By Michael Klein, USA Rice
CROWLEY AND LAKE CHARLES - Chefs, quality assurance, and nutrition and marketing specialists representing almost 2,000 restaurants from well-known brands, along with food writers from top industry publications came to Louisiana rice country last week for the third iteration of USA Rice's Foodservice Farm & Mill Tours to learn how the mighty grain they know, eat, and serve gets to their kitchens.
"We start them out on the farm, and for many, it is their first time on any farm, let alone a rice farm," said Cameron Jacobs, USA Rice manager of domestic promotion who organized the tour. "Then we take them through the mill and walk through the entire process - from a truck pulling up with rough rice to bags of milled rice being palletized and heading out to market. It's fun to go on the journey with them."
New this year was accreditation hours for attendees from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics which included presentations on the history, plant anatomy, and nutritional profile of rice, and the latest in rice uses, applications across all foodservice dayparts, and foodservice trends for rice.
The chefs, all of whom were interested in sourcing ingredients as locally as possible, were very interested in learning about U.S.-grown jasmine, and the timing looked to be perfect.
G F & P Zaunbrecher Farms worked overtime harvesting some long grain so that the chefs could take part in harvest of their brand new Clearfield jasmine (CLJ01). Unfortunately, rain came the morning of the tour and kept the combines idle. But brothers Fred, Bill, Paul, and Phillip escorted the group out into the fields to let them smell the aroma, and to explain to them how rice is grown and harvested, and talk about the challenges of being a rice farmer and all the conservation steps U.S. rice farmers proudly undertake.
As lightening danced around the field the group peppered the brothers with questions about everything from water use to crawfish, and from ratoon cropping to tariffs.
USA Rice's Steve Linscombe, who while head of the LSU AgCenter Rice Breeding Program, had a hand in developing the jasmine varieties before them, also attended the tour and fielded questions from the chefs on variety development, plant pathology, and more.
"I wish we could have let them ride in the combines with us, but Mother Nature just didn't cooperate with us today," said Fred Zaunbrecher, who led this portion of the tour. "But we let them sit up there and take photos and we got a lot of good questions. I think they left with a much better understanding of what it takes for us to grow a healthy and sustainable crop."
After a lunch of jambalaya back at the farm, the group set off for downtown Crowley for a visit to Supreme Rice Mill where vice president John Morgan gave an overview of the top export markets for U.S. rice and explained the milling process before Brent Jones, quality control manager, led the group on a tour of the mill highlighting the high efficiency and food safety standards employed.
The group then headed across the street to the Falcon Rice Mill where Rough Rice Supervisor Dana Vidrine gave them a rice grading lesson and CEO Robbie Trahan talked about the history of rice and rice milling in Louisiana and took them through his mill, ending with a tasting of four Louisiana rices: long grain white, medium grain white, jasmine, and Blanca Isabel's purple rice.
The final stop on the tour was the Grosse Savanne Waterfowl and Wildlife Lodge where the participants learned about conservation and the delicate balance between rice farming and the environment. Executive Chef George Sittig prepared an exquisite meal of all local ingredients, including rice from the lodge's own farm in both his gumbo and main course of Louisiana red fish.
"I'm very pleased USA Rice let Louisiana represent the industry this year for the chefs," said Acadia rice farmer Jackie Loewer, who attended a welcome dinner for the chefs the night before the tours. "The chefs and writers were a sharp group of young men and women who were clearly hungry for knowledge - and you know when you come to Louisiana, you don't stay hungry for long - feeding you is our specialty."
"It was so interesting to see the entire process from the field to my fork," said Molly McGrath, chef and culinary director for Roti Modern Mediterranean. "Rice is a staple in our restaurants and we exclusively use U.S. rice, but we don't currently call it out, and after spending such quality time with the industry, I think we should change that."
Jacobs says while the program is obviously a great educational opportunity, it's really about building relationships with key influencers.
"Restaurants can be focal points of communities, gathering spots, and sources of inspiration for home cooks," he said. "The more restaurants we get using U.S. rice - and calling it out - the broader we can spread our messages and awareness of our industry, and maybe change the purchasing habits of a consumer who thinks, 'if my favorite restaurant is using U.S.-grown rice, I'm going to also.'"
Tour participants represented almost 2,000 restaurants from Outback, Fleming's, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's Italian Grill, P.F. Chang's, and Roti Mediterranean brands and participated in a video documenting the tours. The video will be premiered at the 2018 USA Rice Outlook Conference in San Diego, California this December.