The United States is a nation that’s always in a state of re-imagination and reinvention, constantly forging new technologies and trends that cover every facet of our life. Today, I want to talk about another type of revolution of sorts that our country has gone through, a culinary revolution. Maybe you aren’t aware of this revolution, as it doesn’t involve armed conflict, but, in its own way, it’s as contentious as any other movement in our history: namely What, Where and How we eat.
The resurgence of farm-to-table has been sweeping through not just trendy hot spots but even reaching more conventional cities as well. Some might not even realize that the rise in popularity of farm-to-table is not a new trend, but one that was started in the 1970’s and has been in full swing for quite awhile.
You might think that farm-to-table is a new concept in the restaurant world, but it’s something that has a long and flavorful history here in the U.S. As a lifelong restaurant “junkie”, I’ve had the opportunity to experience some of the east coast’s earliest farm-to-table restaurants – more on that later.
In 1971, Alice Waters, a recent Berkeley grad, opened the doors to a restaurant named Chez Panisse. Located in Berkeley, California, a hub of counterculture thought, it became the incubator for the farm-to-table movement. Waters was fixated on the concept of only foraging local vegetables and buying from local farmers.
At Chez Panisse, foods were simplified and reduced to their core elements. The ingredients were the narrative: where they came from, who made them and what they did during the process. This might seem like a simple and obvious idea for a restaurant, but I can personally attest that this was not the case at that time.
“Farm-to-table was a revolutionary development because it represented a reversal of what “well-off” fine dining people expected.”
Throughout the 50’s , 60’s and 70’s, fine dining (especially on the East Coast) usually meant French or a hybrid continental style. This kind of cooking concentrated on technique, not ingredients, and was heavily influenced by sauces. Thus, Waters’ ideas were truly revolutionary. Rather than “how many things can I make with canned peaches”, the question became “where can I find a fresh juicy peach”.
Farm-to-table was a revolutionary development because it represented a reversal of what “well-off” fine dining people expected. For centuries, the whole purpose of being wealthy (from a food perspective) was to be free from the constraints of season and locality – to eat things not available to ordinary people. While the average peasant relied on seasonal produce, the mark of privilege was to consume exotic products from far away. It could be construed as somewhat comical to many a farmer or settler that we currently desire to eat food and produce that’s grown locally. Throughout most of history, there really wasn’t another way to eat!
“There I met the chef and owner, Dennis Foy. One meal was all I needed. I had never tested food with such flavor.”
My own personal experiences convinced me that there were changes being made in restaurant kitchens both near and far and in the early 1980’s, I had a chance encounter with a soon to be restruantour legend, Dennis Foy. Our family belonged to a local swimming club in a rural part of Morris County, NJ called Copper Springs. Copper Springs was situated among small local farms and bordered by a large nature preserve. It was here on our summer retreats that I discovered the Tarragon Tree, a restaurant that was to achieve legendary status with food enthusiasts. There I met the chef and owner, Dennis Foy. One meal was all I needed. I had never tested food with such flavor. The Tarragon Tree was a citadel for the farm-to-table experience. As for me, it was the first time I had ever eaten a quail’s egg. One that was so fresh, it had been laid that morning.
Dennis has a passion for local products and there is no question that he is the “founding father” of East Coast farm-to-table (as Alice Waters was on the West Coast). As an accomplished painter, Mr. Foy combines his artistic sensibilities of color and texture with his commitment to local sourcing. As a result, he has created memorable kitchens in various settings. From Manhattan to his current restaurant (D’floret) in the quaint river town of Lambertville, New Jersey, his passion for local ingredients has never waned.
“What matters is the farmer, the chef, the food, the plate. It is an old way of cooking – the alchemy of seasonality and heat.”
I asked him once about his legacy and he said, ”The reason people are so keen on farm-to-table is to have access to food where they know the source. What matters is the farmer, the chef, the food, the plate. It is an old way of cooking – the alchemy of seasonality and heat.” That, my reader, is farm-to-table.
One other encounter that dramatically changed my palate was a meal at the River Cafe, on the waterfront in Brooklyn, NY in 1981. The opening of the restaurant by Larry Forgione in 1979 looms large in farm-to-table history. He connected with local farmers all over the metropolitan area and thus had a bounty of fresh products to provide some of the most memorable meals in taste and freshness that I ever had. He even famously coined the term ‘free-range chicken’ that is so ubiquitous today.
