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Farm to Table, the Sequels

Is there no end to farm-to-table?

I have been writing about farm-to-table since I first dined at Alice’s (Waters) restaurant in Berkeley in the late 1970’s.  Before that, I lived “farm-to-table,” growing up on a hillside farm where we grew fresh vegetables, milked our own cow, free-ranged our chickens, foraged for nuts and berries and raised most of our meat. We did not make cheese, but we did make butter and buttermilk, and my older brothers prepared smoke-and-sugar-cured hams and bacon.

A recent conversation with Chef Paul Virant of Vie restaurant between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport exemplifies how the reality and the dream live on – as do the time and work demands that chefs are placing on themselves and their staffs. Buying local produce from contracted vendors or at farmer’s markets in July is the easy part of FTT.  What happens beyond is another matter.

Extending the Season. Like most farm-to-table chefs, Virant says he works with his local growers to get another week or month or longer from the season, something difficult to do in northern climates. “Some of them are installing hoop houses and greenhouses,” he reports. Without questioning the merit or sincerity of this, it does remind me of how large commercial farmers in Florida and California have told me they are “incented” by Walmart to produce beyond their normal comfort zones.  Another question raised: “Is a hot-house tomato grown by a farmer 10 miles away that much different than a hot-house tomato grown by a farmer in Canada or Mexico and flown in to the local supermarket?”

Preservation vs. Freshness.  A January farm-to-table menu that has only root vegetables can get a little borr-ring for both chef and consumer, so many FTT chefs are turning to preserving foods.  Virant remembers how his grandmother canned vegetables, and now he is doing the same for use in Vie.  “I mainly do water-bath canning of local vegetables,” he says, “along with a small amount of pressure cooking.”  Several chefs I know also take fresh cuts of meat and preserve them as salumi, smoked cuts or rillettes and pâtés.  This option is understandable and delicious, although it omits the “fresh” from the standard battle cry of “fresh and local.” 

Local Preservationists.  Just as a cottage industry of small farmers – often urban folk who had burned out and who sought a more-bucolic lifestyle – arose to meet the demands of farm-to-table chefs and consumers, the coming wave will be a cottage industry of food preservationists beyond the now-ubiquitous cheese makers.  Expect local artisans to preserve or process every fruit or vegetable that grows locally.

DIY in Extreme. Most chefs who visit Blackberry Farm or the Biltmore Estate, both in the Smoky Mountains, come away wanting to grow their own vegetables rather than contract or shop locally for them. A few brave chefs have now added tilling and weeding the lot next door to their repertoires.  One can only imagine, tongue in cheek, a chef’s bag of garden tools to carry along with his kit of knives and cooking tools.  “It’s a dream,” Virant admits, “but nothing to merit a story yet.”  (Especially now that he has opened a second eatery – Vistro – in Hinsdale.) A word of warning: Chef Eberhard Müller abandoned his first love, the kitchen at Lutèce in New York, to go native, becoming a big-time vegetable farmer with wife Paulette Satur on eastern Long Island, supplying Whole Foods markets as well as brother-chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se.

Near Meets Far. Virant embraces, as many chefs are beginning to do, the concept of blending fresh local ingredients with exotic ingredients from afar – “grains, olive oil, salts and spices, a whole lot of stuff from Spain.”  After all, isn’t there a Marco Polo logic in using the best of what you produce locally and blending it with the best of what someone in a distant land produces locally?

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