I sought out Rosemary’s, an Italian restaurant in the West Village, for its rooftop garden and locavore-friendly fare. As a vegetarian and gardener myself, I must admit my weakness for these types of modern, local foodie establishments and penchant for paying the often high premium that comes with them. My short walk from the subway station up Sixth Avenue toward the restaurant revealed a variety of newly developed markets, cafes, restaurants and shops catering specifically to these trendy organic and local themes—Rosemary’s appeared to be but a drop in this sea of green. While the exterior was humbly unremarkable, with a scalloped awning plainly stating its name, the interior was strikingly beautiful. I entered the nearly empty restaurant for an early lunch and was seated at a small table next to the tall, sunny windows. The decor gave off the vibe of a cozy, rustic farmhouse kitchen, with natural woods, exposed brick, and strings of white lights adorning the high, open ceilings. It was, admittedly, quite charming. However, the longer I sat, tucked away in my sunbeam in the corner of the restaurant, picking at my carefully arranged plate of roasted fall vegetables and sipping the housemade apple grapefruit juice, the more I felt as though I was living in a Pottery Barn window display. Rosemary’s seemed to be having an image crisis of sorts. Something about being surrounded by designer decked professionals, casually discussing business over expensive lamb paninis made the falsity of Rosemary’s initial vibe more glaring, though I was not yet quite sure what form it was, instead, about to take.
I asked my waiter, Josh, about the rooftop garden and he encouraged me to go up and explore. I climbed the stairs to the roof, anticipating an enormous urban oasis with fruits, vegetables, chickens, and bees—all things I had, in my research of the place, been led to expect. Granted, my high expectations were partially unfounded given that I was visiting past the primary growing season and then again, the place is located in the middle of New York City. Still, when I pushed open the heavy door and took in Rosemary’s famous, state-of-the-art urban farm, I was undeniably disappointed. A few rows of lettuce, chard, eggplant and herbs were comically decorated with miniature pumpkins, clearly foreign. It was a smaller space than I imagined, and there was no sign of a chicken coop or beehive frames anywhere.
When I returned to my table, I wondered aloud to my waiter about how the restaurant’s mission to use their own produce is sustained year round. Of course, the nature of a seasonal restaurant is to be, at all times, contingent on the true realities of food production—that is, weather, water, location, and season: factors that are often lost or overlooked in modern supermarkets. According to Josh, the chef supplements their farm’s supply with that from vendors at the Union Square farmers market, in attempt to bridge this logistically unavoidable gap. At this point, the economic and ethical implications of such a system as Rosemary’s were only beginning to dawn on me. I was, for the most part, satisfied with my experience and yet why did something still feel so off?
Where We Go From Here
Despite the fact that many of Rosemary’s marketed ideals seemed to check out on my visit to at least some extent, I still left the restaurant that afternoon feeling uneasy. Why is it that consumers are expected to pay such a high premium for locally grown and prepared food? The efforts of food activists who have fought to reduce the negative environmental and health impacts of our diets are commodified and profited from in these types of highly stylized businesses. I find this to be intrinsically wrong, despite being admittedly guilty of supporting such contradictory establishments.
One often speaks of the concept of authenticity in terms of what is real and what is fake, an object of authenticity of course being the former. It is as though an ideal—in this case, the broad ideals of organic, local, urban agriculture—cannot be seriously regarded without this subjective quality: authenticity. But for something that is, by nature, so subjective, it becomes hard to draw the line or determine if and when such a distinction is even necessary. My uneasiness upon visiting the restaurant was founded in the impression that authenticity of Rosemary’s mission and purpose was lost through its meticulously hand-picked decor and limited supply of actual, homegrown produce. Rather, it appeared that Rosemary’s was merely attending to the demand of urbanites, many of whom are only concerned with aesthetics—not the principles of quality food and environmental stewardship that I had hoped for. This therefore begs the question of whether the authenticity of the local food movement can truly be preserved in these gentrified, branded neighborhoods that seem so eager to simply capitalize on this new sea of green. Sharon Zukin, a sociology and urban studies scholar, would attribute this to the loss of origins—simply, a location’s history—and a modern shift to what merely amounts to an “experience of origins.” This new “experience” has consumers consciously succuming (or should I say flocking) to a seductive, stylized environment that is likely both safer and more expensive than the original locale: a canvas for the new face that has been imposed. That said, is it necessarily safe to assume that these changes are inherently bad? Is this “image crisis” in areas like New York’s West Village truly a crisis and thereby the antithesis of the authenticity sought by once dominant artists, writers, and activists? The Mabel Dodges, Margaret Sangers and Bessie Smiths of an ideal, progressive New York?
What can we learn about this transition from a chic, limitedly farm-to-table restaurant in the Village? When Rosemary’s made its debut on Greenwich Street for the first time in the summer of 2012, it rose literally out of the ashes of its previous tenant: a party-supply store destroyed in a fire. The defining principles of the organic, local food movement, inspired by the likes of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, seem to have been distant compared to those of the image obsessed consumer market and forces of gentrification. While we watch the low income communities of New York face issues of food insecurity and nutrition related diseases at markedly higher rates than the wealthy and yet continuously enable such discrepancies in the form of these greenwashed restaurants, the problem becomes not only a question of cultural shifts but also one of ethical responsibility. Rosemary’s alone will not provide the solution. As a small component of a larger societal shift, however, restaurants like Rosemary’s, along with initiatives in the political, educational, production, and community based realms, provide great hope. The answers to our many questions may not be clear of yet, but in asking and considering the conflicts at hand, we become ever closer to an informed and satisfying resolution.
Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.