Saturday, February 19, 2011

Farm to Fork

Farm to Fork Celebration
An Exercise in Cooking Locally

When I was asked by the Food Shed Alliance to prepare a meal for 60 guests, using all locally grown/ produced foods I jumped at the chance. I feel blessed to own and operate a restaurant in a region with such diverse food sources. Having the opportunity to showcase these products and the people behind the products would be a treat. When I found out the dinner would be in the middle of one of the coldest, snowiest winters we have had in NJ in many years I thought it would be more of a challenge than I expected.

As I understand it the Food Shed has two main goals when they put together an evening like this. First of all to promote our local foods, second and no less important is to raise funds. Typically when we are approached to cook for a nonprofit we are asked to donate time and product. This can be daunting for a small business. One of the nice things about working with the Food Shed Alliance is that they view our restaurant as a producer of local food. Therefore it’s their mission to help promote us. If we succeed, they succeed. Although our only need for an event like this is to cover expenses I think it speaks to a sustainability issue. If you are going to ask from your community you need to remember to support the community as well. As a business owner I can only keep giving if you do the same. The land can only produce so much if you don’t take the time to nourish it. And that is part of what made this evening a little more special for us. It felt like an honor to be asked to prepare the meal, rather than a burden to make a donation of time, staff and food.

My proposition for the menu was to offer a sampling of passed hors d’oeuvres, followed by a six course meal. Each course would feature a local farmer/producer. One of the choices I had to make here was how do I define local. Many chefs use the 100 mile rule. And, although I think that is perfectly fine almost all of the products came from within 50 miles, most less than 10. That being said, I think Rules are made to be broken. As an example I don’t think a meal like this would be complete without a fish course. We have a purveyor from Long Beach Island NJ that supplies us with some of the most pristine Sea Scallops you have ever seen. It would be a shame not to include them because of a self imposed rule.

Step Two: Rough draft a menu and decide which producers to use. In this case it was a mix of old and new friends plus a few “discoveries”. I wouldn’t dream of doing an event like this without the help of my friends at the community Supported Garden at Genesis Farm. They are some of the nicest people you could ever know, and they grow some of the tastiest vegetables you could ever eat. I would be cooking from the root cellar, but over the years they have chosen the best varieties of vegetables to winter over. I also have a dear friend that has helped me select a variety of French beans which she grows specifically for the restaurant all summer. Obviously the beans would be out, but she also raises chickens or as I like to say “she grows eggs”. One course would defiantly be a celebration of the egg from Sunny Ridge Farm.
Another old friend or more appropriately, pair of old friends Jonathan and Nina White of Bobolink Dairy would provide the cheeses. All made on their farm from the milk of grass fed cows. One of our newer friends is Lou Tomasso of Pittenger Farm. Lou would provide the protein for the main course. Although he also raises chicken and goat, we decided on a trio of lamb, beef, and pork. Another new acquaintance is the gang from Arthur and Friends. They are growing hydroponic lettuces, cooking greens and herbs in a green house at the Sussex County Fair Grounds. As for the new discoveries Gene Ventimiglia of Ventimiglia Vineyards in Wantage knocked on my door in early January and let me taste some of his wines. I was very impressed by the caliber of his dry European style whites and reds. Gene would provide a number of wines for the evening. The last minute entry was a friend of a friend that raises a small number of lamb each year. If I would butcher two of his animals I could keep some of the meat for myself. All of the organ meats would make an interesting addition to the cocktail hour.

To pull off a dinner like this, mid-winter, without the connections I had made would be this side of impossible. After I sat down and thought it out I realized that slowly over the years I have cultivated and continue to cultivate relationships with people who are as passionate about what they do as I am. This dinner would not be nearly as difficult as I originally thought. The groundwork had been laid slowly and quietly over a long period of time. When I started making phone calls everyone that I asked also felt honored to have their product featured on the menu. Three of them were able to attend the dinner.

