By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Dec 17, 2007 at 5:36 AM

For better or for worse, factory farming has largely taken the "local" out of grocery shopping. If you're not visiting the farmers markets, it's a good bet your produce hails from all over the country, and in some cases, all over the world.

The same goes for dining out. Restaurants, local or chain, buy their supplies based on a number of decisions, including price and availability. But some executive chefs also make a point to buy and plan their menus taking locally-grown ingredients into consideration. It's a growing trend that Wisconsin suppliers and diners can readily sink their teeth into.

Robert Ash, the executive chef at Kil@Wat, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave., uses apples, lettuces and cheeses from local operations like Roth Käse (Monroe) and Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics (Waterloo), Widmer's Cheese Cellars (Theresa) and Carr Valley Cheese Company (La Valle).

Jason Gorman, the chef at Dream Dance at Potawatomi Casino, 1712 W. Canal St., also uses food from local farms. He points to the lamb he buys from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm in Delavan.

"They have fantastic products for domestic lambs," he says. "They actually found me, but I was so impressed with the quality they had, and being local, we've been using them exclusively for two or three years."

Like Ash, Gorman also has a great relationship with Carr Valley. And when it comes to cooking with beer, he uses Sprecher.

"I've always had an affinity to the underdog -- the hands-on quality of products that aren't mass produced," says Gorman. "My mission is to elevate the quality of Wisconsin cuisines."

Adam Lucks of Comet Café's, 1947 N. Farwell Ave., puts an emphasis on buying locally, too.

"Right now the trend seems to be using organic foods, growing your own food and supporting your community by buying seasonal produce from local farmers and supporting renewable sustainable agriculture versus buying from a large factory farm in Mexico," says Lucks.

"If tomatoes aren't fresh in December, don't buy tomatoes in December. Roots is doing it, Barossa was doing stuff like that. We try our best to buy as much stuff from food distributors that are in Milwaukee and get all our produce delivered fresh daily, as opposed to in bulk."

Buying locally is also good for the environment, eliminating the need for costly and polluting refrigerated transportation. 

Adam Lamb, the chef at Bayshore's new IPic, 5900 N. Port Washington Rd., also follows the trend of what he calls "regional American." He says 30 percent of the food, beer and wine on his menu hails from Milwaukee and Wisconsin: Usinger's sausage, Sprecher soda, New Glarus on tap, Lake Superior white fin, Door County cherries -- a lot of things people in Milwaukee will "get," Lamb says.

Says Lamb, "When you become a regional American company, you really get to invest in the area, so in the summertime we're going to get the kitchen crew out to the farms in the area and connect with producers."

Whenever possible, Lamb says, he uses local, sustainable, organic produce.

"We want to be a socially responsible community partner," he says. "We don't want to come into town and just throw our weight around and think that people will just come. We have to reach out and connect with people. It's such a brand new concept that some people aren't going to get it, so we do want to offer something that is both familiar and satisfying."

Ash, who's worked in Milwaukee for about a year, says he discovered these vendors through word of mouth, as well as through extensive research.

"I like to support the local market," says Ash, who has designed menus across the county and studied internationally, too. "There are great products throughout the world, but you don't really find some of the love and nurturing as the smaller places do."

Compared to some of the larger farms, Ash says these local vendors can focus more on quality.

"It seems like some of these smaller family farms have a tendency to put a little more attention into the product than some of the commercial farms."

Sometimes, that means Ash pays a premium for using Wisconsin products, but he says it depends on the time of year.

"For the most part, they are slightly above the premium, but it's well worth the money," says Ash. "If you start with quality products, you don't have to mess around with it too much."

He says that vibrant, great lettuce, for example, doesn't need to be soaked in heavy dressings. Same thing with meat or cheese.

"With our Strauss lamb loin, we let that be the focal point of the dish, instead of masking it with other flavors."

Ash says shopping locally has been a trend for years, since it both enhances the menu and serves as a great marketing tool.

"We do hear quite a bit of customer feedback," says Ash. He says people appreciate that his restaurant is keeping money in local economy, but even travelers find out that Wisconsin creates great food.

"Look at Packers fans, they're loyal to the end," says Gorman. "Everyone wants to raise their flag and feel proud of where they come from. That's what I'm trying to do, to show that the food we make in Wisconsin can contend with anyone else in the world.

"We have some of the best farms, the best meat purveyors, some of the best cheese makers and produce. We've got everything here in the state, and I think sometimes it doesn't get it's due."

Additionally, Gorman puts emphasis on developing food that's geographically relevant and indigenous to the region.

Says Gorman, "If you're in Wisconsin, you should eat food that's inspired by the history of Wisconsin. If I go to Mexico, I don't want to eat sushi."

To that end, Gorman has developed items like his lobster-based bratwurst and a totally unique portabella mushroom blintz that feel familiar to the area, but are special in a new way.

Making these kinds of decisions about menus and sourcing keep the job interesting for chefs like Ash.

"A menu is not something we think of overnight," he says. "Most menus take at least weeks, if not a couple of months, to come together. We're already working on Spring. We do a lot of research and development."

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.