One of the first things I did before I opened the doors to my restaurant was RESEARCH. Of course, that included the standard go-to’s of demographics, competition, foot traffic, etc., but I also researched the local growers and producers in the area. Why? Well, one of the big trends in culinary over the last several years was and is the concept of supporting local agriculture, aka the “farm to table” movement. As consumers become more educated about ingredients, they are looking for healthier alternatives to mass produced items. Buzzwords like local, sustainable, organic, and non-gmo have become important to them.
Through my scouting of the local scene, and after meeting with a handful of local growers, I sat down with a couple, and it was love at first sight (culinarily speaking, of course). You know the adage “When you know, you know”? That was the kinship I felt with Jonathon and Hannah of Forager Farm, immediately: the same energy, passions, and enthusiasm for the work we were doing. We got to work right away, discussing how we could collaborate and mutually benefit from this relationship. After one summer of subscribing to their weekly boxes of seasonal produce, I was hooked, and we discussed full fledged wholesale partnership for the restaurant. After our first meeting, I never could have dreamed of what this partnership would afford me in terms of life experiences. Getting this intimate with the growers for my restaurant allowed me to truly practice the farm to table philosophy I was preaching.
It was through this partnership that I had the uncommon opportunity to take what I called “farmcations,” a little vacation to the farm, away from the restaurant. I would spend weekends in the winter planning the season’s crops that they would grow for the restaurant, suggesting new crops (hey, have you tried growing fennel?), and ordering seeds. In early spring, you could find me seeding soil blocks, and transplanting crops into the field. Later on in the season, I would be in the field, harvesting by hand some of the produce for the restaurant. But my most important job at the farm was undoubtedly cuddling all of the baby goats. This little “wannabe farmer” chef was living the dream, having my cake and eating it too. Not only was I in charge of creating and executing the menu at the restaurant, but I had my hands in actually growing the produce that would find its way onto my guest’s plate. There is so much more respect for the product when you know the ins and outs of how it made its way to your kitchen. It’s about as farm to table as you can get!
Why did I choose this route when I could have defaulted to getting product “off the truck” on a weekly basis like so many other restaurants in my area? Well, because it was my kitchen and I wanted to! And let’s not forget the baby goats… But more importantly, it was about small business supporting small business. It was about working with and building relationships with people you know and trust, rather than a faceless corporation. It was about QUALITY over quantity. I was supporting local growers who practiced sustainable farming so that this local movement can hopefully continue for generations. My guests connected with the concept of “local,” being in a smaller metropolitan and they perceived the value of the product and appreciated the efforts I was making. I’m not saying you need to get out there and work the fields, but go connect with your local growers, build some amazing relationships, become an ambassador for local farms, work with the best produce around, and if you get the chance, cuddle some goats while you’re at it!