Local restaurants showcase ‘farm-to-table’ concept in delicious ways
The Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs was a farm-to-table restaurant well before the “farm-to-table” term had ever been coined.
“We did it from the very beginning when we opened in 1977,” said co-founder and current owner Mary Kay Smith.
The Winds’ founders weren’t just buying from local farmers. They WERE local farmers.
“We had our own large garden on Ohio 343 not far from the restaurant, and we worked that garden ourselves for the first three or four years,” Smith said.
The restaurant today sources produce, meats, cheeses, honey and other items from farmers and purveyors from throughout the region, most of them close enough to the restaurant to meet anyone’s definition of local.
FARM-TO-TABLE NO LONGER A FAD
Smith has watched the farm-to-table concept evolve from a quirky, eccentric, almost counter-culture idea in its early years, to a raging, nationwide fad in the decades that followed.
Today is different.
Today, farm-to-table is no longer a fad. It has become virtually a necessity for local, independently owned restaurants serving savvy consumers.
Consider this: The National Restaurant Association every year explores the top menu trends for the coming year by surveying nearly 1,600 professional chefs, all members of the American Culinary Federation, to find out which foods, beverages and culinary concepts will be hot on restaurant menus.
Of the top four food trends for 2016, three involved farm-to-table themes: Locally sourced meats and seafood (the #1 trend), locally grown produce (#3) and “hyper-local sourcing”(#4).
“For the last 10 years, with the increases in food allergies and food sensitivities, people have been tuned in to how food affects them,” Smith said.
“Back in the early days, we were seen as an alternative. But we just wanted to serve real food. Now, the whole world knows how important that is.”
AWARD-WINNING CHEF: LOCALLY GROWN FOODS TAKE SPOTLIGHT
Anne Kearney, executive chef and co-owner of Rue Dumaine restaurant in Washington Twp., brought her commitment to farm-to-table with her when she moved back to her hometown of Dayton more than a decade ago from New Orleans, where she and her husband operated a successful restaurant for several years.
Kearney was named a James Beard Foundation best-chef award winner in the southeastern U.S.in 2002, and has been nominated as a Beard Foundation best-chef semi-finalist in the Great Lakes region for six consecutive years for her work at Rue Dumaine.
“In New Orleans, I went to the farmers market every Tuesday,” Kearney said. “Of course,it helped that New Orleans had a longer growing season than Dayton does.”
The first couple of years after moving back, Kearney grew vegetables and fruits on her parents’ farm.
So when she and husband Tom Sand opened Rue Dumaine in 2007, she knew that local produce and meats would be a centerpiece of the restaurant’s concept.
In all of her menus, printed or distributed via email, local ingredients are marked by asterisks and are featured prominently in main dishes, side dishes, salads and desserts.
“I like to know where my food comes from, and my customers do, too,” Kearney said.
She takes particular delight in expanding her diners’ culinary horizons by keepingit close to home.
- Anne Kearney
The customer then tastes a locally grown beet that has been roasted and incorporated into a Rue Dumaine dish.
More often than not, it’s a revelation.
And Kearney still likes to get her feet muddy.
Last spring, she spent a full three hours, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., harvesting small spring carrots from the ground at Hungry Toad Farm, located only five miles from the restaurant.
She helped dig, wash, sort, and bundle — and ended up getting her first choice of carrots for her restaurant.
“I knew I needed 20 pounds, and I used every carrot in those 20 pounds in preparing dishes for three separate events,” Kearney said.
“She’s the only one who does that,” said Michael Malone, Hungry Toad Farm’s owner.
Malone has what he calls a “boutique operation” of three-and-a-half acres, focusing on produce such as heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, kale, microgreens, fava beans, a dozen varieties of garlic, and the aforementioned carrots.
He sells at a couple of farmers markets in addition to a small number of restaurants.
He has seen, and lived, the farm-to-table concept, and he’s encouraged about the future.
“Consumers are changing,” Malone said. “Twenty years ago, I couldn’t sell organic at a sustainable price. But consumers are looking at qualities now such as local,fresh, organic, and they’re willing to pay for quality. We’ve just got to keep educating the consumers.”
Fellow grower Doug Seibert, co-owner of Peach Mountain Organics near Spring Valley in Greene County, also has seen consumer interest and awareness surge in recent years.
And that has resulted in growing demand for his organic vegetables. He sells at a farmers market in Yellow Springs in addition to serving a handful of local restaurants, including The Winds Cafe, Sunrise Cafe in Yellow Springs,and Meadowlark restaurant in Washington Twp.
“I sellout every week,” Seibert said. “Demand has continued to rise.”
Seibert initially approached The Winds’ Mary Kay Smith in 1992 because he had a “bumpercrop of spinach” that year, and he offered to sell some to the restaurant.
Smith and her Winds co-founders bought that first batch, and continued buying it, starting a farm-to-restaurant-table relationship that persists 24 years later.
FARM-TO-TABLE: THE GOOD AND THE BAD
Farm-restaurant relationships aren’t always sunny, Seibert said.
In difficult growing seasons, chefs don’t like the inconsistency they can encounter in local produce, and farmers don’t like the inconsistency of restaurant ordering —a big order one week, nothing the next.
Kearney pointed out that it’s not only more expensive to buy local products, “they’r ealso more expensive to work with.”
Vegetables haven’t been triple-power-washed,and they aren’t all cut in uniform pieces, as vegetables that have been purchased from large restaurant-supply companies.
But the quality just isn’t the same.
Jack Skilliter, executive chef and co-founder of Corner Kitchen in Dayton’s Oregon District, said showcasing the bounty of local farmers resonates with his restaurant’s diners, and with him.
Skilliter recounts items he obtained from just one of his farmer-suppliers early in the growing season: “delicious speckled bibb lettuce, red romaine, little gem romaine, red leaf lettuce, gooseberries, dill, parsley, oregano, savory, snap peas, red spring onions, rhubarb, garlic scapes and kale.”
The strength of the farm to table movement is growing Skilliter said.
“I find the most exciting part of sourcing items locally and seasonally is the creativity that it can allow. Desserts like our strawberry rhubarb milkshake, cocktails like the gooseberry margarita, and a variety of daily food specials bring all of these ingredients together for everyone to enjoy.”