Meet Robert Orr Sysco's worst nightmare: local chefs who buy from small hometown farmers.
Actually, it's not so much that these culinary luminaries have something against 20-pound jugs of tomato paste. They just happen to have a strong affinity for tomatoes grown on a Joelton vine, and shiitake mushrooms from Ashland City, and beets from Bethpage. And in the case of some chefs, like The Mad Platter's Craig Jervis, the flowers on the restaurant tables and the herbs in the daily specials are grown right in their own backyard.
"By supporting local farmers, I support the local economy, I support Nashville, and then they bring me this incredible stuff that doesn't have to be shipped from California," says Margot McCormack, chef and owner of Margot Cafe and Bar in East Nashville. "The nature of what we do here, people have started finding me," she says. "We change our menu every day, which means that we don't have to have 13 pounds of any one thing. Someone can bring me a basket of fresh tomatoes one morning, and we can use them that night."
Margot has even begun having special dinnersfour a yearthat feature the products of local growers, plus short presentations from those farmers to the diners who are eating the fruits of their labors (sometimes literally). The five-course dinners, the next of which is scheduled for March 21, may feature local meats, greens, mulled ciders and even homemade limoncello. A different farmer represents each course, and the meal becomes something both educational and deeply personal.
"They're the people behind the scenes of what we do here," McCormack says.
But locally grown food wasn't always so easy to come by. When she returned from studying and working in New York in 1996, McCormack was "shocked" at how little local or regional food was being produced and used in restaurants here. "I was just blown away by that," she says. "For a long time, I had to go back to New York and get product. I made it pretty well known when I was a chef at F. Scott's that I was looking for local people, local products."
So when she started Margot three-and-a-half years ago, she had ready-made connections to small growers, and those relationships have blossomed right along with her restaurant business.
What her and others' successes have made clear is that, despite the prevalence of chain dining, Nashville is home to plenty of people who appreciate food with a connection to their city. Terry Crawford of Hair of the Dog uses meats from Peaceful Pastures in Hickman County and buys local produce in season because it's what she likesand what her customers want. "We have a large artistic crowd, so most of the people who are like that, that's what they prefer, and it's kind of hard to find here."
Crawford went to college in Boulder, Colo., where granola heads rule the day and where organic and wholesome is a way of life. "I miss having the places that were omnipresent and were always carrying these items, so I tried really hard to re-create that part of where I went to college," Crawford says. "I don't have any lofty goals that it's better than Sysco, but I do miss having the option, I guess."
There's a reason local produce grown without the tricks of modern food production is better. It's not just some touchy-feely sense of community that drives the philosophy of this city's best chefs (though it's certainly that as well). "I'm a firm believer in the taste of product grown from the earth, as opposed to hydroponic," says Kim Totzke of Flying Horse in Franklin, who's also executive chef at Yellow Porch and Wild Iris. (Hydroponic produce is cultivated in a nutrient solution rather than grown in soil.) "There's a huge difference in the flavor. You can taste the earth in your food. Hydroponic herbs in comparison to herbs from the garden, there's a night-and-day difference."
Totzke says she uses a network of farmers producing everything from butternut squash to berries to mushrooms. In the winter, when locally grown foods are more difficult to come by, she tends to focus her menu on braised meats, with which she serves root vegetables and cellar products. But she can't buy enough local produce to last into the coldest months. "I kind of flesh it out at the end of fall," she says. "The last run, you get beets, stuff like that, and then it's over."
Martha Stamps, of Martha's at the Plantation, has the same difficulty using local food 12 months out of the year, but she's found a cheddar cheese made in a little rural outpost between Chattanooga and Knoxville that she serves year-roundSweetwater cheddar. And her country hams come from around the same area.
"There's going to be a time of year when local produce is pretty much completely down, but more and more farmers are trying to plant crops that they'll start right before the frost in the fall and are dormant in the winter, but come up early in the spring," she says. "The first things you'll get out of that are your spring greens, like mesclun mix, and then kale, endive, watercressthose are traditionally your earliest crops."
Fortunately for us, March is knocking on the door.
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