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Women's Health : Green Chef - Cooking with Andrea Reusing

An award-winning chef, ardent advocate of sustainable agriculture, and working mom, Andrea Reusing has redefined the term farm-to-table. As the chef-owner of Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Andrea has elevated the use of local seasonal ingredients to national importance as it relates to flavor, good health, creativity, and environmental sustainability. At the same time, she strives to make the use of the fresh ingredients found at local farmers’ markets, CSAs, and roadside stands approachable for the home cook. It’s a model with both personal and global implications—and one we can all benefit from.

It takes a great chef to create a great restaurant. Andrea Reusing is one such chef. Her Chapel Hill restaurant, Lantern, has garnered high praise for its passionate marriage of Asian cuisine and local North Carolina ingredients. Not only has this unique restaurant been named one of “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” by Gourmet magazine, it has also been lauded as one of the “Best Farm to Table Restaurants in the state of North Carolina” by the American Farm to Table Restaurant Guide, one of “America’s 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences” by Food & Wine magazine, and “Restaurant of the Year” in 2009 by the Raleigh News & Observer.

These accolades haven’t distracted Andrea from her core devotion to local, sustainably produced food. In fact, her work today is simply an extension of her continuing enthusiasm for the rich flavors found in the seasonal offerings from local farms, orchards, and ranches.

“In a lot of ways, the utilization of local ingredients brings me more flavor than if I got my ingredients from all over the place,” says Andrea. “It also provides me with a natural restriction from which to draw ideas to assemble the menu. When you can pull any possible ingredient from any place in the world at any time, it’s almost too much freedom. I find sourcing locally really focuses the cooking—and it focuses decision making. I love that challenge.”

A Chef in the Making
Andrea’s path toward a career in food began at an early age. “For me, cooking stemmed from loving to eat—and from being hungry all the time,” she recalls with a smile. “I wanted to be able to prepare things that I had eaten in different places and was always trying to duplicate foods that I’d had in restaurants and people’s houses. That’s how I started cooking when I was a teenager.”

Not surprisingly, Andrea’s love of local, fresh produce also began when she was young. “My mother and father were both raised in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, so I grew up going to farms with my grandparents and my parents,” she notes. “My grandparents lived in a very rural area, so I didn’t see cooking seasonally or cooking with ingredients you grew in your own garden as different.”

Andrea’s rural roots, however, took a temporary hiatus as she completed college and became a public policy consultant in New York City. It was there that she met her future husband and decided she had had enough of big city living. Andrea picked up stakes and moved with him to North Carolina, where she experienced a bit of culture shock. “Things are a little slower [in North Carolina], which made me a little anxious,” she says with a laugh. “It took me a couple of years to adjust.” Seventeen years later, Andrea feels like this has always been home.

It was during this transition that Andrea’s professional life also took a turn from consultant to professional chef. In 2002, she teamed up with her brother Brendan to open an Asian restaurant in the historically progressive university town of Chapel Hill. Concentrating on local ingredients was not Andrea’s primary focus initially. “I had the idea to open a restaurant that was going to be financially successful and not go out of business,” she recounts. “There were only a few Asian restaurants here at the time. When we first opened, I would say that the percentage of local we used was much less than it is now. The main focus was just trying to get open and survive day to day.”

A “Local” Establishment
As Lantern gained a foothold, Andrea began to explore Chapel Hill’s farmers’ markets. What she found was a flourishing local food scene. “This is one of the older areas for farmer-run farmers’ markets in the country, so there was already a thriving community of farms and restaurants when I arrived,” she continues. “I wasn’t cooking professionally in New York, but I shopped at different farmers’ markets there. The ingredients I found here were, in many ways, a lot better.”

It wasn’t long before Andrea began to gather many of the ingredients used at Lantern from local sources. “We knew tons of farmers just from being in the community and going to farmers’ markets,” she says. “There are about 300 small farms within 25 or 30 minutes of here, so there was no challenge in finding them. The challenge became organizing the menu to allow us to use as much of the local meat and produce as possible.”

All of that organizing has resulted in a menu that revolves around local, seasonally available ingredients. “For the most part, availability determines the menu,” Andrea points out. “We have a couple things that are on the menu year-round, like our tea-and-spice-smoked chicken. However, we typically change the fresh ingredients that are in the rice, as well as the vegetables that are served with the dish. We start off in early spring with asparagus, then we do sugar snap peas. Next we do some sort of early spring braising mix, then we go into green beans, and then broad beans. In the winter it’s usually just braising greens, which is a mix of mustard greens and kale. But we’re really lucky that we have the kind of climate here where people can grow a lot even in January and February.”

