JJ Gonson, Locavore at Large
JJ Gonson grew up in Cambridge, Mass., when there were still farms in Lexington and Belmont. She learned to cook with her mom, in the kitchen, using local ingredients in season and has spent years in search of the flavors and smells of her childhood. Cuisine en Locale was the invention of necessity, started to make sure that a New Year’s Eve party was beautiful.
JJ says Cuisine en Local "was born of a concern that I had for what my kids might be eating. When I was pregnant with my second child and I just had my first, I started to do some investigation, and that was, now, almost 15 years ago... I was particularly reading about this thing—it’s funny now, I sort of think of it as like old hat—I was reading about this "new" thing called bovine growth hormone and getting really scared that there were things in the food that I didn’t know about."
The name "Cuisine en Locale" is a "sort of Franglais of cuisine meaning 'kitchen' in French, but to the American ear it means 'cuisine,' it means food, like fancy food. And then en locale, which means something in French that isn’t what we hear it as in English, which is 'on location.' So Cuisine en Locale means quite literally 'fancy food on location.' And that was personal cheffing, private cheffing, sourcing directly from farmers, only food that was local and organic, and taking it to people’s homes. And pre–farmers market revival, that was a pretty big task. I was driving out to farms during the week and picking up food and bringing it back, and forging these relationships with farmers."
Based on the concept of personal cheffing and dedicated to using the most fresh and delicious ingredients, Cuisine en Locale has become a collaborative with JJ at the creative head since 2005. They offer many services to get people access to real food but one of their more interesting programs is the shared meal service. Every Monday their chefs craft a unique menu with what’s in season. Everything is made from scratch and then delivered or picked up the next day, ready to eat.
Rootstock Radio Interview with JJ Gonson
Air Date: June 8, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, locavores! Today we are going to discuss the value of a local food system and learn about what one woman and her friends in Cambridge, Mass., are doing to support the growth of local food and farmers. Meet the remarkable JJ Gonson, the creative force behind Cuisine en Locale.
TM: Welcome, JJ. It’s an honor to have you here.
JJ Gonson: Thank you, thank you. Welcome to Cambridge!
TM: I was just very intrigued about Cuisine en Locale that I think is a very unique project of both food, activism, supporting farmers, creating events, interacting with people. How did this come about? How did Cuisine en Locale really…?
JJG: Yeah, well, it was born of a concern that I had for what my kids might be eating. When I was pregnant with my second child and I just had my first, I started to do some investigation, and that was, now, almost 15 years ago—14, 13 years ago. I was particularly reading about this thing—it’s funny now, I sort of think of it as like old hat—I was reading about this “new” thing called bovine growth hormone and getting really scared that there were things in the food that I didn’t know about. And so I started calling companies, local dairies, and talking to them on the phone, talking to their customer service people. And the decision that I made was to find a local dairy that I knew wasn’t using these things. Because they were telling me that they were aware, and actually they were aware before most people even knew what this stuff was about; they were very quickly concerned. But nobody could make me any promises. And so I started looking to know who my farmers were. And when I wanted to go back to work—and I’m a chronic entrepreneur; I like to create environments to operate in—and so I was looking for a way to get back into the workforce and to tell people about these things that I was thinking about, about food and about that I was concerned that maybe we didn’t really have a lot of transparency around what was being purchased in supermarkets. And I was thinking a lot about that and talking to farmers. And my husband was actually the one who said, well, what about personal cheffing as a way to get back into the workforce without being away from my kids too much. And Cuisine en Locale was born out of this sort of Franglais of cuisine meaning both—it means kitchen in French, but to the American ear it means cuisine, it means food, like fancy food. And then en locale, which means something in French that isn’t what we hear it as in English, which is “on location.” So Cuisine en Locale was quite literally “fancy food on location.” And that was personal cheffing, private cheffing, sourcing directly from farmers, only food that was local and organic, and taking it to people’s homes. And pre–farmers market revival, that was a pretty big task, and I was driving out to farms during the week and picking up food and bringing it back, and forging these relationships with farmers. And then my client base grew, and so I had to start consolidating. And that’s how I created the meal delivery program, which we call Once a Week, because as I was consolidating clients I had to legally become a caterer so that I could go into a legal shared-use kitchen and create food. And prophylactic antibiotic use was the other thing that I was hearing a lot about at that time, the treating of animals with antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. So, you know, I don’t give my children antibiotics without real consideration. I’m really concerned about antibiotic immunity, and the idea that maybe I was giving them antibiotics with their dairy was really distressing to me at that time.
