The farm-to-table concept is more than just a passing fad; rather, it’s a movement here for the long haul. While some restaurants are in their infancy in terms of creating farm-to-table business models, perhaps starting with a few menu items that feature local foods or a installing compost bins, others are far ahead of the curve.This sampling illustrates restauranteurs at the top of their game on the latest local and sustainability-focused techniques and best practices, leading farm-to-table into the future of our food culture.
Farm-to-Table Fusion, Taking the Seasonal Menu to New Heights & Foraging/Forging Community Ties
In parts of the South, where agricultural food-lore is oftentimes an integral part of the history and identity of a place, farm-to-table practices are incorporated naturally into many restaurants’ M.O. This is especially true for the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh) area, where local farms are well supported and “sustainable agriculture” is not just a combination of empty buzzwords but a way of life. Lantern of Chapel Hill is a microcosm of this locavore food enlightenment, unique in its farm-to-table approach that extends above and beyond your run of the mill American bistro focus.
Instead, Lantern’s gastronomic leanings mark a unique fusion of historically North Carolinian and Asian flavors. Recently awarded as the “Best Chef of the Southeast” by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, Chef Andrea Reusing has taken a leap outside the Southern cuisine box and brought high end Asian cuisine to a whole new level. With local, sustainably raised, farm fresh ingredients as the touchpoint, she’s landed a spot on Grist’s “15 Green Chefs” list, while Lantern holds the title of one of the nation’s “best farm-to-table restaurants” by Gourmet Magazine.
Reusing’s genuine dedication to a strictly seasonal menu and commitment to foraging and finding the freshest, top quality local ingredients sets her apart from other self-proclaimed farm-to-table chefs.
Katrina Heron of the Daily Beast comments, “Reusing is an extreme forager, with a nose like a hound dog’s, on an exuberant but calculated mission to track down good things to cook and to eat. Luckily, she landed in prime territory.”
This is clearly not just a job that Reusing leaves when she walks out that kitchen door. Instead she is constantly hunting down mushroom foragers, fishermen, cheesemongers and other food artisans while perusing the farmers markets at ungodly hours just to be sure to get, quite literally, the cream of the crop.
Reusings takes this passion beyond the proverbial pots and pans and out into the real world, serving on the board of the Center of Environmental Farming Systems as well as the Chefs Collaborative, organizations which work to create a more just, environmentally and economically viable food system for North Carolina and beyond. She shares the secrets of her locavore trade in her poignant cookbook “Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes,” named one of 2011’s most notable cookbooks by The New York Times. The book encourages enjoying food in the moment, or seasons, with Asian fusion, mouth-watering titles such as fried okra with Indian spices and hot tomato relish, or wild shrimp and peas with fresh curry leaves and coconut rice.
Jumping on the Local Food Distribution Network Bandwagon & Incorporating Sustainable Design
Up North in Great Barrington, Mass., Allium Restaurant + Bar illustrates how restaurants can better collaborate with their local farming community to more efficiently distribute local product. They belong to an organization called Berkshire Grown which strives to “keeps farmers farming!” by supporting and promoting local agriculture as a vital part of the Berkshire community, economy and landscape. These distribution and marketing networks that connect farmers, artisans and restaurants are becoming commonplace in areas of the country with a strong sustainable agriculture scene. They are further boosted as the combination of food entrepreneurs and user-friendly farmer technology proliferates, and consumers demand to know where their food comes from.
As Allium founder Nancy Thomas explains, “Farm-to-table translates to getting the best-quality produce, meats, cheeses and other local products to create a superior product for our guests… As we continue to participate in the Berkshire-Grown movement, we like to pass those values onto our patrons.”
Allium is lucky to take advantage of being a part of a larger unit, Mezze Restaurant Group, whose other businesses are committed to purchasing local ingredients from local food artisans and farmers. This has allowed the restaurant to have better infrastructure and support when on the path of “going farm-to-table.” Logistically, many small, independent restaurants consider the task on their own too high of a risk because of all the players involved in sourcing, growing, animal raising and distribution that stand in direct opposition to larger, single supply chain corporate food providers.
The establishment further set itself apart by demonstrating how easy it can be to build a sustainably designed restaurant. All Allium floor sealers and paints are low VOC, decorative wood is sourced from sustainably forested woods, pressboard is formaldehyde-free, kitchen countertops are made of post-consumer recycled paper, and 80 percent of building materials and case goods were recycled.
Hiring a Sustainability Guru & Standing Firm on an Overfished-Free Menu
In the farm-to-table mecca of the Bay Area, one restaurant is defining what it means to serve the triple threat of succulent, sustainable sushi. When Tataki Sushi Bar decided to tackle the sustainability monster, they did something most establishments wouldn’t initially consider – they hired a sustainability expert. Chefs and co-owners Kin Lui and Raymond Ho approached Casson Trenor, a sustainability advisor to organizations such as Greenpeace and FishWise, as well as author of “Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time.”
Trenor tells the San Francisco Chronicle that when he recommended Lui and Ho take several items off their original draft seafood menu because they were unsustainable, “They didn’t even blink. That’s how I knew they were serious. I’ve had other restaurateurs call me about trying to do this. But they’ve been more curious, rather than earnest.”
That’s why you won’t find sushi staples like Bluefin tuna, octopus, hamachi, blue crab, red snapper and other species deemed overfished on Tataki’s menu, as they closely follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines. With leadership like Casson, Lui and Ho who believe strongly in incorporating sustainability throughout their restaurant’s business model and menu, Tataki proves not only is this strict menu possible, it’s also fundamental to “preserving the art and beauty of sushi for generations.”
Other sushi restaurants are following suit, including Oregon’s Bamboo Sushi, which is wind-powered and serves antibiotic-free fish; Mashiko, whose farmed fish is only sourced from zero-ocean waste operations; and Miya’s Sushi, a restaurant with an invasive species focus.
Whether it’s supporting sustainable seafood or finding that freshly butchered grass-fed steak that you as a diner are after, be comforted that farm-to-table is sprouting its way permanently into American high end cuisine.
423 West Franklin St.
Chapel Hill, NC 27516
42/44 Railroad St.
Great Barrington, Mass. 01230
2815 California St.
San Francisco, Calif. 94115