Farm to Fork

Fifteen years ago, when Sammy and Melinda Koenigsberg tried to interest Charlotte restaurants in their locally grown, organic vegetables, they could scarcely have met a colder shoulder.



Thanks to area chefs and farmers, you can sample local grass-fed beef, asparagus, and microgreens on more than two dozen menus. And the list is growing.

Photographs by Chris Edwards

Fifteen years ago, when Sammy and Melinda Koenigsberg tried to interest Charlotte restaurants in their locally grown, organic vegetables, they could scarcely have met a colder shoulder.

“Why should we buy from you?” they heard over and over. “We can get it cheaper at Sysco,” a bulk food distributor. They ended up with one customer, Crossroads Restaurant on Providence Road, which is no longer in business.

The couple, who were cultivating three acres of family-owned land near Waxhaw, lived primarily the next few years off what they could sell through the Matthews Community Farmers Market and a food co-op they started. Sammy’s architectural career had been sidelined by arthritis associated with Lyme disease, and they’d decided to become pioneers in the sparsely populated organic movement because, Sammy says, “we were concerned about what was happening to our food supply.”

Now, you can sit down at some twenty Charlotte restaurants and order dishes made with vegetables and meats produced in the Carolinas. Most of them are produced “naturally,” without synthetic tinkering, if they’re not actually certified organic. The Koenigsbergs, who are certified, deliver to ten restaurants a week from their New Town Farms, and are forced to turn others away. And restaurants don’t want just the produce. They serve it with local grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, and free-range fowl. When Harriett and Milton Baucom of Baucom’s Best farm in Union County started selling their grass-fed beef a year and a half ago, “we thought we would have to go out and call and visit about forty restaurants. Maybe we would get one out of that,” Harriett says. Instead, there’s been such demand for what the Baucoms sell—an average of one cow a week—that they’re working to increase capacity.

Yes, encouraged by creative chefs and stubborn farmers, Charlotte restaurants and diners have lustily joined the farm-to-fork movement.

When Tim Groody moved to Charlotte eight years ago, he found little to excite him on Charlotte menus. The executive chef at Sonoma Modern American, Taverna 100, and Town restaurants recalls the Charlotte of that era as a “steak and potatoes” town. This was anathema to Groody, who had earlier worked in California, with its rich variety of fruits and vegetables. There, he says, “everything is local. It’s incredible out there.”

He set out to introduce Charlotteans to the variety and flavor that he says come from fresh-from-the field ingredients. “The farmer does the hard work. I do the easy work. I just cook it,” he says. He haunted farmers markets and established relationships with growers. He invented dishes based on seasonal produce, and he credited local growers on his menus. Soon other chefs joined him, and area farmers began collaborating with them. Groody, whom chefs and farmers call the godfather of the local movement, is now seeing the results of their influence. “I think we were pushing . . . pretty hard,” he remembers.

As Groody and the other chefs pushed in Charlotte, the same thing was happening across the country. An international movement called Slow Food, which is built around buying locally and in season, was founded in Italy in 1989 and boasts more than 80,000 members. The American version has more than 12,000 members. The idea is to respect food’s link to the community it comes from, to support that community’s economy, and, most importantly, rediscover the pleasures of the table.

“It’s what’s hot right now in the restaurant industry,” says Chef Ron Ahlert, executive director of the Community Culinary School of Charlotte and an officer in the Charlotte chapter of the American Culinary Federation. “We’re going back to Granny’s cooking.”

Slow food accounts for less than 5 percent of what’s on Charlotte’s restaurant tables, Ahlert estimates, but the movement is growing, he says. Whenever chefs meet, it’s a big topic, he says. The Charlotte chapter of the American Culinary Federation holds monthly educational seminars to introduce its 200-plus members to the area’s food sources, from trout farms to microbreweries. And the local Slow Food organization (www.slowfoodcharlotte.org) hosts a lively Web forum and semiregular dinners.

Of course, many diners who seek out local, fresh ingredients don’t think of themselves as part of a movement. They just want to eat more healthfully. Consciousness of low-fat, nutrient-rich diets has been raised to the point, Ahlert says, that “the hot dog vendor on Second and Tryon is now offering a turkey dog. People want to feel better about what they’re putting in their bodies.”

Recent food scares have also concerned Charlotteans, from England’s mad cow disease to the E.coli illnesses in 2006 to the recent melamine/pet food recalls. Most of the scares came from mass-produced or mass-grown food. One way to stay safer is to know more about where your food comes from, advises Harriett Baucom. “If you really want to know your food, you’ve got to know the farmer.”

