A Changing Feast

At Feast, chef and owner Doug Levy changes his menu monthly, keeping the food fresh and the kitchen creative.

September 5, 2015

In the BusinessIssue 14: September/October 2015

Feast changes its menu monthly. Why?

I’d worked at restaurants where people do the same dish over and over. One of the most enjoyable things about being in this business is being able to play in the kitchen. The No. 1 reason we change the menu is because we’re entertaining ourselves. I know what it’s like to prepare a dish that I’ve prepared 5 million times before. There’s no love in it, and I think you taste that as a guest.

The other reason is seasonality. There’s so much mediocre food out there, because people insist: We do strawberry shortcake year-round, even though the strawberries are so bland.

It’s been 14 years—168 months—where we’ve done this, and every month has been different.

Why is it important for you to serve food from local producers?

If you get your food locally, the quality can go up so dramatically. Everything you get from California is grown with the intention of shipping it rather than the intention of it being delicious. You can order tomatoes from Willcox and say, I want beefsteak tomatoes, or you can order tomatoes from US Foods and you’re ordering what are called 5 by 6 vine-ripe tomatoes (packed 5 rows by 6, and stamped 5X6 on each pack of 30). They have to be a uniform size and they have to be picked prematurely so that they don’t bruise on the way over. You’re harvesting for shipability rather than for taste, texture, or quality.

Roughly what percentage of your menu comes from local

If you go as far as Arizona, not that much of our menu is local. Thirty to 40 percent at absolute most. It’s local but it’s big. Shamrock dairy, Hickman’s eggs, Blue Sky Farms. The quality is fine, but it’s not the same as calling up Sleeping Frog Farms, or Jojoba Beef.

What’s holding you back from sourcing more food from
local producers?

For us, logistics has always been the biggest sticking point. We’ve always wanted to support local producers. But with many small growers, one spate of bad weather, and it’s over—they don’t have the product.

We end up having to go with sources that were more reliable in terms of being able to deliver it in a timely way on a regular basis. Knowing that it was going to be here. Even the bigger farms, like Hayden Farms, were growing spigarello for us, and it was a weird winter, and there was one freeze that knocked it all out, and we had to pull it off the menu a month early because we just couldn’t get it.

What we need as a restaurant is consistency. To be able to get something on a regular basis, to be able to know for certain that it’s going to be here. Right now, that piece doesn’t exist. I’m constrained to do what’s going to be safe and what I know I’ll be able to have for my menu.

When you say you’re sourcing an ingredient locally—how much of that ingredient do you really need to put a dish on your menu?

It really depends on the dish—how much the dish requires, how popular the dish is, what time of year it is. If it’s February and we’re in the middle of the gem show, I need a ton of that ingredient, because we’re going to serve 180 dinners a night. Compare that to a dish we’ll make in June or July when we’ll have 80 people in here a night. We used to get eggs from ReZoNation Farm. They lay more in the summer, so there’s an abundance of eggs in the summer, when we have a dearth of guests. When we’re busy in December or January, that’s when they’re not laying nearly as much.

Local food—particularly local meat—often costs more than the food available in the commodity market. How do you explain the price differential to your customers?

We’ll bring in beef from Rio Santa Cruz. And it’s expensive! He’s feeding those cattle alfalfa, sorghum … It’s amazing stuff. I pay more for that beef, and our guests understand that. To a surprisingly large extent, they’re willing to pay that premium for something that’s really high quality.

You can always get cheaper beef. You can get what’s called “no roll beef,” which doesn’t have the USDA roll [the grade stamp] over it, which is what they serve at free Las Vegas buffets. You can always go lower. You can always get something cheaper. The question is: What are you happy to put your name on?

How do you convey seasonality to eaters—how weather, for example, affects the availability of a certain food?

Right now we have sea urchin on the menu, which is fished off of Santa Barbara. The weather has been very finicky out there, so there are nights we say, the weather is bad off of Santa Barbara, so we don’t have that dish tonight; instead we’re offering this dish with sea scallops. Same thing when we lost all that spigarello. We don’t have it, but we’re offering the dish with Swiss chard tonight. People understand. It’s not like customers say, “I’ll have the ice cream,” and we say, “All we have is fish.” We’re trying to help people understand that this is fresh food, harvested by people.

Any ideas on making local food more accessible to restaurants and chefs?

If only there could be some kind of a service that helps bridge that gap between what we at restaurants need and what farmers produce, but also helps with running around town to deliver. I can’t really go pick up food at farms or at the farmers’ market. I don’t know if there’s ever a good time for a restaurateur to go trundling off to the market. It always amazes me when you see these pieces on TV, where it’s like, oh, this chef goes and strolls the farmers’ market in Brooklyn and gets the freshest whatever … and I’m going, who really is doing that? I can tell you, there is no restaurateur who is working a 12-hour day at their restaurant, and saying, oh, I better get up three hours early to find enough stuff to run a restaurant with. We go through maybe $3,000 worth of produce a week. I can’t imagine doing that without cleaning out a farmers’ market, let alone getting enough of any one ingredient. For us, it’s a question of scale and a question of logistics.

I’d rather source my food here [in Baja Arizona], and I don’t mind paying a little more for it. I think my guests are willing to pay for it. But it needs to be there in abundance and consistently, and it’s just not there yet. We’re in an early stage of this whole process.

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.

Previous Post

Local Girl Goes Local

Next Post

Farm Report: September/October 2015