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Monday, November 14, 2011

Chefs share farm-to-table philosophy at CFSA Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Posted by on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 9:57 AM

File photo of Chapel Hills Lantern Restaurant, 2007
  • Rex Miller
  • File photo of Chapel Hill's Lantern Restaurant, 2007

A group of Southern agriculture enthusiasts—advocates, if you will—descended upon Durham this past weekend for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s 26th annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference. The Pittsboro-based nonprofit advocates for and helps create sustainable food systems within the Carolinas.

What sort of folks spend three days in back-to-back ag-focused workshops, lectures and tours? I ran into the usual suspects from last year’s conference held in Winston-Salem: organic farmers, chefs, policy analysts and agro-ecology professors. But this year, fittingly enough for our area, CFSA added a separate category to the list of Horticulture, Livestock and Soil workshops: Foodie.

As much as I may dislike that term, trendy buzzwords lead to smart marketing. Local foodies were out in full force, with a voracious mental appetite. (Full disclosure here: CFSA asked me to help moderate the Urban Durham Foodie Tour, which I accepted and had great fun in doing so.)

It came as no surprise, then, when a large group of food enthusiasts who care about how their grass-fed hamburger gets from steer to market to restaurant plate joined farmers on Saturday for a Farm-to-Restaurant workshop. More alluring, however, was panel's candidness.

Chef-owner Amy Tornquist of Durham’s Watts Grocery and Sage and Swift Catering, farmer Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm and cheesemaker/ farmer Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery rounded out a panel moderated by nationally acclaimed Chapel Hill Lantern chef Andrea Reusing.

“We live in this crazy place as everyone’s foodiest hometown,” Reusing said, “but probably less than five percent of what we consume is grown here. A little of our notoriety is largely symbolic.”

She noted that an open chef/cook to consumer relationship can help address this issue. In a lively and, most times, comedic discussion that veered from buoyant to deadpan, the panel openly acknowledged their problems as chefs and farmers and dished out advice to farmers in the audience on how to market their product to restaurants.

McKnight began by touting the reliability she appreciates from selling to restaurants. “It doesn’t matter if it’s raining on Saturday mornings with a restaurant sale. It gets us through those cold winter months when only diehards come to the market.”

The chefs diluted the romantic and lucrative image of owning a restaurant. “It’s the most tragic hobby I’ve ever spent 70 hours a week doing,” Tornquist said. She confessed that more often than not, she’s racing to the farmers market on Saturday mornings for last-minute bulk items from Chapel Hill Creamery, Peregine Farms and other vendors. “When a customer complains that something was $19, I’m like, really? There’s $18.75 in it.”

Tornquist added that Watts Grocery grapples with the duality of casual dining versus fine dining offerings. She aims to celebrate high quality food while honoring the customer’s expectation of a relaxed, no-frills atmosphere and price point.

“It puts me in a tremendous bind for local pork and beef,” Tornquist said.

Why does she do it? She says she was “born right across the street” from her restaurant and a stickler for local, more so than organic.

“I feel pretty good about helping farmers transition from tobacco to a food product,” she explained. “As a North Carolinian and a Durhamite, I care about local. It really resonates with me.”

As it does for Reusing, who says she sources almost all her local offerings from within a 15-mile radius of Chapel Hill. “We have a lot of dishes that are basically break-evens,” she said. “A restaurant is supposed to be an engine for profit. Amy and I run our restaurants essentially like nonprofits. We have a hard time servicing our debt. It’s a lot like a farm.”

When she added that Lantern’s bar helps her break even, someone from the crowd asked both chefs, “Could you do this without a bar?” The answer, in unison, was an immediate, resounding “No.”

“I need people to drink more at breakfast,” Tornquist quipped, half-jokingly.

And then Reusing shared a philosophy that may make any self-proclaimed locavore blush with guilt.

“There’s the risk of supposedly converted people still psyched about a sale on pork at Costco, but they’re buying one tomato and one chunk of cheese at market,” she opined. “There’s a ubiquity, there’s a fatigue to farm-to-table. The danger of ubiquity is that we don’t get to the second level. We can’t talk about whole animal butchery. We assume romaine lettuce at a restaurant run by a cooperative in the spring is local. We don’t hold people to task. We must see the relationship not as extractive, but beneficial to all.”

Kathi Beratan piped in from the crowd: “In the west of the state, it is not ubiquitous."
Areas down east would also embrace the food choices we have in the Triangle. "I would love a Watts Grocery in Fayetteville. We could support it,” said Beratan, who works with the nonprofit Fort Bragg Regional Alliance. “If flagship restaurants develop, it’s a way to raise awareness. And working with people like you to help succeed in places people don’t think about.”

McKnight shared the obvious reality that conscious consumers struggle to solve. “But there are people who can’t pay that,” she said.

In the crowd was Vimala Rajendran, chef/ owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café (disclosure: I work at Curryblossom). She is known for her “food for all” philosophy, and encouraged the concerned crowd to unite around an effort to make local food more accessible. “When people gather and try to impact policy, a change can be made. Why don’t we as a gathered people try to subsidize local? I agree with Andrea that more buying helps, but I can’t see how farmers can work any harder.”

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