“Irish food guru, Darina Allen, takes students into the field on their first day of cookery school in Ballymaloe. She makes them pick up handfuls of earth and tells them, “This is where your food begins. If this is no good, you can’t be a good cook.” The idea that the food in a restaurant is dependent on the soil where the ingredients have been grown is not a new one, but it’s one that’s gaining favour as both chefs and diners try to make real, concrete connections with the food they consume.”
For many years, farm to fork dining has had chefs around the globe making efforts to source their ingredients locally from known producers. Their menus abound with elaborate descriptions of the farmers and producers who have provided the bounty for the dish. But some chefs have taken it to the next level. They are actually growing the food themselves, on the farm.
Moving the restaurant to the farm means kitchens can be mere metres away from their ingredients and guests dine with views of the fields where their dinner has been grown. It gives a whole new meaning to fresh. “It’s every chef’s dream come true,” enthuses Chad Greer, executive chef at Henry’s at the Farm, the restaurant at Buttermilk Falls Inn & Spa in Hudson Valley, New York. “Not only do I have an amazing kitchen where I can make my own breads, grind my own meat, and make everything from scratch, but I also have a fabulous farm right here that supplies my food.”
It’s an idea that has been taking hold in the past decade in the Southern USA, Australia and parts of Europe. In these areas, the climate makes this a year-round pragmatic possibility. But attempting this in Canada and the Northern US states is perhaps a little ambitious, not to say daunting. It began with small steps.
Michael Smith, the charismatic Inn Chef on television’s Food Network, has cooked with chefs like Paul Sartori, David Bouley and Albert Roux. But the American-born Smith set his roots deep into the soil of Prince Edward Island (PEI), and is its current Culinary Ambassador. In 1992, when he became chef at The Inn at Bay Fortune in PEI, he began by growing his own herbs. By the time he left the Inn in 1998, there were two acres under cultivation, growing 250 different fruits, vegetables and herbs. “We did it because I couldn’t get the food I wanted to cook with,” Smith recalls. “But it became part of the marketing for the restaurant.”
His chefs and apprentices had to spend time in the garden, “It was hard work but I wanted them to also understand where the food came from.” And people loved the idea that the food was truly fresh from the fields.
Indeed, Smith was not above a little showmanship. “When the guests were in the restaurant overlooking the gardens, I would send the dishwasher out in chef’s whites to weed. We had already picked the greens for that evening, but he’d bring the weeds back in a basket and the guests were really impressed,” he laughs now. “It’s a small trick, but it brought home the message, the food here is really fresh. There’s no shame in recognizing the marketing potential of what you have to offer.”
Another Canadian farm restaurant pioneer is Michael Stadtländer whose Eigensinn Farm has been on the list of 50 Best Restaurants more than once, making the top ten in 2003. The much lauded chef deserted the city for a farm two hours outside Toronto in 1993. There he creates singular meals for no more than 12 people at a time, from ingredients grown and raised organically on the farm. He serves no wine (customers are encouraged to bring their own; there’s no corkage fee) and the price is high (about Cdn$300 per person). But clearly customers are not daunted by this; they are willing to undertake the trek, and the waiting time for a reservation can be months long.
While The Inn at Bay Fortune operates only from May to October, Eigensinn Farm operates year-round in an area that spends several months under a blanket of snow. So does Butterfly Farm. And so does the new Hôtel La Ferme, in the heart of Quebec’s spectacular ski area, Le Massif de Charlevoix. Winter comes early in these regions. So how do such operations manage to maintain an on-the-farm philosophy?
At Hôtel La Ferme, the newest venture for Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque de Soleil, the ethos has been sustainable from the start, so foodservice has to fall into step. Having purchased Le Massif, a ski resort featuring spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the St. Lawrence River, Gauthier wanted to showcase the region by creating a year-round resort. He chose to focus on the terroir.
Having bought and repaired the railway tracks from the Montmorency Falls, near Quebec City, he transports visitors directly to the doors of the hotel, and from there to the mountain at Le Massif to ski, cycle or hike. Everything in his hotel complex – from the building materials and the energy source (geothermal) to the decor and the food served in the restaurant – is sourced sustainably within the region whenever possible, then within Quebec, and finally within Canada. His chef, David Forbes, seems to have little difficulty working within these parameters.
Blessed with a creativity that seems to know no bounds, Forbes’ approach seems to be to take whatever the farm manager brings to the kitchen door and turn that into the menu of the moment at Les Labours, the hotel restaurant. In addition, local growers have discovered that they have a ready and willing partner in Forbes.
