Monday, July 6, 2015

Nino's Italian, Uprooted

by Sydney "Brown Nose" Blanchard

Each month, our Uprooted series will highlight local chefs, restaurants, organizations, and farmers who are spearheading the farm-to-table and local foodways movements in South Louisiana.

Elton Hyndman plating dishes at this past May's Dinner in the Field event.
Photo courtesy of the Slow Food BR Facebook page and credit to Dubinsky Photography.

Elton Hyndman cares about where his food comes from, and he wants his customers to care too.

The chef-owner at Nino's Italian in Baton Rouge is also the Vice President of Slow Food BR, a local chapter of Slow Food, a global organization founded in 1989 to ensure everyone has access to what they describe as "good, clean, and fair food."

Conceptually, the idea of "slow foods" is to connect the consumer to the grower. It's the antithesis of fast food. In fact, the Slow Food movement arguably began in 1986 after a demonstration at the Spanish Steps in Rome where a McDonald's was set to be built.

But the concept of "farm-to-table" as a way to eat ethically and sustainably didn't take root in the United States until 2000, and the local Slow Food chapter didn't exist until 2009. It's taken Americans, and Louisianans, a while to catch up.

Elton's "eureka moment" happened a few years ago when he and his staff visited a friend who worked at Inglewood Farms.

Elton wanted his staff at Nino’s to tour the farm, meet the farmers and animals there, and cook for the farm hands and crew. Interspersed amongst the Inglewood farmlands were commercial farms that hadn’t begun planting yet.

“To see what their farms looked like when they weren’t being worked was devastating to us,” Hyndman said. “They were brown. They were dead. It looked like the apocalypse."

At Inglewood, half of the fields are planted while the other half rests. Farmers plant rye and encourage healthy insects like bees. According to Hyndman, their land is green, lush, and alive.

After that experience, Hyndman felt compelled to further the slow foods movement.

Now, in his role at Slow Foods BR, Hyndman coordinates chefs for fundraisers that benefit the organization’s programs like Greauxing Healthy, an effort to teach students in East Baton Rouge Parish how to build gardens and cook healthy meals.

At his own restaurant, Hyndman strives to source most of his ingredients locally.

“In the height of the summer, if you take oil, salt, and flour out of it, I can be 85 to 90 percent local,” he said.

But that wasn’t always the case for the Ontario native.

While traveling and learning to cook under different chefs in the U.S., he discovered his passion for fresh, local ingredients.

The first chef he worked under in New Mexico, his mentor, introduced him to the idea of growing his own herbs.

"I remember the oils of the herbs getting on my fingers and not being able to get it off. All night long I kept smelling thyme,” Hyndman said. “The power of the fresh herb garden really made an impact on me."

Fresh Pasta with Louisiana Shrimp at Nino's Italian
Fresh Pasta with Louisiana Shrimp at Nino's Italian
Now, in his own restaurant, Hyndman insists on using “fun, exciting, high quality ingredients.”

He loves cooking with locally sourced gulf shrimp, fresh Louisiana strawberries, citrus, and eggs.

"The one thing that makes the biggest impact in my kitchen is farm fresh eggs,” Hyndman said.

Louisiana’s long growing season is exciting to many non-native chefs, and Hyndman said it will ensure a strong farm-to-table scene once the trend takes root here.

For Hyndman, it’s about more than high quality ingredients. It’s about keeping money in the state and having the money he spent on local ingredients find its way back to his restaurant.

"I want to support people that can support me,” Hyndman said. “There’s a selfishness to it.”

Right now, Hyndman said, the farm-to-table movement is almost entirely chef-led. He said he hopes that more customers begin asking the hard questions and demanding more from restaurants.

"I think it's important that we start asking questions about where our food comes from,” he said. “And are the people who grew, harvested, transported, are they being treated fairly? It's time to start realizing that $3.99 is an inappropriate amount of money to spend on 2500 calories of food."

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