The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Tar Heel Guide to Restaurants and Caterers Using Local Food
Behind the Line at Acme

Behind the line at Acme

My past work as a server in restaurants undoubtedly led me to my food interests. I enjoyed playing a part in someone’s special night out, providing good service and delicious food. I liked thinking about the daily process of cooking too, with the chefs starting the morning off baking bread and simmering homemade chicken stock, and progressing into the afternoon working to piece together other elements of the menu. I remember once stopping by around midday and noticing all that was happening – short ribs braising in their own juices, sauces being whisked together from scratch, fresh fish marinating in citrus and butter being spun until it was that lovely velvety texture. And it was only noon. By the time I would walk in to get ready for service, fresh herbs were being chopped and sauces tasted for salt and pepper.

Right before we began a reservation-booked Friday night, I got a strange pleasure out of thinking about all the restaurants down the east coast, getting ready for a busy night of service. Of course there was almost always some part of the night that was a little crazy, with the line cooks feverishly glancing up at the long and ever growing list of tickets while the expo person grabbed plated dishes and finished them with sauces while bellowing out table numbers for the steaming plates to be taken to waiting patrons. Working in restaurants is hard; anyone that has done it knows. You learn a lot about food too – my vocabulary expanded to include beurre blanc sauce, veal cheek, shad roe and ramps.

So when I was told about a project to create a guide featuring restaurants and caterers that used local foods as an offshoot of my work on the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project, I was perfectly pleased. I felt as if my two worlds were colliding!

The project was identified as a priority by the five deans of the health affairs of UNC. The idea was to help people related to the university work with local businesses who have taken a pledge to support local farmers and buy as much local product as possible. The most difficult part was creating the pledge – we wanted it to properly represent those restaurants who prioritize buying local product above most all other purchasing initiatives.

We floated our initial ideas by Sheila Neal of Neal’s Deli and Kevin Callaghan of Acme Food and Beverage for their feedback.  Both are owners of businesses that offer local farm products on their menus throughout the year.  Sheila and Kevin provided helpful insight into the challenges a restauranteur faces when trying to buy local product in reliable quantities in all four seasons.  Even though it can be difficult, especially in winter, they both felt it was important to do their best in order to offer the freshest product available to their customers and to support area farmers.  We asked farmers for their feedback too and learned about the relationships they have with restaurants in the four counties that our guide includes.  As a result of these conversations, we expanded the guide to include information about local foods initiatives, farmers markets and consumer-supported agriculture subscriptions.

The Guide was officially released March 1 in conjunction with the Fresh Air Fresh Ideas presentation organized by the Gillings School of Global Public Health and celebrating two of the first Gillings Innovation Labs, of which the Sustainable Agriculture Project is one. We hope it will encourage UNC faculty, students and staff to consider these businesses first when thinking about their dining and catering needs.

Take a look at it here and distribute widely! Special thanks to Regina McCoy, Director of Art Services at CHAI, who did a beautiful job with the graphic layout, photography and listings.



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