Eatery owners chew on Slow Food Movement's message

Group aims to be the diametric, polar opposite of fast food — even if that means longer wait

Olivier Vrambout, owner of the Mount Bakery and a native of Belgium, subscribes to the Slow Food Movement’s tenets, from using local produce first and whenever possible to the protection of cultural food identities and rare produce.

Heidi Schiller
   On a recent sunny, but blustery, Friday morning, a group of four middle-aged tourists shuffle into the Mount Bakery and seem to wonder whether to seat themselves or wait to be seated.
   Servers swish by and gesture the group to a table. Owner Olivier Vrambout follows minutes later with menus.
   Vrambout continues darting around the squash-colored bakery on West Champion Street — ringing up customers and checking on his crepe batter.
   One server is late, and the doorbell keeps jingling as customers keep coming in.
   “Ugh, it’s crazy today,” a server says, swinging around a corner.
   Despite Vrambout and the servers’ fervor, there is a breezy European calm to the place, and a feeling that most of the customers are content to stay awhile — they might not be able to help it. The Mount Bakery is about the furthest thing from the sterile predictability and orderliness of a fast-food restaurant.
   That’s because it’s a slow food restaurant.

You say tomato, they say heirloom
   Slow-Food is an international organization — replete with a founding icon and manifesto — that originated in Italy in 1986 as a reaction to the growing fast-food industry, according to the organization’s Web site,
   The movement’s founder, Carlo Petrini, was concerned with an increase in the industrialization of food and its impact of reducing, or replacing, food variety and flavor in different world regions, according to the Slow Food USA Web site,
   Vrambout discovered the movement in the U.S.
   When he was 14, Vrambout immigrated to the United States from Charleroi, Belgium. His parents moved the family for economic opportunities, but he sopped up enough of the Belgian-food culture in those early years to embrace them later as a career chef and restaurant owner, as well as a member of the Slow Food movement.
   His extended family were farmers and tended their own bees, made their own wine and canned produce from their garden. He was always in the kitchen with his grandmother, who was a pastry chef.
   “Food was just a big, big part of our culture,” he said.
   In Belgium, people rarely went out to eat, like they do here, Vrambout said.
   “Growing up, every weekend we went to our (extended) family’s house — 15 to 20 of us — and we’d just eat all day, from noon to five,” he said.
   He remembers being curious about the first McDonald’s he ever saw when he was 12 in Belgium. But he hasn’t stepped foot in a fast-food restaurant in 15 years and doesn’t intend to any time soon.
   Vrambout, along with Mataio and Jessica Gillis — owners of Ciao Thyme, a local “restaurant without walls” — founded Bellingham’s Fourth Corner Slow Food movement in 2002.
   The group fluctuates between 30 to 50 members in Whatcom County, including restaurant owners such as Gillis and Vrambout as well as farmers, food writers and enthusiasts.
   Every fall (for the past seven years) the group hosts a harvest dinner in partnership with Farm Friends for 350 guests. Ninety-five percent of the event’s menu is donated from Whatcom and Skagit County farmers.
   The local group is an official chapter of the international Slow Food movement, which first took hold in Rome.
   “In the beginning, it was a bit of a militant movement. Petrini started speaking out against the first McDonald’s because it would tear their society apart,” Gillis said. “That’s what the culture was based on — it revolved around the table.”
   The movement soon calmed down, however, and began to spread internationally. It now has more than 83,000 members worldwide in 50 countries, including Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, Japan, Great Britain and the U.S. The movement embraces food and agriculture biodiversity and opposes the standardization, or homogenization, of taste. Its members are concerned with preserving regional foods’ variety and cultural identity.
   An example of this, Vrambout mentioned, is the Slow Food movement’s efforts to protect less mainstream, heirloom tomatoes. Consumers tend to buy the same varieties of tomatoes in grocery stores over and over again, and so in the recent past there has been almost no demand for different types of heirloom tomatoes, he said. Part of the Slow Food movement is to preserve and protect those varieties that are at risk of consumer extinction.
   Slow food doesn’t necessarily mean an emphasis on organic food, either. Gillis said many people think Slow Food is a type of gourmet food club, or they associate it with Italian cuisine, but it’s really more of a concerted effort to protect and support regional, sustainable agriculture.
   “Local is ultimately better than organic. A hydroponic tomato is better than an organic one two states away,” Gillis said.
   Vrambout agreed.
   “I’m not going to buy something organic that is from California,” Vrambout said. “I’m going to buy something that is local.”
   This poses a challenge for Vrambout, whose menu changes three times a year to use the most local, in-season produce in the wintertime when many local farmers aren’t producing much.
   “You make it through. You do a lot of hardy stuff, like lentils and beans,” he said. “I wouldn’t use asparagus, you know, in the middle of winter.”
   While the movement shares many common values with another local group, Sustainable Connections with its emphasis on buying local, Gillis said Fourth Corner Slow Food is more focused on the cerebral and gastronomic emphasis of food preservation. It’s more intellectual, less economical, he said.
   “The point is, ‘Do you know your farmer and do you know your food?'” Gillis said.

Food as a cultural thermometer
   The Slow Food USA Web site declares the importance of “the revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture and community … and to living a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life.”
   For the past five years, Vrambout has translated that idea into savoring a French jambon (ham) and Swiss emmental crepe or a salad frisee with warm goat cheese, roasted almond, sun-dried tomatoes, apples and radicchio. For dessert, it translates into a Belgian chocolate and vanilla bean pastry cream crepe or crème brulee, chocolate brioche or cheesecake cupcakes dotted with strawberry slices.
   The pace of preparing and serving his food is admittedly more European.
   These Belgian specialties, while highly coveted by customers who aren’t shy of butter and cream, oftentimes give the Mount Bakery’s slow food aspect a literal translation — a long wait for their meal.
   Therefore, Vrambout is having to reinterpret his menu for a faster-paced environment.
   While most of his customers understand that much of his menu items take awhile to prepare, a few are not as forgiving.
   Vrambout said he is ultimately not disappointed or frustrated about having to change his menu.
   He can still cultivate a slower-paced epicurean environment through his monthly, multiple-course dinners he hosts at the bakery after hours.
   Slow food can be done fast, Gillis said, as long as the principles are there.
   “It’s about honoring the spirit of conviviality and everything that entails,” Gillis said. “It’s about bringing people to the table.”



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