One of the most exciting things taking place in North America is the farm-to-table movement. Thanks to early pioneers such as Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, this noble crusade–now in its fifth decade–is really gathering steam as the preferred way to live. Passionate farm-to-table devotees are not merely improving the nutritional density of their meals or the livelihood of small farmers. Year by year, farm-to-table activists are just as surely changing the face of North American retailing. They’re pressuring fast food establishments for better ingredients. They’re pushing grocers to upgrade to local and organic food. They’re clamoring for farmers markets and mobilizing against Big Pharma and Big Ag.
The purpose of farmtotableguide.com is to honor the movement in several ways. First, my blog, Good Swill Hunting, will function mostly as a travelogue that describes my quest to uncover the “cleanest” food in the U.S. and Canada. Guest chefs and winemakers will be invited to blog about their industries. Together, we aim to discuss the entire stretch of North America’s bounty.
Two food directories, the U.S. Foodie Guide and the Canada Foodie Guide, will list not just those establishments that are fiercely dedicated to supporting local farms and food purveyors. They will also list many of those farms and ranches that are producing the food! I’ve included everything possible–from fine dining restaurants to equally exciting lowbrow spots–in order to reveal farm-to-table’s breadth. You’ll discover diners, taverns, pizzerias, food trucks, hamburger joints, apiaries, ice cream parlors, popsicle vendors, spas, ranches, markets, bakeries, butchers, produce stands, caterers, breakfast and take-out places, barbecue joints, sports bars, nightclubs, mail order companies, coffee roasters, tea houses, breweries, CSAs, distillers, sandwich shops, B&Bs, chocolate makers, seaside shacks and more.
In time a separate section, “Wine,” will cover the growing Canadian and American wine industries. They’re an important aspect of North American life and winemakers are just as passionate as their farm-to-table counterparts. farmtotableguide.com will also feature “Store,” a unique marketplace and “Cheap Eats,” a category with pull-downs for burgers, pizza and other low cost edibles.
It’s a very exciting time for the North American farm-to-table movement and I’m thrilled to be part of it. You can expect travel tips, suggestions for the perfect weekend getaway, agritourism articles and much more. I’ll also provide you with first-hand interviews I’ve done with chefs, owners and winemakers. They’ll explain why they’re so passionate about what they do. You can see for yourself why you should run to their establishments!
One place I always sprint to is the acclaimed Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen. On June 17, 2014 I had a tour of the kitchen and a conversation with Woodberry’s owner and chef Spike Gjerde. Gjerde was generally supportive of farmtotableguide.com but was completely dismissive of its name. In fact, he urged me more than once to change the domain. Why? Far too many “farm-to-table places,” Gjerde explained, use a “local” provider or two but rely on Sysco for the rest of their goodies. For those eateries, “farm-to-table” is about cache, market share and the bottom line, not an overarching food aesthetic. That kind of duplicity debases all that Gjerde’s working so hard to achieve. Why lump him in the same category with that?
I can certainly appreciate Gjerde’s point of view. His fealty to all things local shows in every buying decision. Who else can brag about non-GMO corn starch, buys the entire inventory of a local Maryland winemaker, or stockpiles ingredients for the winter menu by means of an ambitious canning and preserving program? He even recently phased out the use of oranges in cocktails.
In an August 7, 2013 interview with Eater‘s Amy McKeever, Gjerde summarized his “all for one and one for all” ethos: “Because we put our local food system and our growers first, that presents the framework within which we work. It’s not my particular culinary imagination. In other words, I don’t come up with a dish and say, ‘All right, what part of this masterpiece can I get locally?’ We’re presented with the products from our local growers and then we’re compelled as chefs and cooks to make it taste great.”
To his credit, Spike Gjerde is giving new meaning to “local and seasonal.” He’s also not the only restauranteur who feels “farm-to-table” is a cliched, empty term. In Rebecca Flint Marx’s piece in San Francisco Magazine (“Farm to Table to Grave,” May 2, 2014), she cites several West Coast chefs who equally deplore the label. But what, if anything, should be substituted in its place? Perhaps “growers first” a la Gjerde? Marc Zimmerman, chef at San Francisco’s Alexander’s Steakhouse, likes “farm direct.” As he told Marx, the term “was once used when a restaurant or chef had an actual relationship with the farmer.” Ultimately, whatever replaces “farm to table,” says Zimmerman, “should have the word ‘farm’ in it to remind Americans where their food comes from.”
“That’s not to say [“farm-to-table”] didn’t originally have a purpose,” writes Marx. “It’s useful for describing a philosophy as much as a style of cooking; an easy way to reassure customers that they’re eating the food of a chef who cares, who appreciates good, honest dirt-under-the-fingernails manual labor, local economies, and the holy sanctity of ingredients.” Perhaps Matt Gandin, chef at Comal in Berkeley, says it best?: “In this post-Chez Panisse era,” he told Marx, “the assumption should be that any restaurant worth its salt is using farm fresh local produce. The quality of ingredients used should be evident in the final product on the plate.”
No matter what it’s called, in my view farm-to-table is here to stay. As I see it, baby boomers and their offspring–whose concern for health and fitness is driving the movement–will continue to demand safe and locally produced food. Because of that, and the widespread use of “farm-to-table” as a descriptor, I’ve decided to retain the moniker in my domain despite protestations to the contrary. But don’t despair, fellow eaters. I’ve instituted a hierarchy: All establishments that are at least 70% dedicated to selling local food will be listed in boldface in the Foodie Guides. In that way users can choose the kind of place most in congruence with their proclivities. For some, 70% might seem too lenient, but I’ve given a bit of wiggle room to those who have trouble getting local products in the winter.
Even at that, my pecking order is mostly a moot point. As you’ll see, most of the places listed in boldface are actually farmers and ranchers, not restaurants. I go into detail about this–specifically, the lack of transparency typically found at restaurant websites–in the headnote to each Foodie Guide. Both Guides, divided up by region, together include over 4,000 North American destinations, many in your neighborhood. Buy a Guide soon and you’ll be amazed at how many places are committed to great food.
I do ask that you email and post comments, especially regarding any place you feel needs to be added or expunged. As I’ve discovered during the three years it’s taken to get the site this far, North America is a vast and wonderful place. To maximize the site’s utility and stay current, farmtotableguide.com needs everyone’s love and attention. Please send corrections, additions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you and meeting you on the food and wine trail.