Talking Local Food, Drought (and Chickens) with California Chef Deborah Scarborough

Deborah Scarborough at Black Cat Bistro

Many chefs work hand in hand with local food producers, leading the way toward a more sustainable food system. We are thrilled to support these chefs and the good work they do. We also love highlighting their wonderful work in our Heroes series.

Last year, we spoke with Chef Deborah Scarborough, the now-former chef of Black Cat Bistro in Cambria, California. Here's her take on why local food is so important. (You can find the bistro's current Eat Well Guide listing here. Although Chef Scarborough is no longer with the restaurant, it still focuses on seasonal cuisine.)

What type of cuisine do you serve at your restaurant, and how do local and sustainable ingredients factor into your menu?

I would describe Black Cat Bistro cuisine as delicious and innovative, in that order. We are very particular about our ingredients. Local ingredients simply taste better because most are allowed to develop as nature intended and are not pumped with things that will allow them to be transported without damage. It's really just common sense to use local ingredients. The better the ingredients, the better the dish will turn out.

About how many meals do you serve a day? How big is your staff?

Black Cat Bistro is a very small restaurant with only 43 seats. And we are open five nights and never for lunch. So I really have one staff, of 9 employees, that works all five nights, with a couple exceptions. We serve on average about 60-70 happy people a night.

How often do you and/or your staff visit your favorite farms and/or farmers markets?

I have been on two farm to table boards. Slow Food San Luis Obispo and Pallet to Palate. Therefore I personally have been fortunate to visit most of the farms and ranches that we use, plus quite a few more. As for my staff, we try to take three to four trips a year out to either a farm, ranch or winery.

How do you communicate your commitment to sustainability to your customers and the community?

That is such a good question. I used to list the farm names with the ingredients on the menu, then I felt that was a bit pretentious or that it felt a bit forced. So we list the farmers in the back of the menu. Recently I made a little map with our farmers on it which is in the beginning of our menu. I think people just know that we care because that's our reputation. But perhaps we need to communicate it better so as to encourage others to do more. I am happy that my servers are all very enthusiastic about what we do and they tend to communicate that to our guests.

Describe your local food community in four words.

Abundance, camaraderie, innovation, tradition.

Are there other sustainable aspects to your establishment (water/energy conservation efforts, composting, ect.)?

Yes yes and yes. We have always been very conservative when it comes to water and energy sources. We also compost and recycle and steam clean instead of using chemicals, except where the health department lays down the law. Our entire town is very well known for its water conservation.

Most of my farmers deliver to my home in Paso Robles because it's closer to them than my restaurant which is a half hour drive away on the coast. We are all trying to make a living so driving around all over the county picking up produce is not realistic.

How did you get your start in the business? Did you start with a sustainable focus, or did that come along later?

I opened my restaurant having never ever worked in one. I had been a television producer with a catering company that only operated during hiatus. When I moved to the Central Coast and opened 12 years ago, it was very difficult to form relationships with the farmers. A group of us worked hard to find ways to get the products. That was really the main problem. The food was there, but how to get it to the restaurant? I know that seems silly, but that was a true and real problem.

Still most of my farmers deliver to my home in Paso Robles because it's closer to them than my restaurant which is a half hour drive away on the coast. We are all trying to make a living so driving around all over the county picking up produce is not realistic. And for the farmers driving around to all the restaurants is also not realistic. But eventually you work things out with certain farmers. But you need to learn to be very flexible. Because sometimes you just don't get what you need. We can't control the weather. There was an organization called Pallet to Palate that I became very involved in that really got a lot of farmers and chefs together.

Why is sustainability important to you? What part of sustainability is most important to you in running your business?

Sustainability is so important to me that I don't even serve chicken in my restaurant and haven't for about 10 years now. Because to me, the chicken is arguably the most cruelly treated animal in our agricultural system. Of course there are expensive exceptions. (Oops, this is more about animal cruelty than sustainability).

But simply put, sustainability is important for obvious reasons. We need to sustain the planet and the land we grow our food on so that we can survive. Right now the most important part of sustainability in our restaurant is water conservation because we are having a nasty drought.

Do you change your menu with the seasons? What's the best and hardest part about your dedication to local, seasonal ingredients?

We do change most items with the seasons. I would say the most difficult parts about being dedicated to local, seasonal ingredients is the reaction of some people who want the dish they grew to love because regulars will become attached to a certain dish and my staff will have to explain to them that it's not available because it's no longer in season. Perhaps it will return next year, etc. I have some that will say, I will come back when you have that fish again. And I will say, that may never happen as that fish is no longer green rated and hasn't been in 5 years. And also, again, finding a way to get the product from the farmer to the restaurant. But it gets easier all the time. Both do.

Do you have a favorite dish at your restaurant right now?

I absolutely love my rabbit cooked with prunes and olives. I get my rabbits from Debbie Estrada who raises them in Creston which is about 20 minutes from my house.

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This post was originally published in December 2014.