Chefs think that the overriding reason for slow food’s popularity among their customers, however, is a simple one—the way it tastes. “All you have to do is bite into it and say, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ ” says Chef/Owner Adam Reed at Santé Restaurant in Matthews.

“A vegetable has a flavor all its own that we’ve forgotten about,” says Koenigsberg, contending that long exposure to foods shipped thousands of miles has numbed our senses. When this happens, he says, chefs have to smother the vegetables with butter and salt to make them taste good.

When they’re shipped long distances, foods lose nutrients, too. “The sooner it gets out of the field and gets on someone’s plate, certainly the more nutritious it is,” says Diane Beth, a nutritional manager for the North Carolina Division of Public Health. “Certain nutrients just get lost with storage time, generally more of the water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C.”

Ron Miller, partner in wine wholesaler Vintners Select Wine Co., eats once a week at Ratcliffe on the Green Dining & Wine Room. Like most of the other chefs, Ratcliffe Chef/Owner Mark Hibbs gets his produce from farms within fifty miles of Charlotte but searches the two Carolinas for meat, cheese, and seafood. He buys, he says, as “local as we can get it, organic as we can get it.”

“I’m very much aware of that,” Miller says. “I think it makes a big difference because the food there is always so fresh. It’s the purity and freshness of the ingredients, combined with his cooking skills.”

Chef Hibbs actually picks out of his own quarter-acre garden on Linwood Road in Gastonia. “I grow my own asparagus there. Tomatoes, leeks, garlic, everything.” He doesn’t have a freezer at Ratcliffe, which he and co-owner Zach Goodyear opened in January. A French chef once told him, he says, “a freezer is only an expensive way of storing things on the way to the Dumpster.”

At Sonoma, Groody says that his vegetables are often picked in the morning and on his customers’ plates that night. “It’s that fresh,” he says. “Like picking out of your own garden.” From May into October, he buys 80 percent to 90 percent of his produce locally. Diners enjoy his naturally grown offerings so much that they don’t object to a few bug bites on the beans, he says. Groody isn’t bothered either. They’re testimony to the beans’ pesticide-free cultivation, he says. “If a bug won’t eat it,” he asks, “why would you?”

Groody actually talked Koenigsberg into picking weeds for salads. “He has me once or twice a year go around and collect lamb’s quarters,” Koenigsberg says. “I don’t have to cultivate it. It cultivates itself, all over the garden.”

With no pressure to produce large amounts of any one item, farmers are free to follow chefs into gastronomic byways. Hibbs thinks he’s one of the first chefs in the country to use Poulet Rouge Fermier (red farm chicken) from Ashley Farms in Winston-Salem. It lacks neck feathers—a “naked neck” chicken, he calls it—and was grown from eggs that the farm’s owners brought back from France. It has more flavor and less fat than other chickens, he says. When his wife first tasted it, she thought it needed salt because she was used to mass-produced chickens, which are sometimes injected with saline to add weight and flavor. Hibbs serves it simply, dusted with Linwood Gardens herbs and paired with farmers market vegetables. And, oh yes, there’s the “jus”—“here in the South, we call it gravy,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s nice playing around with truffles,” he says. (He serves black truffles with grits.) “But to be able to do a simple roasted chicken and do it well, it’s the mark of a great chef.”

Chefs and farmers collaborate, too. “Chefs are always looking for something different,” says Groody. “It’s cool to work with them.” One of Groody’s suppliers, Dean Mullis at Laughing Owl Farm in Richfield, had a problem growing corn shoots, a trendy garnish, from popcorn kernels. They’re supposed to be about six inches long, crunchy, sweet tasting, and yellow. Mullis let some light into the growing area and the shoots immediately started photosynthesis and turned green. The two conferred, and Groody advised no light at all. The next batch turned out properly anemic looking.

Heirloom tomatoes, rarely if ever available in grocery stores or from bulk-food distributors, are a favorite of chefs. This time of year, Sonoma’s daily menu includes a tomato sampler that Groody makes up from twenty varieties. “Two or three varieties of red, two varieties of yellow, three or four striped ones.” His favorites include green zebra (it ripens green), Cherokee purple (an Indian variety from the North Carolina mountains), and Aunt Ruby’s. He serves them with a little salt, pepper, and vinaigrette, sometimes accompanied by olive breadsticks and grilled mozzarella.

“You can taste each one,” he says. One year, he remembers, “we sold thirty plates a night,” and he had an employee in the kitchen doing nothing but slicing tomatoes.