TM: It turns out that Cuisine en Locale has four different businesses. So I’m very impressed with this right now. Once a Week, the meal delivery program—what an excellent idea that was. And then there’s catering—that must be fun too. And then there’s an event hall where you actually have musicians come. And then at the event hall there’s like a popup restaurant and a bar…
JJG: That’s right. We call it the Once Lounge. We have identified a very, very specific user, and it’s a person who cooks and loves food and is a foodie and, for one reason or another, has not got the ability to produce homemade food in the way that he or she likes to. And that could be for any number of reasons. It could be a first baby; it could be a second baby; it could be a broken arm; it could be a surgery; it could be a sudden death in the family; it could be a new job, or finishing a thesis. Our market is people who really care a lot about supporting farms. And one-third of every dollar that comes in from this Shared Meal Program—we call it the Shared Meal Program—so we bring in a lot of food like a CSA, but we buy it from the farmers directly. We interact with them—either we go pick it up or they bring it to us, we hand them a check. My chefs know, after ten years of doing this, historically, what’s coming in at any given time of year. We watch constantly—we are watching the ground right now: “Come on, little fiddleheads, you can do it!” And so we sort of glean. We harvest from the farmers, we pay them a fair price, whatever they ask. And then we cook ensemble in a big group, and everybody brings their own skill. So I have some chefs who are really good at curry, and I have other chefs who are really good at fish, and I have other chefs who are really good at braising meat. And we all get together and we cook in one day, and we pack it all up into hundreds of different little packages, and we bag it into these beautiful thermal bags, and we deliver it by bicycle. And—
TM: Deliver by bicycle! Even in the winter?
JJG: Yeah, natural pedal power all year round. We’ve been working together for eight years.
TM: Oh my, isn’t that lovely!
JJG: Oh, they’re amazing, they’re the best! Natural pedal power. Amazing, I mean, they’re really—wow, the work they’re doing to aggregate. She delivers CSA shares as well, so she consolidates from a lot of farmers, and we get a lot of our food from her.
TM: It’s like a CSA, isn’t it? It’s like a cooked CSA.
JJG: It’s a cooked CSA, very much like a CSA. So you’re doing political work when you purchase from us, because you’re putting money directly into the hands of farmers and local chefs. And that piece is part of what this audience is looking for, is this ability to nurture not only their own bodies but their community at the same time. And when you purchase food from us, we guarantee you that the farmers are getting paid.
TM: You know, we do have a lot of different local restaurants that I’ve been in and out of across the United States, and usually you’ll get a large percentage that’s local. But did I hear you say that you’re almost 100 percent local?
JJG: Yeah, the only concession… We do use some spices in the kitchen, but not even as many as you would think. Instead of black pepper we use capsaicins—we use ground red roasted peppers that we store over the winter. So we do chipotle and things like that. We actually, our ginger and turmeric are both local. Fresh turmeric, I think, is just… It will keep us all alive. I’m such a believer in turmeric as a healing property, as a flavor, as an inspiration. And it’s—
TM: And the color!
JJG: And the color. And it’s actually a local crop. It’s grown in western Mass., as is ginger. It’s a rhizome, it’s seasonal. We freeze it, which is a really terrific way to preserve. A chest freezer is a really economically viable way to protect food. It doesn’t decrease the nutritional value. It doesn’t damage the flavor. And we eat on a six-month rotation with our frozen food, so we freeze spring fruits and serve them later in the year. We do a lot of… We save cranberry in the fall and rhubarb in the spring, and those are our acids instead of lemon and lime. And then we also have a locally made delicious cider vinegar that we use for acid. So what we’re doing is guaranteeing that this food is all supporting the farmers.
TM: How about olive oil?
JJG: We don’t use it. And I know it’s really good for you, and we don’t use it. We have a virgin fresh-pressed black sunflower seed oil that we use—
JJG: And we also get really delicious roasted pumpkin seed oil and roasted butternut squash seed oil. And we get pepitas instead of nuts, so we use roasted pepitas in our all-maple, local-flour sticky buns with dried cranberries.
TM: And you don’t use white flour, do you?
JJG: We don’t.
TM: And you don’t use sugar, do you?
JJG: No, no. Maple sugar, one-to-one ratio, instead of white sugar. We use maple syrup and honey.
JJG: And maple is another one of those ingredients that gives you super-powered, lots of mineral nutrients.
TM: JJ, I know that you have been born and raised here in Cambridge, so you’re a real native.
JJG: Yeah, mmhmm, I’m a real native.
TM: What was it like when you—
JJG: Really different. Yeah. There were farms
TM: Were there farms here?