You might be thinking that these stories and anecdotes are interesting, but what about the farm-to-table concept today? In as much as farm-to-table is all about local, it’s time that we go local and look at its development in the south with some emphasis on our own backyard here in the Lowcountry. As we have seen, all the pieces of farm-to-table, local sourcing and seasonality, were in many places by the 80’s. What occurred thereafter is an intensification of the prevailing concepts.
If you think about it, farm-to-table is defined by negative precepts – no food from outside a region, no food deemed unhealthy, less meat, no ecologically suspect seafood. Yet, these negatives create a positive simplicity. Throughout the south, the farm-to-table revolution is in full swing. Chefs are cooking on the basis of taste and flavor, not exotic origins or novelty for its own sake.
“You can sum up farm-to-table philosophy this way: you don’t want the biggest reddest strawberry, but you do want the sweetest, freshest, most local strawberry!”
Don’t think ingredients matter? Sean Brock, the highly regarded and award winning chef formerly of Husk in Charleston (there are three other Husk locations – Greenville, Savannah and Nashville) tells this story about ingredients. He made a properly prepared plate of a local favorite of rice and beans and it tasted like cardboard and paste. The problem was the mediocrity of the supermarket quality ingredients. Preparing the dish with ingredients of almost forgotten breeds like Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island red cowpeas made all the difference. When people only use local products, ingredients create a dish as it was meant to taste.
At Husk, Sean Brock turned sourcing on its head by bringing back nearly extinct legumes and grains and using products only grown or made below the Mason Dixon line. You can sum up farm-to-table philosophy this way: you don’t want the biggest reddest strawberry, but you do want the sweetest, freshest, most local strawberry!
Farm-to-table in the South now means daily changing menus and scratch kitchens (where everything is made in-house) and casual settings. Sometimes, I miss all the pomp and circumstance of the “old” days, but in the end, it’s the flavor and emphasis on healthy food that counts.
As you have probably realized, a farm-to-table concept is in complete harmony with the concerns of sustainability and the environment in the 21st century. Ideally, farm-to-table refers to a small, environmentally responsible enterprise opposed to large-scale processors of meat, dairy and produce. There is both an aesthetic and environmental side to the concept. The aesthetic emphasis is obvious: taste is enhanced by seasonality and nearby location. Rather than vegetables from far off places like Peru available all year, farm-to-table vegetables are limited in season and origin. What’s better than eating local asparagus at the height of its season – something so sweet and tender that you can eat it raw? Yes, you might have cravings for vegetables that are out of season but experiencing true taste and flavor will teach you to wait. Why eat food that tastes like something else? Why would you ever choose a sad looking industrial grown carrot at the supermarket when you can experience your own personal farm-to-table by purchasing a vibrant carrot just plucked from the soil by the hands that grew it from your local farmers market? The recent advent of modern garden co-op’s and local farm-sharing programs only assist in keeping local produce local.
“The value of seasonality, diversity of ingredients, the opportunity to create different types of food with what is available – all to produce the most flavorful food possible – can never be overestimated when discussing farm-to-table.”
The environmental side of farm-to-table is far sweeping. Plants and animals nurtured with little or no chemicals, no bio-engineered fertilizer or pesticides and lower transportation impacts on infrastructure. Just think of the reduced carbon footprints when food doesn’t have to be shipped far and wide. A note should be made here that not all local produce is organic and chemical free, but cutting the distance produce is shipped is definitely a step in the right direction. Restaurants following a farm-to table ethos pay attention to where they obtain their ingredients and how they are produced. They try to make “in-house” much of what they serve if not all such as pasta, pickles, charcuterie and the like. Chef driven farm-to-table restaurants have recognized the value of building relationships with local farmers to develop a seasonal menu. The value of seasonality, diversity of ingredients, the opportunity to create different types of food with what is available – all to produce the most flavorful food possible – can never be overestimated when discussing farm-to-table.
I hope this personal perspective has provided some insight into farm-to-table dining and how it has evolved over the years. There’s a lot of tasty, healthy food out there – I hope your interest is peaked to try some! In the words of the person who started it all (and is still hard at work!) Alice Waters had this to say: “Only slow eating can teach us the things that really matter – care, beauty, concentration, discernment, sensuality – all the best that humans are capable of, but only if we take the time to think about what we are eating and how it is produced. So, slow down and enjoy every bite – a practice we can implement everyday”.