Locally grown food appeals to the eye as well as the palate. Santé’s Reed, in sunglasses and casual clothes, popped into the Matthews Farmers Market at 7 a.m. on a summer Saturday to pick up his weekend order from New Town Farms. “We’re so fortunate,” he said, surveying the golden beets, the green Swiss chard, and orange baby carrots forming a still life worthy of a painter. “Every time I come over here, I have to control myself. [I tell myself,] ‘Hold back! Hold back!’ ”

Once back in his restaurant across Matthews’ West Trade Street, he wrapped arugula with prosciutto, placed it on a ring of roasted beets, and drizzled it with a raspberry vinaigrette he’d made. That evening, he says, “the arugula salad was a big hit.” The other vegetables he put together in a sampler side dish so that diners could have a little taste of each. “It’s delicious to eat, but it’s very appealing to the eye,” he says. “You’ve got all these multicolor and dimensional vegetables on the plate.”

 

Don’t get the wrong idea. Charlotte menus are not overflowing with a bounty of local foods. For now, only higher-end restaurants have made the commitment. And chain restaurants, which strive for consistency from market to market, rely on bulk food distributors. Plus, there’s the whole supply-and-demand thing.

Executive Chef Gabriele Grigolon, who buys for Luce, Il Posto Osteria, Coco Osteria, and Toscana restaurants, was used to dealing with growers in his home country of Italy and later in France. He does some local buying here, and would love to do more. “That is my dream,” he says. But the restaurants have a combined capacity of more than 200 people. “I buy, like, over 100 pounds of tomatoes a week,” he says. Local growers, who tend small acreages and are vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, can’t consistently supply that.

“He says, ‘Bring me all you got.’ I bring him forty, fifty, eighty pounds,” says Koenigsberg. But Koenigsberg will recommend other growers who may be able to add more, Grigolon says, an assistance he appreciates. Chef Charles Semail of Chef Charles Catering is in a similar position as Grigolon. In Paris, fishermen would bring their catch to his back door. “I was putting them on my table and they were still moving.” In the U.S., he was pleased to find he could buy locally from Tega Hills Greenhouse and others when he was chef at Dean & DeLuca and then Quail Hollow Club. But when he opened his catering service, he found he had to plan for weddings and other events months in advance, and there was no guarantee growers would have what he needed. His solution: buy in bulk for the big events, and save the locally grown product for smaller occasions. “With a small wine dinner for twelve people is when I use them,” he says.

There’s been talk among farmers of pooling crops, Koenigsberg says, but so far, there’s been no action. Groody would like to see grocery stores buy more, if only for two months in summer. It would create capital that would enable growers to invest in irrigation and other improvements to boost volume, he says. But Andy Pollard, the produce manager for two Earth Fare supermarkets in Charlotte, says he has a hard time finding sufficient volume to buy. “You really need a farmer that has fifty acres of one thing.” He probably only gets 1 percent to 2 percent of his goods locally, even in peak season, though the Asheville-based chain’s corporate office buys about 30 percent of its summer produce in the Carolinas and Georgia, he says.

At Charlotte’s three Home Economist stores, perishables merchandiser and buyer Adam Peltz thinks he may, for the first time, have found a solution. Peltz, who uses at least 400 pounds of tomatoes a week, is talking with a Union County farmer about reserving acreage exclusively for him. “I’m really excited,” he says.

To really sustain the movement, “the answer is more small farmers,” Koenigsberg says. With demand outpacing supply, new farmers can make a go of it now, he says, “if they own their land and they want to live simply.” That’s a big “if” in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, where farmland is being supplanted by development at a rapid rate.

Until their numbers increase, growers will juggle their plantings to extend the season and will grow a wide variety so that they can substitute vegetables in chef’s orders if necessary. Jenifer Mullis at Laughing Owl Farm said recently that she was out of corn shoots but she offered Groody purslane, a variation on a weed that’s popular with chefs. Chefs, she says, “are very understanding about not being able to get what they want.” When does Groody change his menus, usually planned two weeks in advance? “If they call and say, ‘I don’t have anymore,’ overnight,” he says.

Earlier this summer, he was delighted to take a call from Denise Smart of Nise’s Herbs in Stanly County. She’d replanted beans after a freeze destroyed her first crop, and she was happy to tell him, “I saw my first bean on there.” That meant, he said, that he and his customers would have the beans within a week or two. And they would be worth the wait, he said, bug bites and all.

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