For example, one local farmer recently appeared with a number of very large zucchini (courgettes) which, he said, he couldn’t sell elsewhere because they were too big. With the need to serve more than 200 guests the next day, Forbes promptly bought them. Stuffed with peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes and topped with Migneron de Charlevoix, a beautiful local cheese, slices of the grilled courgettes proved to be one of the favourite dishes at the gala dinner to celebrate the official opening of Hôtel La Ferme in September, 2012 (they have been in operation since June, 2012).
“Going with the flow is part of our philosophy,” comments Forbes. “That means using what people forget to use.” It has to be. The kitchen is open and surrounded by seating so customers interact with the chefs, even to shouting comments to them about the dishes.
All this is fine in summer, but what of the winter months? Both he and Buttermilk Farm’s Greer are already preparing. “It’s a learning curve as this is our first winter, but we’ve already been freezing food and we’ll preserve by canning,” says Forbes. He points out that it’s healthy to eat seasonally. “In winter, our bodies need heavier food for the cold. We really don’t need lettuce, but I recognize that we are a hotel and our guests may want some of these things.” Then, pointing to the giant floor-to-ceiling windows in the hotel, he adds with characteristic enthusiasm, “Look at these huge windows. We will grow our own greens. We just have to figure out how to do it.”
Also still in his first year as chef at Henry’s, Greer has already been canning their bounty – beautiful brandywine tomatoes and peaches from their orchard. He acknowledges that the menu will be smaller and more stagnant in winter, but these, along with local root vegetables, will form the basis of a menu that will be strong on hearty winter fare like short ribs and soups. Both he and Forbes are determined to be as self-sufficient as they can be within a couple of years.
Even in summer, making the commitment to source most of the food locally can be a challenge. Both chefs buy whole animals when possible, and use every part. It’s important for many reasons, Forbes says, “You’re always serving things most people aren’t; you’re being eco-wise because nothing is wasted; and practically, you get a better price if you use the whole animal. It’s a lot of work but you also learn respect for what you’re doing. It may be that we don’t serve the same perfect, 100 gm steaks every time, but life isn’t all the same.”
While Charlevoix is undoubtedly a Garden of Eden, it lacks one thing – the ocean. For fish and seafood, Forbes currently drives to the Gaspé region of Quebec or to New Brunswick. “That way, I’m tied emotionally to the suppliers. They give me their best. I get beautiful fresh scallops and oysters I can serve as soon as I return. They aren’t three or four days old,” he says, then adds, “Of course I can’t always be a truck driver, but it’s important to make those connections.” He’s working with other local restaurants and hotels in the region to create a small market and establish a supply route for fresh fish.
The biggest problem for such chefs is consistency. Relying on locally grown food from their own and nearby farms sometimes means that one doesn’t get the perfectly shaped produce available from industrial sources. The fruits may be smaller, the carrots not as prettily perfect, and the product not always available in the quantities needed. So farm chefs have to work with other local farmers to create firm connections in the hopes that they can fill the gaps. And, they agree, being flexible in one’s approach is the only way to work around inconsistencies.
There may also be an economic downside to farm operations. “They’ll tell you it’s going to be cheap, because you aren’t paying the middle man distributor, but the labour involved – it’s repetitive and hot, real drudgery sometimes – means that your produce is going to be expensive. It’s not mass produced,” says Michael Smith. “But the food is amazing and you make a connection with something you worked your ass off to produce. On the business side, it validates the customer’s decision to choose your restaurant. At The Inn, we just treated the expense as a marketing one.”
For Stadtlander, there is famously no regard for the cost of ingredients. “It’s the land,” Stadtlander once said of his food in a Globe & Mail article. “You are eating the land.” And patently, there’s no price to be put on what that land produces by chefs who recognize its value.
“Food is about people – people growing and transforming and eating,” says Forbes. “It’s life. You have to have fun with it so you can give back. It’s all connected.” That word – connection – comes up again and again. In a world where food is grown half a globe away and most buy everything they eat in supermarkets, it’s an understandable longing to feel connected to their food, even if only briefly. And those who come to dine at The Inn, or Les Labours, or Henry’s, or Eiginsinn Farm are there because they find that connection in restaurants that take them right into the heart of their food source.
This article was originally published in Issue Five (2012) of “The Consultant” Magazine.