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A Growing Trend

Dave Cosentino, Aroma Group Owner

More restaurants are featuring locally-sourced food

Dave Cosentino, owner of the Aroma Group of restaurants, is more than a restaurateur; he’s a man on a mission. Like Starbucks owner Howard Schultz, Cosentino traveled to Italy and fell in love with the excellent espresso served in Italian cafés and the lively socializing that went on in them. With two close friends/relatives/traveling companions Dave soon opened Café Aroma. The café was followed by three Aroma Trattoria Italian-style restaurants and a wine store, Vino Aroma. However, Dave Cosentino has evolved from a single location coffee shop owner into an evangelist for fresh, locally grown foods. Cosentino believes using “locally grown” enhances a restaurant’s prepared fine cuisine. His European style Trattoria Aroma restaurants in Buffalo, Williamsville and East Amherst are a testament to the success of his belief. Key to that success is his strategy of bringing fresh produce and meats straight from local farms to his restaurant tables.

A few hours before his departure for a Colorado white water rafting trip with his family, Cosentino talked to Artvoice about using local farms.

“My agenda is quality on a plate,” said Cosentino. “How good can you make the food on a plate? It took a long time to realize what it was that made the difference between mediocre and excellent. Traveling in Italy, I found the food was just amazing. I’d ask ‘my God, what is it about this food? Their pans aren’t different. Their heat isn’t any different.’ Yeah, they might have rustic old home recipes, but we can duplicate those. There are millions of cookbooks with traditional recipes. Why does their food taste so much different? Finally it dawned on me that they’re not buying mass produced food that’s shipped thousands of miles across countries and across oceans before it gets to the table. They’re buying food from the hills that surround the restaurants, the towns, villages and the cities. It’s fresh, high quality food and it translates to a much better product on a plate. So, with that eureka moment, with that, epiphany if you will, we started to search out farms that were willing to sell on a wholesale level to local restaurants”

Sounds good. Of course, if you’re depending on local farms, Buffalo’s four seasons are going to have a strong effect on your restaurant’s offerings.

“Weather’s a factor, yes. Our menu changes approximately four times a year, but the specials change every single day at every restaurant. We use as many local products for regular menu items as possible. However, the specials menu is all based around local ingredients, what we can find fresh locally that particular time of year. Our chefs talk to the farmers and tell them what we need that week. They tell us what’s available and we make a buy. The beauty of this is that the farmer isn’t harvesting a crop hoping someone buys it while it sits and ages. We tell him on Wednesday what we need. He harvests it Thursday morning and it’s in our kitchen Thursday afternoon. We get the freshest possible produce and the farmer is only harvesting what is already sold.

Dan and Jane Oles, Oles Farm (photo by KC Kratt)

“Of course, certain months are more challenging than others. Spring through fall we get a lot of our fruit from Tom Tower in Niagara County, later in the season there’s a lot of stone fruit: peaches, plums, apricots. We get strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and most of our vegetables throughout the year from Dan and Jane Oles at Oles Family Farm. (Oles Farm is where we hold our farm dinners, too.) In winter we go stronger into root vegetables, squash, parsnips, turnips, potatoes. Still the menu direction is always Mediterranean, Italian with a modern twist, using local ingredients.”

It’s easy enough to imagine more of what the Aroma restaurants would have available in locally grown produce through the seasons. We wondered about the meat.

“The meats is a very interesting question,” said Cosentino. “It’s something I’ve been working on for a long, long time. There is a supplier that we have become very close with in the past couple years. It’s Dispenza’s Meat Market on Route 104 in Niagara County. He’s a federally approved slaughterhouse, and a meat market and a butcher shop. Frank Dispenza and his wife Rachel own the business, live there, and work there. It’s very rare to have a slaughterhouse/butcher shop/retail shop all combined.

“Butcher shops are what create a problem in buying local meats here because there are so few of them. They have to be federally inspected and federally approved. With slaughterhouses there has to be a federal inspector on site for every slaughter. There’s not that many slaughterhouses in the area, so a lot of local farms end up raising their cattle, raising their pork, and shipping it to large conglomerate slaughterhouses, or they have to wait for a time slot in a local slaughterhouse. It’s very difficult, time consuming and expensive, so the availability of local meat can be very low.

“Dispenza’s is just what we were looking for in a butcher. He gets all his meats locally, mostly from farms in Niagara County that he has contracts with. What we like is that Dispenza controls the feed for what he’s buying, so he makes certain all the livestock are grass fed. The beef are grass fed and grain finished, but finished on local grain that is organic, no antibiotics, no hormones. Very clean. [Finishing is grain feeding during the final weeks before slaughter to increase weight and marbling which results in a more tender meat.]

“With meats, veal is particularly challenging. We used to have a great supply program using Blossom Hill Farms out near Zoar Valley in Cattaraugus County, but they’re not doing it any longer. Dispenza’s is now going to do for us what we were doing at Blossom Hill.