JJG: Yeah, there were. There were. And my mom grew up in Illinois, and so she really looked for farms. And Vermont—she went to high school in Vermont. And so she… When I was a kid, there were farms in people’s backyards. I mean, I guess back then they were more like, kind of the residual victory gardens almost, right? But you had backyards where people grew in the summer and preserved for the winter, and farmers markets. And Wilson Farm in Lexington was a very viable—still is, but now it’s more of like a boutique thing. Russo’s was bringing in a lot more local food. The thing that’s really damaged local food in Massachusetts is invisible. It’s the paving of the farmland that’s not in the cities. Lunenburg and Leominster and the Worcester area, and places that biotechs have flourished and pushed out a lot of farmland which wasn’t very valuable. And as the rise of food from China and California has proliferated, there’s less need for local food. And so there’s no pressure to grow local in Massachusetts; it’s expensive and difficult.
TM: You know, I’m just curious: Can you describe some of the Cuisine en Locale kind of specialties that you do for your delivery and maybe your catering? I’d love to hear some of them.
JJG: Oh, yeah, I’d love to. Yeah, absolutely. So we try to let the flavors of the food speak as much as possible. So frequently we’ll feature vegetables that you might think of as not maybe the most exciting, but we do really wonderful things with them. Like parsnips that have been braised slowly in a reduction of maple syrup and apple cider, and then roasted as a side to… I’m a big fan of lamb and goat, a little bit more sustainable than beef. I learned very young to let meat sit in a bath of flavor for a long time. So I’ll grind up fresh herbs like cilantro and put in honey and a little bit of cider vinegar and some sunflower oil and salt, and let lamb sit in it for a few days, and then skewer it and grill it over wood charcoal, and serve it with those delicious roasted parsnips. And that’s, you know, a pretty awesome thing; maybe some rubbed kale.
TM: So parsnips—
JJG: I’m a big fan.
TM: —you probably can have those almost all year round, can’t you?
JJG: No, parsnips actually are a funny crop. They’re not around until the very end of the fall, and then most farmers let them sit in the ground all winter, and they do something called spring-dug parsnips, which you store your parsnips in the ground, which is very economical, and then when the ground freezes [thaws?] you pull them and they’re like the size of Chihuahuas—they’re enormous, these things. They’re like five pounds, and they are very sweet. You can leave parsnips in the ground over the winter, and what happens is plants build up their sugars to protect themselves against the winter, and so when you pull them in the spring they’re like candy.
TM: They’re sweeter.
JJG: Yeah. So you have spring lamb with spring parsnips.
TM: That’s a trick for carrots too. Or for those of you who grow carrots out there, I know a lot of our farmers do that. They keep their carrots in the ground all year, and some of them cover them with straw or something. But when they take them out, they’re like, they say they’re the most delicious of ever. You know, you talk a lot about farmers. So do you know a lot of farmers in the—?
JJG: A lot of farmers, yeah.
TM: A lot. And you have relationships with them?
TM: How long have you been nurturing these relationships? And can you tell us a little bit about some of the farmers you know?
JJG: Well, Kate Stillman is one of my closest friends and farmers. And we actually travel together. We’ve taken our kids on vacation together. When she was a young farmer, ten years ago, and I was starting Cuisine en Locale, there were no farmers markets in the winter at all, and very few in the summer. So we used to do something together called the Meat Meet, where she would drive my meat order into a parking lot in Cambridge, and I would go meet her, and I would tell my mailing list, and we would get 200 people out in driving snowstorms in the middle of the winter, because there was no other way to get local meat. So, you know, people would stand there and we’d weigh the meat off the back of the truck. And so you get really close to people when you have to organize things like that. And it was political and it was also necessity at the time. And now we don’t have to work that hard anymore, but we still talk a lot about what our needs are for our businesses and for our families, because we established that so early. Well, one of the things that I do feel is that the farmers market—I’m probably going to get run out on a rail for this—but I actually think farmers markets are not very good for farmers. Farmers should be farming, not sitting on a farmers market table. And I actually think of the farmers market as being kind of like the brick-and-mortar, that—
TM: Not even once a week?
JJG: Well, but you can’t…you can’t sell your food once a week and survive. You have to sell food every day to survive. And so farmers are working ten markets a week, and they’re hiring people to work the markets. I would personally like to see us take the current infrastructure and infuse it with local food, because the problem is that you have these supermarkets that say, “We have to have 800 pounds of carrots every Monday,” and the local market can’t say, “We’ll have 800.” They can say, “We might have 800 pounds of carrots, or we might have carrots and parsnips.” So because the way the demand system is set up is to preorder, you can’t have local farmers…they’re not dependable enough for the market. So what do they do? They make their own markets where they take what they want to the market, old-fashioned style. But that means they’re not on the farm. That means they’re standing at the stand, and the farm’s being neglected. Somebody has to get paid either to run the farm or to be on the market stand. And then you start putting pressure on the farmer that doesn’t have anything to do with farming or the farming structure.
