BY Jason Frye and Sara Leary
The Farm to Table movement has growers and gatherers paired up with chefs and restaurant owners who cull the bounty of the local harvest to influence seasonal menus.
This evolving trend in American cuisine is also educating diners about the nutritional value of locally raised and locally caught food while supporting the regions farmers and fishermen.
Area foodies are fortunate to have an abundance of chefs who change their menus seasonally around the local harvest. Some like Chef Mark Lawson of the Blockade Runner Beach Resorts restaurant East (275 Waynick Blvd. 910-256-2251) grow their own herbs tomatoes zucchini squash potatoes and salad greens; others cure their own meat. All of them take great pride in preparing delicious food with a local focus.
Lawson takes the time to grow his ingredients locally on site for his restaurant which he says is the best way to get that fresh taste customers are looking for. From March 1 to June 1 East actively harvests the vegetables among other greens in front of guests to prove just how local their ingredients really are.
“Local foods just taste better. There is a big difference between a tomato picked two hours ago and a genetically enhanced tomato that has been delivered from thousands of miles away ” says Lawson who has been cooking since he was 17 years old.
Growing up in a self-described country family Lawson has been handling fresh foods all of his life. As a child his family relied on their land to grow their greens and raise livestock. Lawson credits his upbringing as one reason why he loves using locally grown ingredients in all of his cooking.
“At East we strive to make a conscious effort to source everything locally and regionally ” Lawson says. “We are a North Carolina-based business. Our employees are from the state and a lot of our customers are from the state. We want to give back to them by trying to keep the money within our region our state and our country if we can.”
East is one of the few restaurants that has a garden right on the property. The greens are planted within the rest of the landscaping that surrounds the restaurants outdoor seating area and they add to the exotic tropical aesthetic of the Blockade Runners site.
“Anybody can grow their own food ” Lawson says. “Its very simple and because of our garden here we have actually influenced customers to start their own small-scale gardens.” SL
For Chef Tripp Engle of Lumina Stations Brasserie du Soleil local food has been a focus for his 21-year career.
“When I was in culinary school at Johnson and Wales our instructors really emphasized locally-grown food. Charleston being a known food destination has a reputation for showcasing a variety of cuisines all using quality local ingredients. Fortunately for me I worked under world-class chefs in Charleston and came away with a passion for using local products ” he says.
At Brasserie du Soleil (1908 Eastwood Road #118 910-256-2226) Chef Engle is known for sourcing as much as he can from local farmers. During the lengthy local growing season the bulk of his menu ingredients come from a three- or four-hour radius of Wrightsville Beach. His fellow chef Kyle McKnight of Circa 1922 (8 North Front St. 910-762-1922) in downtown Wilmington carries his dedication to local food even further he farms.
“Right now I farm about one and a half acres ” McKnight says. “Im growing corn haricots vert (green beans) yellow squash zucchini 32 types of tomatoes salad kohlrabi cow peas cucumbers cauliflower and cabbage. As the seasons change Ill have different things growing ” he says.
Farming McKnight says has always been something hes had in mind. “Theres something about growing what you use that speaks to your passion that speaks to how much you care about the quality and flavor of what you use ” he says.
Passion for quality ingredients also drives local suppliers. Margaret Shelton of Shelton Herb Farms in Brunswick County delivers fresh herbs salad mixes and micro greens to Lawson Engle McKnight and almost a dozen other local chefs.
“Its important for local farmers to work with our chefs ” Shelton says. “For us on the supply side its a point of pride to have our items on the menus of the best chefs across town. I know for the chefs its a point of pride to provide high-quality high-integrity food to their diners.”
Stefan Hartman of Black River Organic Farms in Ivanhoe North Carolina provides crops of organic and pesticide-free vegetables to chefs who say the same thing.
“One of the things I hear from chefs ” Hartman says “is that they appreciate that local farmers grow ingredients focused on flavor rather than shipping durability and that we pick and deliver our produce most of the time within 24 hours retaining more flavor and nutrients than cross-country shipped or flash-frozen products.”
To entice restaurants to use local produce many farms offer discounts says Jackie Lewis manager at Lewis Farms.
“We love to see our strawberries blackberries and blueberries on menus. Several chefs in town buy our berries honey and ice cream which comes from Jackson Dairy another local farm on a regular basis ” she says.
Chefs Lawson Engle and McKnight arent the only ones in the area with a focus on local food. In downtown Wilmington Chef Derrick Cook of Crow Hill (9 S. Front St. 910-228-5332) also makes local food the focal point of his menu.
“A lot of restaurants will push something local on their special board but we try to push local food on our whole menu year-round ” he says.
“Flavor is king in the restaurant business ” Cook says. “And you cant beat the flavor you get from fresh locally grown just-picked produce; or fish that was caught and cleaned and delivered just hours before serving. Or beef pork or chicken that was processed the day before and delivered the morning youre going to use it. Sure sometimes we run into supply issues and we have to change our menu on the fly but thats part of what makes this job rewarding.”
