Farm-to-Table 2.0

Elizabeth G. Dunn reported last week at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “It began for Matthew Accarrino, the chef at SPQR in San Francisco, when he grew weary of sifting through farmers’ markets, vying with other chefs for the same carrots and tomatoes. Truly unusual produce, he realized, wasn’t sold this way—it wouldn’t make financial sense for a farmer. So he started ordering and buying directly from farms, but he struggled to come up with crops to request. Then, in 2011, he got to know a regular diner at SPQR named Peter Jacobsen, who owned a small farm in Yountville, Calif.

Regular trips to the farm began to shape Mr. Accarrino’s menu. He found an old crab-apple tree that yielded mediocre fruits but ‘transcendent’ blossoms, which he could pick by the basketful and candy. He noticed that squirrels raided the ripe nuts from a couple of walnut trees but left the green ones, so he harvested them green and made his own version of the Italian liqueur nocino. Mr. Accarrino also asked Mr. Jacobsen to try cultivating uncommon items, from finger limes (no luck) to habenada peppers (couldn’t use them fast enough).

It’s one thing for a restaurant to slap some locally grown kale on the menu and call itself farm-to-table, or to refuse to serve strawberries in winter as a nod to seasonality; it’s quite another to shape the menu according to the quirks and vicissitudes of an actual farm. But that is precisely what chefs like Mr. Accarrino have begun doing, establishing their own farms or forming long-term partnerships with existing ones to connect more tightly with the agricultural underpinnings of their cuisine. Call it farm-to-table 2.0.”

The Journal article stated that, “When a restaurant takes responsibility for growing ingredients, it provides diners an extra measure of confidence in their provenance at a time when local-sourcing claims are increasingly in doubt and the descriptor ‘farm-to-table’ has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. (See, for example, the 2016 investigation by Laura Reiley in the Tampa Bay Times revealing widespread fraud in restaurants’ claims to buying local.) But the value of growing your own goes well beyond ensuring truth in advertising. It guarantees the restaurant a supply of ingredients that are unique, in type or quality, compared with what is commercially available. And it transforms the restaurant from an on-demand buyer of ingredients to a vehicle for supporting, and showcasing, the whole ecology of a sustainable farm—not just peak-season tomatoes and rib-eye steaks but forgotten and beautiful foodstuffs, from cover crops to wild herbs to underutilized, tasty cuts of meat.”

Ms. Dunn added, “Even for chefs unable to go whole-hog (so to speak) into farming, small-scale efforts can have an outsize influence. Danielle and Justin Walker opened Walkers Maine last month in Cape Neddick, south of Portland. They grow fruits and vegetables organically on their nearby 15-acre farmstead, which has been in Ms. Walker’s family for six generations. Though it barely makes a dent in their overall purchasing, the farm shapes their cooking in fundamental ways. The Walkers keep a herd of goats to clear and fertilize fields, and the milk they produce has led to a proliferation of fresh cheeses and ice creams on the menu. Wild cranberries contribute to cocktails and preserves. Mr. Walker said that running the farm helps him understand the right questions to ask his suppliers. Ms. Walker, who does the bulk of the farm work and is the restaurant’s general manager, takes every opportunity to transmit to guests her enthusiasm for farming. ‘Even if it’s just talking about my early morning hour in the garden, they may adopt that,’ Ms. Walker said. ‘The romanticism of the whole process is contagious.'”

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