TM: You know, I’m impressed that you, as a chef, someone who’s in the food business, catering and on the food service side, have such a kind of extensive and deep relationship with farmers. This is kind of a new way of managing your food supply. And how many farmers do you think that you have a relationship with at this point in time that are actually local?
JJG: That I talk to on a regular basis? I can do ten without even thinking about it. I mean, ten easy, but it’s way more than that on an irregular basis. But I talk to farmers… I mean, I have young farmers who approach me all the time and say, “I’ve got this thing—will you buy it?” And we’ll buy. We try to buy from a large number, but we do have some keystone people, which you have to have because that’s the only way to guarantee the food’s going to come in, because honestly, if I diversified too much, we wouldn’t be able to… You know, you can’t get ten pounds from one person and ten pounds from another.
TM: Yeah. Well, I’m very impressed with the fact that you have actually integrated your values into your business. So that is a wonderful thing, and I guess I want to thank you for that, because I think that we need more businesses who do that. It can’t just be about just business, I think, anymore. You know, do you have a vision for the future of food?
JJG: Yeah, well, definitely. Definitely, I have a vision for the future of food. I think that we’re going to be forced to stop bringing food from California, because of the weather and all the rest of it. There is going to be a financial crisis around food because it’s going to get so expensive. Between oil and drought, it’s going to get so expensive to move food that the pressure is going to come to bear ultimately. And to that end, I think supporting local farms now and growing local farms now is a move that only the consumer can support. So making a decision to support local farms sooner rather than later. How lovely that we have kiwis and oranges. Enjoy them, because we shouldn’t have them. They don’t grow here, and they shouldn’t be here. And so I think stepping back to a simpler way of thinking about food and eating, and eating seasonally, is something that I’d love to see people encourage. Because there is food here—there's a lot of food here, and there’s a lot of food that isn’t being embraced here. And there is a possibility of creating more, but there’s no support. I hate that what I think is going to happen is a forced reduction of chemicals because of the price, because ultimately fossil fuels are going to tap out, and all of this stuff that we’re making from fossil fuels is just going to get too expensive and we’re going to be forced to stop using it. So I think that it would nice to see an educated decision to move towards organic practices rather than inventing new problems, new chemical problems.
TM: But, as you pointed out earlier in our discussion, meat is the real big, you might say, culprit in California.
JJG: Yes, it sure is.
TM: And some say that the future of California probably won’t allow—
JJG: Beef production.
TM: —livestock production. Maybe—
JJG: Right, mmhmm. Yeah, I’m hearing a lot about this.
TM: Fifty gallons of water per cow, per day!
JJG: Then we can start talking about the electricity it takes to grow tomatoes in Maine, but let’s not do that right now.
TM: So I think that what’s happening in California actually will force more local production in the East Coast.
JJG: Yeah, and not necessarily cow. So there’s so many proteins that… I feel so strongly about this, can you tell? I sort of get “Aaaahh,” I start waving my hands around. Rabbit is a terrific protein source. Goat is a phenomenal protein source. We said earlier lamb. There’s these alternatives that are embraced in other places—
TM: You forgot tofu! Of course, we don’t grow soybeans here.
JJG: That’s what I was going to say: not here, because soy isn’t a big thing here. But we can talk about wheat gluten, we can talk about pumpkin seeds and beans and all these wonderful things that can come from this area that aren’t necessarily cattle, because cattle is a big problem. And there is a lot of dairy, but dairy is a different, a whole different ballgame.
TM: And you can graze here for a lot—not all year, but a good part of the year there’s beautiful grazing here in New England.
JJG: And a lot of farmers are harvesting their winter forage as well, so it’s, yeah… And they’re not feeding their cows corn—and that’s a whole other problem, you know, when you get into this Midwestern, these flat corn-fed, what are they called, the CAFOs.
TM: Yeah, confinement and feedlot operations. [confined animal feeding operations?]
JJG: Thank you, right. So this is the worst nightmare, is the confinement and feedlot. And that’s what really is the problem, not the Vermont grazing. This is a whole different animal.
TM: I have to ask you this, because you’re a caterer and because you feed people. What about all the different food allergies? Do you have people who have requests for just a lot of different specialties?
