WORDS & IMAGE: KATE WEINER
This article, originally published in Bone & Seed, is in celebration of May Day, a springtime festival that honors farm workers. At Loam, however, we're doing May Day all month. Stay tuned for articles on soil-driven cuisine, sustainable agriculture, and DIY garden projects throughout May as we collectively explore ways to heal our environment.
Last summer, over lunch with a friend at a popular locavore spot in Portland, we watched as waiters carried platters of short rib hash and fried chicken from the smoky open kitchen to the lush garden patio. Something in that moment— in the perpetual provision of enough meat to sate a Ukrainian wedding party — muddled our understanding of what it means to foster a sustainable connection with the land.
My friend is an anthropologist and I work in farm-to-table events; each of us has long since lost our ability to enjoy a good meal uninspired by deep thought. What difference did provenance make if a restaurant relied on carbon-producing livestock to shape its menu? What kinds of values — social, environmental, economical — made a farm-to-table venue truly farm-to-table?
In recent years, the sheer surfeit of farm-to-table eateries has made finding a succinct answer to what farm-to-table is (and what it should be) an enervating endeavor. And so to sort the green-washed from the green, I reached out to several chefs from across the country who are passionate about making farm-to-table meaningful.
I don’t think of farm-to-table as a trend. It’s just a standard.
As the traveling sous chef for Dinner Lab, Chris Nichols is responsible for contacting purveyors, scoping out local markets, and scouring for ingredients in the company’s 31 hubs. “Farm-to-table is really about understanding what a farmer’s perspective is and doing it justice,” Chris shares. “That passion and desire to grow or to raise animals translates through your food. If someone spends an hour talking to you about their food and then gives you some, there's an intensity to it worth honoring.” Throughout our conversation, Chris returns to the memory of the first time he tasted asparagus fresh from the ground. “It was mind-blowing.” And once you’ve tasted a vegetable that fresh — latticed with loamy soil and flavored by the sun — a standard has been set. Any chef worth his salt, Chris argues, will do what they can to maintain that kind of quality. “Every time you order produce from Sysco, it’s super sad… a little piece of you always dies,” Chris laughs. “That’s why I don’t think of farm-to-table as a trend. It’s just a standard.”
Much like Chris, Deepak Saxena of Indian fusion food truck DesiPDX considers farm-to-table a new standard. “I feel like where I spend my money, whether personal or business, is one of the most important choices I make as a well-off, middle class person and as a small business owner,” Deepak tells me. “I want consumers to support me versus going to a big chain restaurant. I don't think I can have that expectation without also walking the walk and in turn supporting other small businesses as part of building up my business.” Farm-to-table isn’t at the crux of Deepak’s marketing tool kit — it’s simply how business is done. For Deepak, collaborating with farms “comes down to being creative with and challenged by an ever-changing palette of ingredients because I never know what will be available each week from the farmers I work with.” Easter egg radishes the color of hibiscus flowers, Thai purple basil flecked with black streaks — Deepak has learned to turn these sweet seasonal finds into herbaceous raitas and spicy pickles ripe for serving with his signature pakora waffles.
It helps that Portland is home to a rich resurgence in farm-to-table cooking. Deepak is part of a growing coterie of locally-minded chefs eager to make use of Oregon’s vibrant veggies, from the blue-black marionberries that flood farm stands in early July to the succulent sunchokes that brighten autumn. At the raw food stand Eatin’ Alive, founder Paige Common and her crew serve up toothsome beet burgers and zucchini noodle salads inspired by their fellow farmers market vendors. As Eatin’ Alive’s representative Kailyn notes, their farm-to-table approach is rooted in “using fresh produce from local farmers and creating relationships with local suppliers and vendors [to] promote local cultivation, creativity and consumption when it comes to food and living in the 21st century.”
The reality of the alternative food movement is far more diverse and the potential of farm-to-table to rewire the food system isn’t small potatoes.