Step Three: Publicity. The majority of these duties fell to The Food Shed. Post cards, press releases etc. We were all a bit nervous by an initially weak response. I would like to chalk it up to folks still getting over their holiday hangovers. In the end the event sold out and raised over $3000 for the cause. By the way, I still believe word of mouth is the best advertising. It doesn’t get much more environmentally friendly than that. They say if you have a bad experience you tell 10 people. If you have a great experience you tell 2. Part of promoting the local food movement is turning that ratio upside down. Helping friends and neighbors build relationships with the people that grow their food.

Step Four: Execution. The only major menu change came when I realized that I could choose between a whole, freshly killed hog or a trio of meats from Lou’s freezer. At this point I should mention that I would not normally offer frozen meat at the restaurant. However because of the cost of production and lack of awareness, most local meat is processed and then sold frozen. Unfortunately, we as a country are quickly loosing the skills to cook, and appreciate the different cuts from the entire animal because we are “rich” enough to afford the most tender cuts. This leaves the small producer with no outlet for the lower cuts and organs, hence the freezer. That being said I have cooked meat from Lou’s freezer in the past with great results, but with the chance to offer a trio of preparations from a fresh animal…Three little Pigs it shall be.The day of the event the clock seemed to be spinning a little faster than usual and the prep list a bit to long. Was the menu more than my new kitchen staff could handle? Luckily at the 11th hour, two chef/friends stopped in to check out the menu and wound up staying to help finish prepping and serve the meal.
Farm to Fork Celebration
January 30, 2011

Andre’s Restaurant
Newton, NJ

For the reception

Smoked lamb heart, pickled turnip
Lamb and kidney pie
Lamb Liver Pate

For the Meal

Genesis Farm
A trio of Vegetable Soups

Viking Village
Sea Scallops, Potato Gnocchi, Watercress Pesto

Arthur and Friends
Mixed Reds and Greens, Honey Herb Dressing

Pittenger Farm
Sampling of Pork,
Loin, Sausage, Bacon
Onion Marmelade, Dried Fruits, Wheat Berries

Bobolink Dairy
Cave Aged Cheddar, Jean Louis, Baudolino

Sunny Ridge Farm
A Celebration of the Egg

For a quick re-cap of the evening, I have to say it encouraged me how much everyone enjoyed the organ meat preparations of the cocktail hour. I think most people have a pre-conceived notion of offal and aren’t willing to try it. That was not the case with this group.
The three soups were all served in the same bowl. This required me and my two new cooks to each pour one soup into the same bowl at the exact same time, at the exact same rate, to achieve the desired result. Before we started to plate the course I said “This will be a test to see how we really get along” The three of us rose to the occasion and worked together as a team.
Course two, Sea scallops with gnocchi, It was a crime to cook those scallops. I was snacking on them raw throughout the day as we prepped the rest of the meal.
The greens from Arthur and friends came to the back door of the restaurant still alive. I made a display to place on the bar so that everyone could enjoy how beautiful they were.
As for the Pittenger Pig, I used every last bit. Cured bacon, fat back, fresh belly, pulled pork, liverwurst. We didn’t serve it all that night, but I enjoyed more than my fair share over the following days.
The cheese oh, the cheese… If you haven’t enjoyed the pleasantly pungent funk of a great cheese I don’t think I am up to the task of explaining it here. But, Bobolink makes some of the best.
Dessert was for most the favorite course, a little crème caramel baked in the egg shell, with a side scoop of house made ice cream and sabayon, all from the Sunny Ridge eggs. It’s fun for me to take something as simple as an egg and present it in three very different ways on the same plate. I think it causes people to slow down a bit and pay closer attention.

Without realizing it I had designed a menu of triads. Three offal presentations…three soups…reds, greens and herbs…three little pigs…three cheeses…a trio of egg preparations. It wasn’t until a day or two later that this occurred to me. And maybe it was a subconscious way of emphasizing the triad in our earth, us and the things we choose to nourish ourselves with.