JJG: Sure, every day. Yeah, in that place we are absolutely, 100 percent like every other food service operator. We are ServSafe certified and licensed. Gluten-free, we do. We will never take a job for anybody who’s anaphylactically allergic to gluten, because there’s a lot of cross-contamination in our kitchen—we do not keep a gluten-free kitchen. We cannot take any job where somebody’s anaphylactically allergic to shellfish, because it does pass through our kitchen even if we don’t put it into a meal. We never use nuts of any kind; they don’t grow here. We also don’t use soy.
TM: Really? Not even like black walnuts?
JJG: No, too expensive, too hard to find. You can go out and pick a black walnut off the tree and roast a couple in a pan and crack them up and enjoy them—
TM: How about those hazelnut bushes?
JJG: No, nothing productive. It’s the wrong climate. We only have sunflower seeds—sunflower and pumpkin.
TM: Well, that solves the nut allergies!
JJG: Yeah, so we actually are a safe kitchen for anybody with any kind of tree or peanut allergy. We don’t use either, ever, or anything that look like them. But we do use legumes. We don’t use pulses—there are no pulses, but there are legumes.
TM: One of the things I’m absolutely fascinated with, of course, is the Once a Week and this idea of mobile meals and everything. Do you see a good future for that as a good part of your business?
JJG: Yeah. Yeah, I really do. The meal delivery is finally something that people are starting to recognize as a business. And there’s recently been some articles about bigger, more national ones, but most of them are shipping frozen food from far away to you in cooler bags. What we do is we cook it, it comes to you right away, and you keep it in your fridge. So it’s not frozen. And we tell you what we recommend eating sooner—you know, if there’s a fish dish we recommend you eat it right away. Things like beef stew are just going to get better as they sit in your fridge. And the idea is that you—it’s like you said before, it’s like having your mom come in and cook a bunch of food, but she doesn’t nag you or tell you to clean your room.
TM: And you don’t have to do the dishes.
JJG: And you don’t have to do the dishes—yes, exactly!
TM: How about the containers and all the things that you ship in? Do you think through that as well?
JJG: Totally. The bags are thermal bags—they can be returned to us and they’re reusable, or you can keep them and use them for your own going to the beach or whatever you want. Most people do return some of them, but we don’t mind if you keep them either. I’d be happy to give you one. They’re really cute. Then the containers are a combination… Everything in the bag is recyclable. And this is where we get into a little bit of politics, because we don’t use compostable because that doesn’t exist here yet. And if we gave people compostable products, they would actually have to throw them away and put them in the garbage. So we give them recyclable/reusable. They’re BPA-free plastic containers; they’re recyclable or reusable. If they return them to us, we will use them again for storage. But most people either use them or recycle them. And we do use some paper products. Those are compostable, and if they go into the garbage, they’re paper. They also can be recycled, and so can the tins that we put baked goods…you know, when we put something like a lasagna that you’re going to put in the oven, it comes in a tray. And I wrestle with this on a daily basis, and I wish we could do tiffin, like they do in India, where you have a thing that you put the food in and then you wash it and you use it again. But at the moment, the way that our country is structured, there would be no legal way to sanitize that stuff and make it viable. So it’s kind of what is the lesser of evils at this point. We can’t use glass. It’s too heavy and it breaks. And I tried. So we switched back to this BPA-free plastic containers and… My dream is that we’ll have curbside composting, and then we can use compostable containers made from the excessive corn in this country.
TM: So I want to make sure, if we have some stations who are picking this up in the Cambridge area and they want to check out Once a Week, how do they find you?
JJG: They can call us at 617-285-0167. They can look online at cuisineenlocale.com, or enlocale.com. We also have a Facebook page, Cuisine en Locale, and Twitter Cuisine en Locale, and Instagram Cuisine en Locale. And you could just come visit us at 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville and party with us and taste a locavore cocktail.
TM: I’m seeing that what you represent, JJ, is food with a conscience, all the way from the soil through the delivery on a bicycle, to your containers. And yes, we still have a lot of work to do to try and figure out how to work with containers and recyclability and everything. But the important thing is you’ve thought about it, and you’ve tried to figure out what’s the best solution. So thank you so much for your wisdom and all your great activism.
JJG: Oh, thank you for eating local. You make an enormous change with your food dollars three times a day. You vote three times a day. It’s a decision, and it can go however you want it to go.
TM: Thank you so much.
JJG: Thank you!
TM: Thank you, JJ. I hope you enjoyed her passion as much as I did. Thank you for listening, and join us next week.
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