“Its not just flavor ” says Tina Moller of Natures Way Seafood and Farm in Hampstead “there are a lot of benefits to eating food grown locally. A lot of farmers around here are moving toward pesticide/herbicide-free practices and fishermen are only catching what they can sell. There are health benefits to eating quality food free of chemicals and preservatives. And there are moral benefits in supporting humane responsible farmers fishermen and ranchers.”
“On top of that theres an economic benefit ” says Bill Moller Tinas husband. “With more restaurants using local farmers and more farmers markets popping up that keeps money here rather than sending it to some multinational fishing company out of Singapore. That has real benefits to our local state and national economies.” JF
With its roots firmly entrenched in French cuisine more than a century ago dating as far back as the time of Georges Auguste Escoffier and Ferdinand Point only to be reprised in the 1960s with Nouvelle Cuisine the Farm to Table movement continues to evolve today as chefs chalk their boards and rewrite their menus daily to take advantage of the bounty of fresh ingredients found at their back kitchen door.
So whether you find yourself seated in East at the Blockade Runner with a first course of summer vegetable carpaccio served with micro greens drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar or drooling over Crow Hills delicious pan-fried Sneeds Ferry jumbo soft shell crabs you dont have to be a hipster to ask your server the origins of each dish you find on a local restaurant menu but it just might enhance the experience and prepare you for the next evolving food trend foraging for naturally growing ingredients like wild fruit berries greens and mushrooms all within driving distance of your dining table.
Poached Local Triggerfish with green garlic puree Meyer lemon-olive oil emulsion muscadine grapes and grape tomatoes with African blue basil
Recipe courtesy Chef Tripp Engle of Brasserie du Soleil
4 – 7 oz. cleaned local Triggerfish filets (Motts Channel seafood)
1 pound green garlic (young spring garlic with the stalk) (Shelton herb farm)
1 cup fresh cream (Jackson Dairy farm)
2 oz. minced country ham (Allan Benton Madisonville Tennessee)
4 oz. fresh butter (Jackson Dairy Dunn North Carolina)
2 oz. heirloom buckwheat flour (Anson Mills Columbia South Carolina)
16 oz. fresh squeezed Meyer lemon juice
Half bottle dry Vermouth
6 oz. extra virgin olive oil
12 Muscadine grapes (peeled and seeded) native to North Carolina
12 peeled grape tomatoes (locally grown in many places)
2 bunches African blue basil (Shelton Herb Farm)
2 oz. local honey (Brookwood Bees)
Redmond Real Salt (to taste)
Fresh ground white pepper (to taste)
Poaching liquid: Melt 2 ounces of butter and add flour while constantly stirring with a wooden spoon over low heat until you form a thick paste (Roux). Set aside to cool. In a shallow but wide braising pot (Rondeau) pour in the Vermouth and 8 ounces of the Meyer lemon juice. Bring the liquid to a simmer and stir in the roux. The liquid should thicken to the viscosity of a thick soup. Maintain a low heat of 155 – 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt and pepper to taste.
Green garlic puree: Remove the root end and slice the garlic stalks and bulbs 1/4 inch thick. Put the garlic into a bucket of cold water to clean out any dirt (let soak for 10 minutes the dirt will settle to the bottom and the garlic will float). While the Garlic is soaking combine the minced country ham and fresh cream in a saucepot and bring it to a simmer. When the cream has taken on the ham flavor filter out the ham and reserve for another use. Bring a pot of water to boil and then add the cleaned garlic. Boil until softened (5 min.) and drain. Put the garlic immediately into an ice water bath to cool and retain color. Remove the garlic and puree in a blender with the ham-infused cream. Cover the puree and save for later.
Meyer lemon emulsion: In a blender add the remaining Meyer lemon juice and turn the blender on high. While the juice is spinning add 2 ounces of local honey and then slowly add the extra-virgin olive oil to the vortex of the spinning liquid. The liquid should slightly thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Assembly: Place the Triggerfish filets into the wide poaching pot and gently cook until you can stick a metal skewer or cake tester into the thickest part of the fish without much resistance (the skewer should be warm when you touch it to your chin or lip if it is hot the fish is overdone if it is cold the fish is underdone). When the fish is done remove it from the poaching liquid using a slotted spatula and place on a towel-lined pan to drain. On warm plates: spoon a pool of garlic puree in the center. Place the fish filet on the garlic puree and spoon the emulsion around the puree. Slice the basil leaves into thin ribbons (chiffonade) while the tomatoes and grapes are being gently warmed with a little bit of the olive oil salt and pepper. Season the fish with salt and pepper and top with the basil. Add three grape tomatoes to each plate (on top of the emulsion) and serve warm. Bon appetit!