Consider this discussion the beginning of a search, the opening in an ongoing talk on a particular fact of restaurants these days.
I’m talking about a term that you probably use, or perhaps you hate, or possibly both use and hate, or maybe really love. I’m talking about "farm to table," and what’s next for chefs, for restaurants, and eventually, maybe, for the rest of us who find meaning in food. Ever since the rise of farm to table, the concept—the shortening of the chain between grower and eater—ever since that became a thing, and then became ubiquitous, it’s made some chefs pause. I'd like to explore, here and in future discussions, the state of farm to table, and the way some chefs have already begun looking beyond it, trying to forge a new system that feels more dynamic, more personal. More (brace for the word) authentic.
Here’s how my own thoughts on this began.
A couple of years ago I paid a visit to pastry chef Boris Portnoy, at his house high up in the eastern hills above Napa Valley. Portnoy, whose last gig was down below us somewhere in St. Helena, at the restaurant at Meadowood, cooked a Georgian lunch inspired by his recent trip to Tbilisi. As we sat on his driveway making churchkhela, walnuts threaded onto strings and dipped in thickened grape juice, he talked about his dissatisfactions with the practice of farm-to-table sourcing.
After years of excitement—of feeling cutting-edge and vital—“farm to table” had become an almost completely passive exercise, Portnoy said. With the growth in the infrastructure of specialty growers and distributors, pretty much any chef with the means to pay could pick up a phone and order pristine product: Oregon truffles, tiny fava leaves and tendrils, mind-blowing tomatoes. “Chefs are passive consumers,” Portnoy said. He told me how he (and others) felt they’d lost the connection to the ingredients they worked with. Disconnected from them.
It was kind of a huge revelation.
Now, there are probably 50 shades of passive, a kind of hands-on sourcing that varies by degree. Some chefs I know still personally go to the farmers’ market, fish wholesaler, or even just Berkeley Bowl to look, taste, and choose. Others contract with growers to grow special stuff just for them, while the rare (and rarefied) few are able to support their own gardens.
Portnoy was talking about taking sourcing much, much deeper than tasting the strawberries before you load a couple of flats into the restaurant’s van. He was talking about chefs taking such an active involvement in sourcing ingredients that it defines the very food they cook, the number of diners they can serve, and even the form of their businesses. Can you cook a multicourse meal for 100 guests if you’re actively raising or foraging the food, or can you only support the occasional pop-up?
Active involvement—hands to table, for lack of a better phrase—could mean trudging out into the woods and actively foraging. It could mean harnessing the powers of ripening and fermentation to radically change the nature of food, not cooking, strictly, but learning, say, the mutating power of bacterial growth and knowing when (and how) to harvest the results. (Portnoy himself was gathering grapevines from his wine-grower neighbors, bartering produce from gardeners who set up at a certain intersection not far from his house….)
Since that day on Portnoy’s driveway, I’ve come to see it as part of chefs’ ongoing search for authenticity in the food they cook, the quest for some kind of intimate connection with food that goes beyond lining up the right vendors. The transformation starts, not in the kitchen, after some purveyor has dropped off crates of stuff at the restaurant’s back door, but far earlier than that. Just as some chefs are cooking their biographies to achieve a level of authenticity in their food, others are seeking a far more intimate relationship with what they cook.
What Alice Waters named the “delicious revolution”—a complete change, in the past 30 years, in the way restaurants source ingredients, the relationships built with farmers and butchers, brewers and cheese makers—this has been a wonderful thing. Now what? It feels like we’re poised at the brink of a generational lunge, an evolution.
In future discussions I’ll talk about the chefs who are reaching beyond farm to table to forge a more active relationship with the food they cook. Before I get into it, though, I really want to gauge the ongoing usefulness of even the phrase. Does “farm to table” still seem useful, or has it been overplayed, like “artisan,” “green,” and “sustainable,” appropriated by big supermarket chains and fast food companies to sell stuff that is in fact, very far removed from its sources? We probably all agree that the concept—that short chain between producer and eater—is a good thing for all kinds of reasons (environmental, aesthetic, and above all for flavor). Can we take it farther? How will it limit, or change what we expect from restaurants? Some thoughtful chefs and restaurant owners have started the journey. I’ll talk about them in future discussions.