Of pretty plates and what you put on them

When I first arrived at my externship site in the December of 2014, cold winds and blurry snowstorms were raging across the Hamptons in full swing, turning the water in leaf veins to ice, frosting every exposed, naked surface, every bare-boned branch and freezing the earth into a solid mass. To say the least, the conditions were not particularly ideal for a food service establishment – a luxury resort, no less - that had built its entire marketing campaign and buzz around being a property that offered produce straight from its own garden and local organic suppliers. As my executive chef guided me across the parking lot to the relatively small, one acre of farmland that lay over yonder with its permafrost soil, crabby trees, and forbidding-looking wicker gate, I felt a dismal chill fluttering in my chest, and not just from the shrieking gale blowing up around us.

Sure enough, the farm was … pretty much what anybody would expect a farm to be in New York’s brutal winter conditions: the ground looked like it had been stomped on by a yeti, with withered crops crisscrossing their arms weakly over the soil. Most of the hedges were bare. A few sparse lines of green streaked through the grey-toned muddy brown landscape, but there was nothing to indicate much vegetation or life of any kind. I looked up at Chef’s face, certain to find some version of disappointment coloring his features, but instead, I saw an emotion that shocked me and made me realize something crucial before I even began my externship: in his face, I saw pride.

He then proceeded to walk me through the way he had set up what he called his ‘greatest achievement’ on the property in three years in complex, rich detail, something we went through again during my first week in May, almost six months later on the advent of summer. In summation, the area was divided into seven generalized zones, each with different crop categories and varieties growing year round depending on several key factors, including but not limited to the nutrient content of the soil, the drainage of water from the earth, cover crop percentage over time, the geographical height of the land over other areas - which allowed more underground penetration, making it ideal for tubers and root-based crops - and convenience of accessing the crops (“So if we ever need a handful of herbs for service on a night when we’re about to get slammed, at least you won’t have to run to the far end of the farm to fetch them for us”, he chortled).

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During the summer, I dug deep into how my restaurant tried to incorporate farm produce and the basic principles of farm-to-table cuisine into its menu, as well as understanding the farm itself. As an organization founded by the renowned Tom Colicchio, it came as no surprise to me that Chef’s vision was rather consistent with Chef Colicchio’s personal opinions about cooking, which are that a good cook should allow the produce, fruit, and vegetables to dictate the structure and overall composition of a dish, since therein lies the true potential of maximizing the relatively unchanging flavor provided by a protein. Most of the dishes on the original menu mirrored this concept: from a lobster soup that shone the limelight on the creamy, satiating mouth feel of white asparagus over the absurdly-overpriced protein, to a fluke ceviche that swaddled the fishiness of the primary ingredient with layers of sultry, bright beetroot, and citrus glazes.

Of course, producing food from a farm itself isn’t an easy job, and is definitely one that requires a firm hand and a vigilant eye to overcome some of the more obvious problems. The aforementioned winter was undeniably one of the larger glitches looming on the horizon, as it virtually deadened the produce and resulted in a resounding, disappointingly large expense for the establishment with no substantial benefit to gain from. Another recurring problem, and one I observed more closely as the summer dragged on with its waves of large cover services, seemed to be the obvious lack of time and/or labor to go and harvest as much as possible from the soil before the thriving populations of insects or the harsh, penetrating sunlight got to it first. Fortunately, these were problems with relatively easy fixes for a kitchen staff that was incredibly motivated to model their menu around the produce, provide customers with enough garden produce to stimulate interest and conversation, and use a dizzying array of wild blossoms and tendrils as perfunctory plate garnishes. However, in one of my first conversations with Chef on my first day in May being introduced to the area and property, he happened to mention how he believed that the term ‘farm-to-table’ itself was greatly overused and overrated, almost to the point where it now feels unnecessarily tacked onto most menus and flagship restaurant titles. Customers blindly associate the term itself with abstract, overreaching concepts of modernism, freshness and trendiness without understand the true meaning of the phrase itself. All food, he told me, comes from a farm and ends up on a table; it’s basic logic until the rueful day when people starting punching out natural crops from factories. It’s the time in between that makes the difference.

To prove his point, he had me pluck two strawberries from our garden (while plucking four for himself). The first, I consumed immediately, and it hit my taste buds with an electric burst of bright berry flavor and concentrated sweetness that caused my facial expression to wilt with joy and a peal of guffaws from the peanut gallery in the kitchen. The second one, I kept under refrigeration for half a day before eating it at family meal; it was still glorious, there’s no doubt about it, but it tasted almost muted, like a quieter version of the first one that had roared with passionate flavor. It was providing that intensity and full potential of produce that my establishment originally believed in, bringing food from the crops to a customer’s plate in less than a course of a day or two at most to allow them to appreciate nature’s bounty at its fullest. Chef told me that farm-to-table cuisine was currently a craze that seems to be gripping relevance far and wide, but that it needed to be more. It needs to be pervasive in the hospitality industry. What confounds me about everything surrounding the farm-to-table hype isn’t how wildly popular its become in such a relatively short span of time; it’s how ignorant people still are about the meals on their plates. It seems like people simultaneously care more and less about what they put in their bodies – in this generation, it’s all about the pretty plates and Instagram pictures and the number of labels chef place on their menu descriptions - from ‘local’ to ‘organic’ to beech-and-applewood smoked – but take a look inside most kitchens and you’ll find them shipping ingredients from halfway across the world and sitting on them for weeks before serving them while still claiming that the food they make is ‘technically’ farm to fork.

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It’s the expression on Chef’s face that I saw on that first day that truly elevates a dish and a kitchen; it’s the knowledge of what’s being placed in front of them that heightens a customer’s experience; it’s the overall upheaval of farm-to-table cuisine from a trend to something much more omnipresent in kitchens around the world that will make a difference. That basic understanding that food is basically bottled sunshine with a rapidly diminishing lifespan, both in the kitchen and outside of it, is what will mark the advent of real change in the hospitality industry. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, pluck a strawberry, then we can talk.

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