Matthew Roher is executive chef at Cha Bella, probably Savannah's most cutting-edge restaurant in terms of its commitment to sustainability and supporting local producers.
But the weekend of March 11-12, Roher will be an executive chef of a different and even more daunting kind, as he plays host to what he calls "the best collection of chefs ever assembled in Savannah, hands-down."
That would be for the Farmer's Feast, featuring food grown and raised by local farmers and cooked by award-winning regional chefs such as Charleston's Sean Brock and Atlanta's Linton Hopkins, and local chefs such as Kelly Yambor and Joe Randall.
It's all part of the the Georgia Organics "Go Grow" annual conference, held at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center on Hutchinson Island March 11-12.
The conference features farm tours, workshops, film screenings, and one event open to non-registrants, the all-day Expo on Friday March 11.
The Farmer's Feast is Saturday night, following by the keynote from renowned organic foods advocate Vandana Shiva.
The fact that Georgia Organics - the "largest and most important local farmer/food advocacy, farm-to-school group in the Southeast," as Roher describes it - is holding the event in Savannah is a paradigm shift of sorts.
"They've been extremely active in the northern part of the state, doing incredible work connecting farmers, schools and consumers in the Atlanta/Athens area," Roher explains.
"The fact that they have, after all these years, decided that Savannah is right for this visit is a big deal for them," he says.
The motivating factor behind the growing success of Georgia Organics and of restaurants like Cha Bella is a burgeoning national and global movement "that's getting away from these monster corporations that have just destroyed the local culture of food - which, let's face it, our entire civilization is built upon," Roher says.
"I think all of us in our hearts realize that, and want to get back to it in some way, shape or form."
One example Roher cites is the Slow Food movement, which stresses the communal and community-bonding nature of eating - not just who you eat dinner with, but where that dinner came from in the first place.
"A regeneticized chicken is so far away from the original chicken that you're basically losing the species," says Roher. "It's a food that can't be sustained naturally, only sustained within scientific corporate environments. They're almost not real animals anymore.Seeds are also vanishing because of this process."
Cha Bella and restaurants like it are going in the opposite direction.
"We have seed banks, we collect heirloom seeds that Ma & Pa were growing back in the day. We support heritage breed, blood-based protein products, like natural pastured beef from cows that spend 90 percent of their days grazing," Roher says.
For Cha Bella, the results have been good, but in this heat-and-serve town, the hard work of securing organic, locally-sourced food and preparing it deliciously hasn't been easy.
Roher sees an important part of his mission as inspiring other restaurateurs to take the plunge and not to feel alone in doing so.
"People saw our Farm Box concept and the farmer dinners, then they see the success of restaurant, then they think maybe locally there's something to this," he says.
"They think maybe they'll keep the momentum going, maybe open a killer joint and actually have a partnership with the folks making those burgers - as opposed to going to Sysco and locking in pricing for five years for beef that could come from anywhere."
Roher describes Savannah's food culture as "all potential," but says there's still a lot of work to do in order to bring the local cuisine experience up to the standard of real regional food powers like Charleston or Atlanta.
"At this point we've got people realizing if you stick to your guns, know your producer as a buyer and then present your producer as part of the dining experience, it's gonna pay off in the long term. It might take a little time because we don't quite have a culture of that yet."
The kind of food culture Savannah does have, Roher says, goes like this:
"To open a restaurant, you have to sit down with one of five reps that sell $200 million worth of food in this town alone," he explains.
"That person flips a book open and you design your entire menu based on the food in this catalog. You're supposed to say ‘This is my menu' and slide it across the table so they can price it out for you," he says.
"They don't care where the food comes from. That's what Savannah was, and in a lot of ways still is."
There are very real market and political forces aligned against sustainable, locally-sourced restaurants.
"There are scary forces out there, and I've had brushes with them," Roher says.
"We have companies in Georgia who sell billions of chickens a year in a particular way. Now they see this incredible movement of local pastured chickens springing up everywhere."
Simply put, huge agribusiness companies in Georgia have enormous power and influence.
"They hire politicians to represent their interests locally and nationally," he says. "When they see chinks in their armor, like people looking to have a connection with their eggs and the chickens that lay them, they go to the politicians and say, ‘Listen, we need to do something about it. What kind of legislation can you introduce to make it more difficult for them to do business?'"
The 2002 move by the federal government to take ownership of the "organic" label - you now have to pay fees and pass USDA requirements to legally put that word on your products - was seen by many in the grow-local movement as an attempt by agribusiness to co-opt the increasing popularity of the organic food lifestyle.
That said, Roher says he does prefer to use growers who are organic-certified - but not exclusively.
"I'm not gonna penalize the fourth generation grower who has intentions of converting his farm to organic," he says. "I will support them as much as I can and tell them - and this is where Georgia Organics comes in - ‘here's a support structure, here's a network of educators and farmers, here's the solution to get certified.'"
Cha Bella only uses local producers, meaning "the farmer is able to harvest the night before, load his truck and be at your door by lunchtime."
If a producer isn't organic yet, Roher wants to make sure they're dramatically reducing herbicides and pesticides.
"You need to have a plan in place to phase that stuff out and be able to show you're using less and less of it, proving that to me by invoices. I go by the look feel, quality and taste of products," he says.
The growers he supports with the majority of his purchasing dollar - his top-tier suppliers - are farmers who have gone though the effort to get certified organically.
"Once you get your dirt certified, you can't go out with Roundup. They come out the following year to do tests, and if they find trace elements you lose certification for 24 months."
That said, the emphasis of the Go Grow conference is all positive, and for Roher the highlight is the opportunity to have so many nationally-renowned chefs come together for the culminating Farmer's Feast.
"We've got James Beard winners, Top Chef contestants, just killin' it and doin' it right," he says gleefully.
"These are people who are ahead of the curve in Atlanta and Athens and now are coming here to work with our people," he says.
"My goal is to make introductions, get everybody on everybody else's Rolodexes, and put Savannah in a different and better place."
Georgia Organics ‘Go Grow' Conference
When: March 11-12
Where: Savannah International Trade & Convention Center
Cost: $275 for non-members, $215 Ga. Organics members. Expo open to the public Fri. March 11, 4:30-8:30 p.m., $10.
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