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Fresh off the Farm: Moo-ve Over, Big Agriculture, Farm-to-Table Is Here to Stay 

Wednesday, May 27 2015
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During their first summer in Napa, former San Franciscans Juston Enos and Mindy Blodgett harvested hundreds of pounds of tomatoes from the 72 plants in their new garden. The couple quickly realized they'd have to find homes for all that fruit, and decided they'd give it away. But when they called around to local restaurants, they found that chefs were happy to pay the going rate for their produce. That's when Enos and Blodgett's lives as working farmers began. Over the next two years, the husband-and-wife team worked farmers markets and sold to restaurants, gradually converting two acres on their property to farmland.

In early 2013, Enos and Blodgett's business — which they named Full Table Farm after looking around the house one day and realizing every table was laden with tomatoes — started to work with Cortney Burns and Nick Balla, co-chefs at Bar Tartine. Today, the restaurant is Full Table's sole client. "We have a really enjoyable relationship with Cortney and Nick," Enos says. "By working with them alone, we have cut down on the amount of deliveries we have to make, freeing up time to work on the farm, experiment, and develop new flavors."

Farm-to-table dining was once the exclusive domain of visionary chefs such as Alice Waters, who originally used the concept to educate customers about the fresh, local, and seasonal sensibility of the produce they were being served. It conveyed an aura of moral rectitude along with aesthetic refinement. Today, farm-to-table has become a marketing term, co-opted by restaurants ranging from neighborhood bistros to multinational fast-food companies, all wanting to jump on the bandwagon. In the process, "farm-to-table" has become the new "all-natural." You can't blame the big chains. There is something earthy and seductive about supporting a "movement" that calls itself farm-to-table.

As a diner, participation in the movement — that is, eating at restaurants run by the enlightened — promises a halo effect. Something along the lines of: I must be contributing to something important and good if I eat here. Yet if you enter the kitchens of some of the top restaurants, on-demand food-delivery services, and even corporate cafeterias in the Bay Area, you'll see anything but a cynical marketing ploy. The relationships among the individuals at either end of the farm-to-table chain — the farmers and the chefs — is one of symbiosis, success built on mutual dependence. This is perhaps why Waters herself recently told Vanity Fair that she is "furious" about fast-food chains such as McDonald's appropriating the "farm-to-table" moniker.

The counties around San Francisco — particularly Marin, Sonoma, and Napa — are known as ground zero for Bay Area organic farming. Bucolic hills offer ocean-view grazing for grass-fed dairy and beef cattle; fertile valleys deliver their vegetable bounty season after season; and cheesemakers, bakers, and other artisans all call it home. Tales of city-slickers-turned-farmers are common these days, from Tara Smith at Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma, who gave up her life as an insurance executive to farm the land, to Enos and Blodgett.

Chefs worth their salt has a surprisingly tight relationship with the farmers who supply them. Many work with distributors such as Veritable Vegetable and supplement their needs with trips to farmers markets. But if you think the Liptauer cheese tripe in red chili broth — accented with paprika — landed on Bar Tartine's menu on a whim, think again.

"We sit down with our farmers, including Juston and Mindy at Full Table Farm, at the start of the year, and look at the seed catalogs together," Burns says. This means that an entrée you order in, say, August could have been eight months or longer in the planning. "We review about 10 to 12 different seed catalogs with Cortney and Nick," Enos says.

In addition to staple items — including 50 different herbs — the Full Table/Bar Tartine team will identify up to 15 items to grow experimentally. Working with Burns and Balla gives Enos and Blodgett the opportunity to grow items — from bitter melon to sour gherkins to celtuce — that would typically be hard to sell in small quantities at farmers market. "We were having trouble finding exactly the right kind of paprika" to turn into powder, Burns says. "[Enos] started to do research and grew different types of seeds until we found one that was more like the paprika out of Eastern Europe we were trying to emulate."

When chefs have specific requests, farmers will go to great lengths to keep their valued customers happy. Which is why most chefs agree that having personal relationships with farmers is crucial. "If you are a chef in California and don't have connections to farmers, you're left in the dust," says Adam Sobel, the chef at Soma's RN74, part of the Mina Group of restaurants.

Chef Michael Mina concurs. "I live in Nicasio [in Marin], where I'm surrounded by farmers," he says. "Once you get to know them, they are more inclined to grow things that are really tailored to dishes you want to make, that may have a certain flavor profile."

Asked about his feelings on the farm-to-table phrase being co-opted by marketing departments, Mina says, "It is what it is. [But] it really comes into effect when you taste the dish. You see people take the best product and destroy it — when that happens, farmers will stop selling to that chef."

Mina says Alice Waters deserves all the credit she gets for starting the movement, and for encouraging chefs to use organic, local, and sustainable produce in restaurants. "My respect for her is tremendous," he says. "She not only helped make the average consumer more aware, she also helped to make chefs more aware — which makes it better for everyone.

"Part of the romance of the dining experience," Mina adds, "is that people want to know not only about your technique, but how you sourced [the produce], why it's special before you even cook it."

