Great food comes from great ingredients.

A while back, I was asked to contribute a recipe to the Niman Ranch Cookbook. Having had a long and productive relationship with Bill Niman and his company, I was honored and sent over the requested recipe without hesitation. At George's at the Cove, we share the same values of sustainability, support for family farms and proper animal husbandry as the Niman's. We use their pork exclusively and a good portion of our beef also comes from Niman Ranch.

When I received my copy of the cookbook, I sat down and read it cover to cover, then immediately ordered 30 more as Christmas gifts for my cooks. Not because we have a recipe included, but because five of the six chapters are about the way the animals are raised and the difference between family farms and large scale industrialized farms. Although I have preached this philosophy to our cooks, the book put it in such a clear and thoughtful way it really brought the message home.

There are many factors that come into play when a restaurant is choosing its ingredients, or at least there should be. Our decision to use an ingredient is based on the following criteria:

Does it taste good?

Our job is to make things taste great, and we can't do that if we start with ingredients that don't taste great. It doesn't matter if it's labeled organic, picked in the wee hours of the morning or massaged by Buddhist monks, if it does not taste great we don't buy it.

Where does it come from?

We look in our own backyard before we look elsewhere. We use Chesapeake Seafood and Catalina Offshore here in San Diego for all the incredible local seafood products, including uni, white sea bass, spiny lobsters, grouper, fluke, scallops and swordfish. We have a seafood purveyor in the Bay Area because they have the best North Pacific fish and shellfish. If it's harvested or grown locally it is going to taste better, and will have been handled by less people and spent less time under refrigeration (a flavor killer).

Who grows, harvests or raises it?

We want to know who these people are. We need to build a relationship of trust and respect with them and can't do that without understanding their values. Our relationship with Chesapeake Seafood goes back more than two decades; Dennis, our salesman, actually helped George demolish the pre-existing restaurant he bought to open George's at the Cove.

Our relationship with Chino Farms is also a very important and special one to us. There are too many invaluable relationships to list, but these relationships are what our menus are built from. When a purveyor calls us and says they have a great item we should be using, we need to trust them and not second-guess them. We don't want thoughts like, 'is it something they have too much of and need to move' to occupy our time. We share all this information with our servers so they are well versed in where our products come from and what makes them special.

How much does it cost?

Of course as a business we need to make a profit. Buying great ingredients sometimes costs more and sometimes costs less. If you buy seasonally, you are buying when there is a lot of an item on the market, but you also have to pay for the experience, skill and profit of the purveyor. Can I buy cheaper pork? Absolutely, but there is no comparison between Niman pork and mass-produced pork. Plus, I know our dollars are going to support small independent pork farmers that Bill works with rather than big agri-business.

Just because you don't operate a restaurant, doesn't mean you can't get more value from the food you buy. Like me, I'm sure you want to feed yourself and your family what is best from a taste and nutritional standpoint. So start by asking a lot of questions. Use restaurants as a resource in addition to a place to enjoy meals with family and friends. Don't assume just because it says something fancy on the label or menu that the ingredients are sustainable or that they'll taste great. Build a relationship of trust with the local farmers at your area farmers' market, with grocery store and meat counter managers, then ask them to start carrying items you seek. The consumer is ultimately the one that makes the change. When I chose to use Niman Ranch products at the restaurant, they didn't have any San Diego area accounts. We had to figure out how they were going to ship to us. But as we used their products, word spread among local chefs and today many more restaurants in the area use Niman Ranch meats, resulting in better distribution. It all starts with someone asking the right question.