As the earth is rotating into fall and we are diving in harvest season, I started thinking heavily about farm to table. After all, I was raised in a farming community and I get asked this question all the time. In searching for an answer, I decided to visit Google, and this is what I learned.
According to Farmtotable.org:
“Farm to Table is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting locally based agriculture through education, community outreach and networking. Farm to Table enhances marketing opportunities for farmers; encourages family farming, farmers’ markets and the preservation of agricultural traditions; influences public policy; and, furthers understanding of the links between farming, food, health and local economies.”
With that being said, what does it mean when we hear chefs say they run a “farm to table” restaurant? The answer to this question is … I don’t have an answer. I think it’s subject to the chef’s interpretation. To me, farm to table is when a kitchen, whether it is a banqueting or restaurant, uses locally sourced ingredients on their menus. Where I think chefs fall flat is when they don’t highlight these ingredients on their menus and put any history or bio information about the farms they are using.
To me, true farm to table chefs have contracts with local farmers, go to the farm at least once a week to look at what is fresh, and then plan the culinary around what the farmers produce. To be successful, these chefs get into the proverbial “bed” with the farmer and eventually have an “as one” relationship. Also, to me, farm to table means the food is cooked and served within 72 hours of being picked, in order to maintain freshness.
It was at this point in writing this article that questions turned into more questions, so I called Hillary White, who is the truest farm to table chef I know. Her restaurant The Hil is located in the farming community of Serenbe, Ga. Much of her food comes from the working farms at and around Serenbe.
My first question to Chef White was, “When we hear the term ‘farm to table’ can we assume the food is organic?” She said, “No, absolutely not. If the farm is government certified organic, they will use the term ‘certified organic’ and if they are not certified, but using organic they will say ‘organic.’ Farms that don’t do either one do a spin by saying ‘all natural,’ which sounds nice, but means nothing.”
Another point Chef White made is people think that organic foods have a better flavor profile than conventional foods. She said that is not necessarily true. If you taste two apples that are picked within two days, you aren’t going to be able to tell the difference. Give the same two apples another two days’ time — then you will start tasting a difference.
The last, but not least, point she made is on the importance of staff training. Chef White recommends that servers are properly trained on all farm ingredients so they can talk intelligently about the food to diners. People come to a farm to table restaurant with an interest on how the food is grown, picked and finally cooked. If properly trained, the wait staff becomes another “voice of the farmer.”
Before I go, I wanted to give one last piece of advice, focused on banqueting. If farm to table is important to your event, but you don’t want to pay through the nose for it, look for a banqueting kitchen that negotiates with farmers to grow “contracted” food for use throughout the season. This guarantees the farmer has business, the kitchen is getting fresh produce at a fair price, and the customers eat real farm to table food.
Here are some pictures of a farmers market in my hometown of Kittanning, Pa. They sell produce that has been picked that morning; sold that afternoon. If you cook the vegetables that night — it doesn’t get any fresher and you have accomplished farm to table right in your own home.
Please pass the corn.