“The biggest problem with veal in this country is the way the calves are treated. They have a very abbreviated life and they’re really tortured. Just the word veal conjures up the image of baby calves, shackled to their pen, not allowed to move around. The reason is because the large food industry suppliers want to develop meat that’s very soft, very tender and they want to do it very quickly. They want the meat white, so they bleach them and feed them chemical substitutes. The veal is very different than the veal you get in Europe. So, we’re working on a program where we’re buying male dairy calves at auction, which are basically useless since males don’t produce milk. Most male dairy cows are sacrificed at birth. No farms want them, they don’t want to feed them; they don’t want to care for them. They produce nothing and you only need one bull on the farm

“You can buy these male dairy cows at auction for next to nothing, and they’ll latch on to any female dairy cow for a mother. So Frank Dispenza will keep a female dairy cow at his farm, we bring them the male dairy calves and they’ll latch on to his dairy cow and be fed mother’s milk. They’ll be allowed to roam free, eat grass and mother’s milk, and develop muscles and live a normal happy, childhood, if you will. And they’ll be sacrifice at four to six months instead of two to three months, which is the norm for the food industry’s shackled calves. So the meat is different. It’s got more structure, it’s got more muscle development, it’s a redder color, but it’s fantastic and it’s very much a European or Italian style of veal, a little darker in color and much more tender than regular beef. We like to use it for veal scallopini.

Dave Cosentino was inspired by the fresh tasting food he discovered in Italy and his Trattoria restaurants are decidedly Italian centric, but he says there are other area restaurants using locally grown foods who have created quite different menus.

“Jim Guarino at New Orleans styled Shango on Main St. is very committed to locally grown foods, so is chef Carmelo Raimondi at Carmelo’s in Lewiston. There are others and they’ve all created their own menus. You have to understand that restaurants that do it are taking on a challenge because it’s disruptive when a restaurant goes to locally grown products. Chefs can’t call and order by the case the way they’re used to because farmers talk in bushels or pounds. Vegetables don’t arrive at restaurant kitchens pretty and trimmed like you see in a supermarket. They may come in clinging with dirt and stones. The distribution channel is different, delivery methods are different, ordering methods are different, billing is different. A restaurant has to be very committed to do this.”

How does switching to locally grown food affect restaurant profits?

“When you buy organic and local some things are more expensive and some things aren’t and whatever we pay goes into our pricing formula. Local farmers aren’t necessarily always more expensive. Sometimes they’re competitively priced or lower because there are costs they avoid, they don’t have to buy chemicals; they don’t have to buy the spray equipment to spray their crops with chemicals you don’t want to eat. The Oles family does an unbelievable job. Their prices are good and there’s not one drop of chemicals on their property. The crops are rotated, the soil is nutrient rich, and the quality of the vegetables are unmatched and completely organic.

“When you say organic today you have to do your research. Organic is now just a marketing term and sadly it’s a government regulated term that’s almost meaningless. Just because something claims it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s not sprayed with chemicals. According to the government you are allowed certain types of chemicals and a certain amount of chemicals and you can still be labeled USDA Organic. The Oles Farm where we’re buying our vegetables are way beyond USDA’s definition of organic and they’re not interested in the USDA’s compromised definition. They’re just interested in growing vegetables the way they want to grow vegetables, which is the way we want to buy them.”

For the past several years there has been a steady growth and interest in small, local farms and a greater willingness from the public to question the products of the giant agri-corporations. In New York there are over 32,000 small farms and hundreds of farmers markets, both of which are continuously trending upward. But small farms have limited distribution methods and limited growing capacity and operate on different playing field than the agri-corporations supplying supermarkets and chain restaurants. Are they making a profit at all?

“I don’t think there are any farms that are thriving,” Cosentino said. “I think some of them are doing better than others. A lot of them are reliant on Farmers’ Markets like the one we have at Bidwell Parkway every Saturday. The Oles farm doesn’t do Farmers’ Markets. They’re reliant on CSA, Community Sustained Agriculture where they sell subscriptions, or shares, if you will.”

It’s clear Dave Cosentino is a huge fan of Dan and Jane Oles and the farm they operate in Alden. In fact, he’s such a fan he drags huge groups to the farm to experience the place firsthand, including a fresh cooked meal, of course.

“We started doing our farm dinners five or six years ago out at the Oles farm,” said Cosentino. “The great thing about Dan Oles and his family is they like to say yes; they like to try new things. They were very willing to allow our restaurant to invade their property four or five times a year and bring out sixty to seventy guests for a ten course feast made from one hundred percent local ingredients by our chefs who are on the premises with grills.”

Anyone interested in joining a farm feast excursion can go to the Aroma website (www.thearomagroup.com) and click on any of the Trattoria restaurants. 2014 dates are:

Oles Farm Aug. 17, Sept. 27, Oct. 11 or a trip for farm fresh food and international wines at Eveningside Vineyards in Cambria, NY on Sept. 13.

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