The Cultivated Plate: Shopping and Sourcing with Chef Al Nappo of Founding Farmers

OpenTable’s weekly feature The Cultivated Plate, in which we check in with chefs and restaurateurs about how and from where they source their ingredients, continues with chef Al Nappo of Washington, D.C. restaurant Founding Farmers.

Chef Al Nappo shares his sourcing story with OpenTable after the jump.

Washington, D.C. restaurant Founding Farmers, as you may have guessed by its name, was founded by farmers. Owned and invested in by the North Dakota Farmers Union, a coalition of more than 40,000 local farmers, Founding Farmers takes sustainability seriously. The restaurant, the capital’s first LEED (gold) certified restaurant and a Certified Green Restaurant, tries to source locally whenever possible, so in a deliberate act of reverse nepotism, not all food is purchased from its farmer-owners. Chef Nappo, who joined the restaurant earlier this year, was raised on the locally grown chilis of the Southwest and his love of local ingredients continues in the kitchen at Founding Farmers, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

How did you become interested in the importance of sourcing?

“It’s something that’s been passed down from each of the chefs I’ve worked with since I was young. It was about freshness and quality.”

Founding Farmers is creating its own rooftop garden, but aside from that, do you have any favorite purveyors?

“FreeBird in Fredericksburg is great. Profish provides our seafood, and they source all eco-friendly food. Richardson Farm in Baltimore is another favorite.”

What ingredient do you anticipate most when spring arrives?

“Greens! Green beans, asparagus, spinach, kale, swiss chard. In the summer, of course, we get great berries, and I’m also looking forward to peaches soon.”

What happens when you’re counting on a particular ingredient — only to have Mother Nature intervene by way of a drought or, as with tomatoes last year, early blight?

“It happens every year. It’s always one thing or another. Four years ago, it was spinach and right behind that it was green onions. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. You have to be ready and flexible and on your toes.”

Are there other challenges in sourcing locally?

Pricing plays a big part in its challenging nature. To buy from the smaller farms and to buy from epicurean-style growers or boutique growers, it can cost you two to three times as much. That becomes difficult to execute from a business standpoint. And then, you’re trying to get diners to understand that as well.”

Are there things you simply cannot source locally?

“Ideally, we want to use local ingredients and keep things coming to the restaurant within a reasonable number of miles, but everybody still wants bananas and pineapples. Having said that, if you can find me a local banana tree (laughs)…but, we do everything we can to stick with seasonability and buy local. And where we can’t, we’ll make smart choices. For instance, we get our coffee from a business in the States that sources from a farm we’re familiar with in Costa Rica.”

For Founding Farmers, is there an ideal distance in terms of sourcing?

“Our goal is to try to be within 150-200 miles. And if we can source at least half of our food that way, we feel good.”

Let’s talk about the feel-good factor. Sourcing responsibly is difficult, but what are the rewards?

“We’re able to tap into a demographic of staff that some restaurants might not be able to. The staff buys into what we’re trying to accomplish. They buy into recycling. Composting. And that we use energy-conscious equipment. And, I definitely think that the guest coming in feels good. Anytime you can make somebody feel like they’re doing something right. I think everybody wins.”