At The Side Yard, a nomadic supper club and catering company that tends to several farms in Portland’s North Cully neighborhood, Founder and Chef Stacey Givens similarly celebrates farm-to-table as a way to help consumers and chefs cultivate a greater sense of intimacy with where their food comes from. “I feel like I’m bringing people into my home when I cook for them” Stacey says. “They get to know the story of the farm through a meal.” Many of her hyper-local events—from the summer film series to six-course suppers created in collaboration with Portland chefs—transpire on-site. Diners can slather biscuits with calendula butter in view of the bright-hued edible flowers.
Although farm-to-table has flourished on the coasts (see: Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and Blue Hill in Pocantico Hills, NY) the movement is making inroads in the landlocked states too. During his tenure as the Executive Chef at Mizuna in Denver, Dinner Lab Chef de Cuisine Stephen McCary fostered long-lasting relationships with local farmers. “We worked with a farmer that grew for Mizuna. The first year we used him, he would tell us what was growing and we would write a menu that utilized his product. The years after, we were able to sit with him in the winter with seed catalogs and forecast what we would grow or serve the following year.” In creating the space for the farmer to drive the menu, Stephen was able to ensure that Mizuna’s fare stayed seasonal, fresh, and inspired. “To me,” Stephen says, “farm-to-table is a chef and local farmer working together to keep freshness of the product straight from the farm after harvest to a restaurant with minimal processing, storing, and packaging.”
This collaborative spirit comes through in Dinner Lab Chef Brad Rieschick’s inventive cooking in Kansas City. “We work with local purveyors whenever possible. Not produce companies that ship carrots and potatoes from South America. Not meat companies that try to provide an inexpensive product by hastily butchering animals. But true artisans; people who have devoted their lives to curating a good product, regardless of the cost,” Brad said. In light of the Midwest’s “readily available supply of the country's best beef, pork, corn, soy and wheat,” Brad argues, “we have a responsibility to utilize and showcase those products in as many avenues as possible. A farm-to-table restaurant is one that not only draws from nearby resources, but also tries to push the idea that we are not reliant on big box stores and supermarkets to eat well.” Brad’s Midwestern take on farm-to-table is a potent reminder of the both the land’s fertility and the farmer’s labor. “I had the fortune of working in a restaurant in Smithville Missouri - Justus Drugstore - that listed every farm and every product procured therein on the back of the menu. When people came to that restaurant they were not only struck by innovative, delicious food, but they were also introduced to the idea that food could come from someone's backyard, the guy they saw in the farmers market the week before, roots and branches that were growing in their own backyard…”
Let people use it as a marketing tool. Let them make money off the term. If they sustain even one local farmer, they are helping the cause.
What strikes me most about my conversation with these chefs is how few share my cynicism about the misuse of “farm-to-table.” Although Stephen conceded that “the term is becoming cliché and overused,” he was hopeful that “if the farmer could get with local chefs to explain the quality and importance of local product, it would let restaurant employees see the hard work, love and patience that goes into growing fruits and vegetables.” And as Brad argued, farm-to-table’s trendiness underscores its ability to serve as a tool of real change. “While I don't support giant corporations abusing buzzwords in order to make a profit, there is no denying the impact they have made to consumers. People care now, more than they may ever have, about where their food comes from. Let people use it as a marketing tool. Let them make money off the term. If they sustain even one local farmer, they are helping the cause.”
I’m frustrated at how often farm-to-table is used as shorthand for conveying a culinary aesthetic geared toward upper-middle-class whites. The reality of the alternative food movement is far more diverse and the potential of farm-to-table to rewire the food system isn’t small potatoes. In talking to farm-to-table pioneers across the U.S., it was heartening to be reminded that the movement’s crabgrass-like momentum is testament to a pluralistic understanding of what farm-to-table can be. Deepak’s fusion food truck is as much a contribution to the farm-to-table canon as Dinners Lab’s inspired supper club. Eatin’ Alive’s wholesale raw goods have the potential to keep consumers engaged long after they’ve savored the kind of farm-fresh meal that Brad serves up at his storied dinners. There’s a passion to the farm-to-table movement that persists past the term’s saturation point. “There has to be a lot of emphasis on strive and desire and drive,” Chris said. “That is completely the spirit of farm-to-table — it’s having that drive to meet farmers and get our minds blown by how someone else is doing something.”