. that would be pretty fabulous.
  13. illona
    Sunday, August 1st, 2010
    Is it possible that the organizers source the meat, have it butchered and when restaurants sign up to do the event, they have the opportunity to purchase a specific cut on a first come first serve basis? That would entice restaurants to register early as well as create some friendly competition.
  14. Gerardo
    Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010
    This is ridiculos! Stop trying to impose the wester diet to everyone! This talks very bad about the white food sustainable movement. Almost all African Amiercan and Native Americans and latino people ( all the least privileged of course)are lacto intolerant and you still promoting very strongly milk and meat.Of course this is NOT a sustainable diet but this is unpopular talk among locavores and foodies who are white and you cater to white folks on this movement that is as racist as it is classist! It's hard giving up the privilege of eating meat even when yur "sustaintable meat myth is wrecking the planet" WAKE UP AND smell the shit folks! MEAT IS NOT SUSTAINABLE AND MICHEAL POLLAN ( the heroe of white foodie/locavore folks) IS WRONG TOO!
  15. Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010
    Wait, is this Gerardo my cousin?