Andrea pays close attention to the way that crops are grown and the methods by which animals are raised—and she has seen the results in the taste. “I’ve noticed that people who care about what they are growing have food that’s a lot more flavorful,” she says.

Cooking in the Moment
Andrea’s culinary art isn’t limited to creating and operating an award-winning restaurant. In 2011, she published a cookbook entitled Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes. As the title implies, the book takes home cooks through a year of meals created around seasonally available ingredients—over 130 recipes in all—supported by approachable and informative text and vibrant photographs that help celebrate each season.

Her reasons for creating the book were quite specific. “I was constantly having conversations with people who told me that they wanted to be able to cook dinner after going to the farmers’ market,” remembers Andrea. “They didn’t want to have to stop off at the grocery store, but they felt intimidated or challenged by the prospect of only going to the farmers’ market to make a meal or two. I realized the opposite was true of me. I ended up cooking that way most of the time—more out of laziness, really. I didn’t follow recipes. I was just trying to use up what I had in the CSA box, what I brought home from the restaurant, or what I had grabbed at the farmers’ market. So the book actually started as me writing down very simple, basic recipes for friends.”

Andrea envisions her book as a confidence builder for home cooks. “What I hope is that it can be useful to help get dinner on the table quickly, and also to demonstrate that food doesn’t have to be complicated to taste really good,” she explains. “There’s been this kind of ‘foodie-ism’ that has crept into the way we think about food, and the way we think about cooking in our own homes. In the last 10 years it seems as if there’s been a trend among people who aren’t in the food business to feel like there needs to be some sort of special training to just have people over for dinner—or to even cook for their own family! I hope the book helps to counter this idea and encourages people to believe that the ultimate ‘shortcut’ in cooking is to use really good, high-quality ingredients.”

Beyond the Kitchen
Andrea’s enthusiasm for local agriculture extends far beyond Lantern. Currently, she serves on the board of advisors for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a joint effort between two of North Carolina’s leading universities and the state’s Department of Agriculture. Since 1994 CEFS has been heavily researching and promoting organic, sustainable, and local agriculture. Today, its impact is being felt statewide and the organization is setting a remarkable example for many other states throughout the nation.

“I consider the work that CEFS does vitally important to the future of North Carolina’s agriculture,” says Andrea. “We’re an agricultural state, yet probably well less than 5 percent of what we eat is grown here. Their approach—to try to help North Carolina feed itself—is important from many standpoints: food security, community, and the environment. But there is something that’s even more intangible, and that’s the quality of our lives, including healthcare and our connection to each other.”

Andrea sees local and sustainable food systems as the only hope for our long-term survival. “The answer to how local food systems around the country could fix the overall food system is complicated. The short answer is that it’s the only way to fix the food system,” she says. “If the food system is becoming more consolidated—with fewer and fewer farms producing more and more of our food—then it’s a very brittle system. What we need is more resilience in terms of economic models so we can feed both community and economic development. This resilience will also help us defend ourselves from future climate change. Small-scale local farming will also help provide more resilience to ‘superbugs’ that are resistant to antibiotics. Many authorities, including the CDC, fear that we’re approaching what they call a ‘post-antibiotic era’ due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in factory farming. Community food systems can address our ability to produce farm animals without using antibiotics.”

In addition to CEFS, Andrea is a member of Chef ’s Collaborative, a nationwide network of chefs that is working to expand the sustainable food landscape through professional connections, education, and responsible buying decisions. “Chef ’s Collaborative is an organization that tries to foster networks of chefs who are working toward sustainability. The group allows them to support each other in this effort,” Andrea explains. “One thing Chef ’s Collaborative is focusing on right now is an initiative on sustainable meat production. We are looking at how chefs can help each other eliminate barriers to sourcing local and regional pasture-based meat in their own kitchens.”

Whether in the kitchen, at the local farmers’ market, or working with various organizations, everything Andrea does relates back to her first love—the act of transforming local, sustainably produced ingredients bursting with flavor into surprising dishes that people have never experienced before. But it’s not only about food. It’s about people, too. “I love the camaraderie that comes from working in a kitchen in very close quarters,” she says. “I love the long-term friendships that cooking has allowed me to establish with people over the years.”
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