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The future of sustainability
Niven Patel and Mo Alkassar on running restaurants with local in mind
Welcome to the first edition of The Future of Hospitality, a six-part series sponsored by OpenTable which aims to highlight the trends, challenges and opportunities shaping the restaurant industry. I am constantly thinking about what’s new and what’s next, and I'm grateful for their support to uncover the best ideas, best applications, and best practices for building the F&B businesses of tomorrow.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll talk to well-known experts about the future of reaching guests, about the future of hiring and of work, about the future of reservations (of course!) and what all of it means for people who love restaurants.
In the spring of 2021, 35 guests gathered on a farm in Homestead, Florida, about an hour southwest of Miami and 45 minutes north of Key Largo. The occasion? A dinner hosted by farm proprietor and chef Niven Patel and his co-founder, restaurateur Mohamed Alkassar of Miami’s Alpareno restaurant group, featuring produce from the farm and other wood-fired delights. Alkassar doesn’t remember the evening’s menu, but he does remember what happened next.
It was a gorgeous night in South Florida until it wasn’t. As guests sat at outdoor wooden tables, huge dark clouds approached, fast.
“We were not prepared at all. We didn’t think it was going to rain — and it rained very badly,” Alkassar remembers, laughing.
The guests were soaked. The staff was soaked. The band was soaked. And the guests loved it! As he offered relentless apologies, Alkassar realized they were actually having a great time.
“That taught us, okay, this could be a thing,” he says. “So we invested in a permanent awning and leveled up the events.”
It was just the second edition of a dinner series dubbed “Sundays at the Rancho,” put on by the Alpareno team. Now, 200 people gather for the monthly events, which sell out as soon as they’re announced.
Patel is renowned for his commitment to serving local and sustainable fare. “There is farm-to-table, and then there is Niven Patel’s farm to table,” reads a 2020 profile in Food & Wine magazine, which named Patel one of its best new chefs of the year for Ghee, his first restaurant.
Three years later, Alpareno Restaurant Group just opened its fourth, called Erba, in September. It serves Italian food and, just as the duo’s three other restaurants, sources produce from Patel’s Rancho and a host of local purveyors.
It’s not a marketing campaign. “It’s such a way of life that we almost don’t think about it,” Alkassar says.
Here’s more from Patel and Alkassar about their holistic approach to sustainability and how they create a strong link between the ingredients on the plate and the delight of serving them to guests.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Expedite: Congrats on the recent opening — how’s it going?
Mo Alkassar: “I think it's been our most solid opening. You know, the biggest compliment that we've gotten from a lot of our guests is, it feels like you've been open for years.”
That’s a great compliment!
MA: “It’s probably our first restaurant where we get an equal amount of feedback that the food is so good and that the service and ambiance and design is so good. The compliments on the food have become such a given, but it’s a feat to do everything else on the same level as Niven’s food.”
Do you have a top-level theory about the food — sustainability, ingredient sourcing — that guides the restaurants?
Chef Niven Patel: “It all starts with knowing where all of our products come from. We work so closely with a lot of local farmers, but we also challenge our other vendors to find us the best product available. We challenge our team, from the culinary team to the front of house, to know where everything’s coming from. It’s easy to call one vendor for ingredients. It’s a lot harder knowing 10 different vendors and a bunch of fishermen. Having those relationships and telling the story, to the culinary team, to the servers, to the guests, is very important to our ecosystem.”
Do you have a formalized process for teaching servers and the rest of the team about ingredients?
NP: The best way to convey the message is showing them. Walking that whole wahoo [ed note: best fish name] that just got caught through the dining room, the servers seeing it, the guests seeing it, and getting excited about that.
So I live in California, where —
NP: “Oh you’re lucky, it’s very easy where you are!”
We are lucky! We are also… hit over the head with this type of sourcing, in a good way. For a full-service restaurant not to source sustainably and locally doesn’t make sense. Are diners used to this where you are? Are they seeking it out?
NP: “They’re definitely seeking it out. It’s just really hard to source products. That’s why very few people in Miami do it, because it literally takes all day to find the right thing. Right now we’re not in tomato season, and trying to source tomatoes from upstate New York… It's a lot of work. Our markets at this time of year are just repackaged commodity products, it’s a daily challenge.”
