by Nancy Johnson
Farm-to-table dining has been around since the birth of agriculture more than 12,000 years ago. Our ancestors ate what they pulled from the earth or traveled short distances to pick up produce from nearby farms.
But the connection between farmer and consumer faltered about a century ago, with the advent of ready-to-eat, highly-processed foods like hot dogs and margarine. The shift was subtle at first. Products loaded with additives and preservatives trickled into the marketplace: Candy bars. White bread. TV dinners. By the end of World War II, Americans had embraced the long shelf life and culinary convenience of processed foods. As the decades rolled forward, the link between farmer and consumer was all but lost.
The farm-to-table movement is changing all that. Prompted by savvy consumers seeking to understand where and how food is made, the distance and time it travels to market, and the negative effects of making, transporting and consuming highly-processed foods, the farm-to-table credo is simple: eat wholesome, minimally processed food, raised or grown locally.
Zack Bruell, chef/restaurateur of five fine dining restaurants in Cleveland (Parallax, Table 45, L’Albatros, Cowell & Hubbard and Chinato) is an advocate of the farm-to-table initiative.
Bruell has planted organic gardens on the L’Albatros Brasserie property. “When I designed the restaurant, there was an area outside where I thought I might put in a bocce ball court,” he says. “But I’d been on a quest for high-quality tomatoes and I decided the property would be better served if I put in beds for produce.”
Bruell hired Lois Rose, a master organic gardener who planted eight beds in an area slightly larger than 75 x 75 feet where 100 percent organic products are grown. Bruell also grows hydroponic watercress on the property.
“When I moved back to Cleveland from Los Angeles in 1985, I had trouble finding good product, especially fresh herbs,” Bruell says. “The problem with Northeast Ohio is not just its extreme cold, but its lack of sunlight.”
Bruell found a nursery that grew fresh herbs. A year later he found a farm in New Philadelphia growing watercress, Romaine, Bibb and other lettuces for the restaurant’s mesclun salad. But as fresh greens became widely available at the supermarket, some of Bruell’s suppliers, unable to compete with big agribusinesses, were forced to shutter their operations.
“Patrick McCafferty was one of our suppliers,” Bruell says. “He was growing the best greens, with quality far and above. I never forgot the flavor profile of his greens. After he went out of business, Patrick helped us construct a hydroponic system to grow watercress.”
Bruell harvests his garden from late May through October. He also buys from Cleveland Crops. “They’re urban gardeners who reclaim sites, clean the soil and set up small urban farms. They came to us and asked us what we wanted. I sat down with my chefs and we talked about fresh produce like arugula. We want whatever is in season.
“We work with good quality ingredients,” he adds. “Farm-to-table here is not easy, but the one thing we won’t do is compromise.”
Ryan Marino, chef/owner of The Corkscrew Saloon in Medina, has embraced the farm-to-table initiative. “Throughout the year, we buy as local as possible. We have multiple vendors – Richardson Farms in Lafayette, Valley City Fungi – and we buy our Bibb and Romaine lettuce from Medina Creative Produce.”
The Corkscrew, housed in a rambling century home, has spacious grounds well-suited for garden beds. “We’ve planted tomatoes and bell peppers in front of the restaurant. Our herb garden provides mint for our Mojitos, basil for our pesto and cilantro for our fresh salsa. At the end of tomato season, we offer a fried green tomato BLT. Our customers love it.”
Marino says he also works with Ohio Proud partners to source meat and cheese. “All of our cheeses are Amish-made in Middlefield. We buy locally as much as possible because we want to serve food of the highest quality. And if you support your local farmers they will support you right back. It’s good for everyone.”
Owner Jessi Iams of Local Roots in Powell grew up on the family-owned Scheiderer Farms located in Marysville. “The farm has been in our family for four generations,” he says. “It’s what inspired the restaurant. We grow tomatoes, peppers and squash for Local Roots on a two-acre garden on the farm.”
Local Roots offers a feature menu and a seasonal menu that rotates weekly based on the produce available. Iams sources locally-raised bison, chicken, beef and pork for the farm-to-table restaurant. The restaurant also offers 18 Ohio draft beers and several Ohio wines.
“I just bought an eight-acre farm two miles from the restaurant. We’ll raise chickens for eggs and we’ll have honey. We’ll be planting apple and peach trees too,” Iams says. “I’m a planner and I’m very excited about getting closer to our goal of sourcing almost all of our food locally.”
Cincinnati chef and farm-to-table advocate Julie Francis cooks with a concept in mind. “I want to cook seasonally with what’s available, when it’s available,” she says. “Ever since I returned to Cincinnati, I’ve frequented farmers markets to make a connection with the farmers and growers. Findlay Market is historic but in the past 10 years farmers markets have opened in just about every Cincinnati neighborhood – Hyde Park, Wyoming, North College Hill.”
Francis says it’s important for consumers to connect with their local markets and farmers. “Sourcing local food works on so many levels. I get a sense of well-being serving healthy, clean food. I’m supporting the local farmers, the growers and the economy. Ohio is a very fertile state and many of our farmers are growing products sustainably without pesticides. We have so much good food at our fingertips.”
Trevor Clatterbuck, owner of the Fresh Fork Market, caters to consumers who want fresh food at their fingertips every week. Fresh Fork Market is a Cleveland-based food subscription service providing its members with local produce, dried beans, pasture raised meats, artisan cheeses and more.
“We’re not an actual storefront,” Clatterbuck says, “we have a warehouse in downtown Cleveland, and 25 area pick-up locations.”
The market, which works with 100 local farmers, operates in summer as well as winter, with omnivore, vegetarian and vegan options. With a series of pricing structures and bag sizes, the program is accessible to every size family.
“We’ve been doing great,” Clatterbuck says. “We went from 40 customers five years ago to 3,500 this year. People are looking for a trusted source for their food. They want healthy and wholesome food and guaranteed freshness. We have a social responsibility to provide that.”
L’Albatros Brasserie & Bar, www.albatrosbrasserie.com
Fresh Fork Market, www.freshforkmarket.com
Cleveland Crops, a non-profit affiliate of the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, is an agriculture and food processing training and employment program designed to create innovative work opportunities and new career choices for adults with developmental disabilities. www.clevelandcrops.org
Medina Creative Produce, www.medinacreativehousing.com
Ohio Proud is the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s marketing program that identifies and promotes food and agricultural products that are made in Ohio and grown in Ohio. www.ohioproud.org