The Mina Group, which numbers 26 restaurants across the United States, works with Tenbrink Farms in Suisun Valley. The 100-percent-organic operation supplies most of the restaurants in the Mina restaurant family. Like Full Table Farm, Tenbrink talks with chefs early in the year to find out what types of herbs, vegetables, and fruits they'd like grown for the upcoming year. From there, the farmers source the seeds and get to work in the fields. By April or May, the produce is delivered to the restaurants each Wednesday. Additional needs are met through visits to the San Francisco and Marin farmers market, which are just as crucial a source for restaurants as the farms themselves.

Not all chefs ask farmers to grow specific items. "Some chefs are very particular, requesting specific cuts and sizes, while others are much more willing to work with whatever happens to be available and in season," says Mark Pasternak, who raises rabbits, pigs, and sheep at his Devils Gulch Ranch in Marin, and also grows wine grapes and asparagus. "A growing number of chefs want to appeal to consumers' knowledge of seasonality."

About 85 percent of Pasternak's business is dedicated to serving high-profile Bay Area restaurants, including French Laundry, Flour and Water, and Chez Panisse. He particularly values chefs who call and ask what's in excess and needs to be sold. "These chefs understand how to support their local farms by taking what is seasonal and in abundance," Pasternak says.

If farms jostle for recognition on menus, and chefs work hard to curry favor with them by creating dishes that show off the flavors of the raw materials, who in this eco system wields the most influence and leverage? Top-end restaurants get a lot of the recognition and credit for insisting on local, sustainable, and organic produce, but it turns out the corporate kitchens of Silicon Valley — from Google to VMware to LinkedIn — have had a far greater impact on demand for such produce than you might imagine.

Nate Keller, founding chef at Sprig, an on-demand food delivery service, was an early employee in Google's kitchens back in 2002. "At Google we learned how to scale locally sourced food operations without compromising," he says. "We took one café and only served food grown within a 150-mile radius. We built relationships with purveyors, farmers, and producers, and told them, 'If you can provide the quantity of food we need, we will buy it all from you.'"

Keller looks out at the corporate food service landscape today and notes that from Dropbox to Adobe, Facebook, and Pixar, many of the tech kitchens — which collectively serve tens if not hundreds of thousands of employees each day — are run by Google kitchen alums. Those chefs learned how to work with sustainable farms to meet the demands of educated modern corporate diners who want to eat organic produce and hormone-free meat.

"Google was key in effecting this change" in corporate food service, Keller says. "They re-envisioned how to make food and get it to a large group of people ... They serve insanely high-quality food."

The increasing demand for quality food — from restaurants and corporate food services to Whole Foods and Safeway — has helped push down prices for organic produce substantially over the past decade, Keller says. "Here at Sprig, 90 percent of our produce comes from within 150 miles, and very close to 100 percent of our fruits and vegetables are organic," he says. Keller hopes to use his buying power to further widen the market and satisfy the requests and palates of savvy customers who know the difference between a fresh organic apple, picked locally in the fall, and one that's been shipped from Chile during the summer months.

People are taking a stand, Keller says. "They want great products and food, and are okay with not eating tomatoes in December."

It should be no surprise that around Silicon Valley, innovation is showing up in all types of kitchens, from Michelin-starred destination restaurants to cafeterias that serve software developers during the workday. "I see innovation at all levels," says Malachi Harland, executive chef for Bon Appétit Management Company at Google, "from sourcing, the way relationships with farmers are handled ... all the way through to cooking the food."

Harland, who oversees food production for 100 to 150 events each week, points to Bon Appétit's Imperfectly Delicious program at Google as one example of the kind of innovation going on. The program aims to rescue cosmetically flawed, yet fresh and flavorful produce: apples damaged by hail, strawberries that are only 80 percent ripe, or imperfectly shaped carrots that are often left unharvested or discarded altogether. Those items may not be the right shape, size, or color for a supermarket shelf, but they're fine as an ingredient in a smoothie or a stew. It's the flavor, not the look, that counts, Harland says, and Bon Appétit is now bringing that produce into the 500 cafés it manages in 33 states.

With the well-heeled able to afford local sustainable foods at their favorite dining spots, and corporations now offering such options during the working day, what's available for lower-income groups, students, or the sick? Do they have access to healthful, seasonal foods?

For all the talk of double-digit, year-after-year growth, organic food remains an haute-bourgeois commodity. And progress is slow. But Whole Foods (still often derided as "Whole Paycheck") recently announced it will launch a new, value-driven brand aimed at millennials. Community Supported Agriculture's farm-box deliveries and farmers markets also are making produce more widely available. And the Healthy Food in Healthcare initiative works with hospitals to improve the sustainability of their food services.

One company that's creating substantial change in the healthful food industry is Mindful Meats, the first non-GMO beef company in the U.S. Based in Point Reyes Station — not far from Marin Sun Farms, the only USDA slaughterhouse in the Bay Area — Mindful Meats doesn't raise its own beef. Instead, it has direct relationships with five ranches in the North Bay.


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