MA: “It takes a lot more time. It impacts labor, because we spend more time dealing with all the things. We have to be ready to adapt, especially with our fish; we sometimes don’t know what we’re going to get that day. We have to be willing to take on that cost, but more importantly, to take on the effort, because it's not as easy as other cities or states like California.”
Are you doing all of this yourself?
NP: “I usually start and then I’m starting to hand it off to the chefs de cuisine, teaching them the importance of answering the phone call, talking to the fisherman, creating the relationship. A lot of it is relationship-building… I’ve handed off some fishermen to my CDCs and they miss talking to me. I still have to… massage that relationship.”
MA: “When we were coming up with Erba’s menu, Niven listed the ingredients that are available this time of year, we concentrated on the local first, and then the menu took shape based on the ingredient list, not vice-versa. The team sees this approach and can buy into the philosophy, then they get the guests to buy into that philosophy. That’s how we create an ecosystem, and it filters all the way to the guests.”
This feels very holistic to me. When you present it like this it feels like the only viable option. It makes sense. How are you communicating it to guests, besides walking giant fish through the dining room?
NP: “We don’t put the words ‘farm-to-table’ on the menu. We don’t like that term, by the way. It’s just part of our practice, not something we put in your face.”
MA: “Nothing against anybody who does use the term — it sometimes gets used by accident by our own team, but we think it’s overused. This is not something we do for marketing. It's who we are. Even though I call Niven ‘the green-thumb chef,’ the rancho started as trial and error at his house. We're just doing it because it brings us joy.”
We should talk more about these farm dinners, because they sound great, even if it’s raining.
MA: “It's the best, honestly, the most wholesome experience. We've made it a rule that once we're done cleaning and resetting at the end of the night, our team has its own feast at the end of the night. It's the most fulfilling event I've ever been a part of.”
Do you close the restaurants for this?
MA: “No, no, that’s why it’s so hard! It’s costly because we can’t take anything out of the restaurants. But the guests are walking through the farm, meeting our farmer, helping to harvest with them, it’s literally what you’re about to eat. There’s farm to plate, right there.”
How big is the farm?
NP: “It's a little under two acres. In the front yard I made it kind of like our fruit orchard, 14 different types of fruit — mangoes, star fruit, some exotics like sugar apple, jackfruit, guava, lychee, lime. The back is for our produce and flowers. We just planted carrots, Romano beans, heirloom tomatoes, lots of different flowers and herbs. For our first farm dinner, I had these giant sunflowers that I want to kind of harvest the day off — it’s a lot of pre-planning three or four months before the event but coming up with the menu like two days before the event.”
MA: “Like one day before the event. Under pressure — that’s when the magic happens, for the record.”
Ingredient uncertainty aside, has it ever been particularly challenging to stick to this model at your restaurants?
MA: “Pricing is challenging. We don't want any of the restaurants to be considered expensive, we want to give guests value for their money. We’ve chosen to bite the bullet more times than increasing our pricing. We rarely increased prices during Covid, even when times are challenging, even as rents are going up and pricing everywhere is being pushed up.”
Having your own farm must make a huge difference in this way.
MA: Absolutely, but it's also the connections that we have with farmers and fishermen. A lot of our partners, our purveyors have been good to us.”
NP: “Something that I noticed with pricing in general is even on our meat, we like to buy heirloom varieties that aren’t always dictated by the commodity market. When commodity chicken prices went up 30 or 40 percent, the boutique lines of poultry went up to, but just 5 to 8 percent.”
MA: “But when you’ve always been this way, because you give yourself no other option, you don't even think of the challenges. It does take a lot of effort. But we’re so used to it, we never think about how much more challenging it is.”
Your sustainability approach is holistic and at the forefront of how restaurants are thinking about this challenge. But what's next for you? How will your model continue to evolve?
MA: “We want to expand our farm Rancho Patel, buy more farmland in Homestead to meet the demand at our restaurants.”
NP: “We want to continue holding our ‘Sundays at the Rancho’ event. It ties in everything we do, who we are, and showcases the vast difference in the quality of fresh local ingredients. Many guests are just raving about how they can taste the carrot they just harvested at the Rancho by just smelling it. That’s all the motivation I need to wake in the morning energized to continue to care for my land, this process, this industry.”