3 Seattle-area restaurants with farms where ‘farm-to-table’ is more than just a buzzword

The farm-to-table idea gained traction when Alice Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. The entire restaurant industry fell in love with this practice of valuing relationships with local organic food producers (and, in most of the time, publicizing it) and the opening of Chez Panisse pushed more than a thousand metaphorical dominoes, transforming the farm-to-table idea into a social movement in its own right.

More than 50 years later, the words “from farm to table” are no longer new; they are everywhere. It is standard practice to mention local farms and producers on menus or blackboards. Some restaurants even promote dishes made with ingredients sourced from their own herb or vegetable gardens. There are still plenty of opportunities around the Seattle area to dine in a literal field of a working farm every summer.

Even though restaurants across the United States – including Lummi Island’s Willows Inn – lie about the provenance of ingredients, “farm to table” or “farm to table” remain powerful buzzwords that conjure visions of imperfect products with dirt still on the back door of a good-natured farmer in overalls.

The reality is not so simple.

Crops can fail even under the most ideal conditions. And in precarious conditions – like the cold, wet spring we’ve all experienced – the bad can turn to worse. Slugs decimating crops that could normally grow fast enough to outrun them. Or consider last year’s June heat wave with cabbages scorched by the scorching sun. Each year in the Snoqualmie Valley, the floods arrive earlier and the shortage of labor has not spared the agricultural industry. When your restaurant has a farm, sometimes it means the chef has twice as much work as the farmer.

“It’s easy to put Instagram on the path to perfection and design that kind of ideal farm-to-table experience that’s happening. But the reality is it’s not perfect and it’s hard work, and it takes a lot of creativity along with persistence,” said Matthew Curtis, half of the duo behind the pop-up and farm Three Sacks Full.

Still, there are ranchers who own restaurants who wouldn’t take it any other way. These people should be nimble when planning the menu, substituting ingredients if things don’t work out on the farm, or leaning on their larger farming community to help. They are also closely tied to their crops and know how to display even the humblest vegetables beautifully. We found three Seattle-area chefs with farms that take the buzzword from farm to table into a way of life, mostly quietly.

learning seasons

Curtis and partner Michael Tsai have run Three Sacks Full since February 2018, offering dinners at different restaurants in Seattle, the menus informed by what they grow on their small plot of land in Carnation.

The duo moved to Seattle from Northern California in 2017 with the intention of running a restaurant with their own farm. Tsai is a longtime chef who has worked on farms over the years whenever he wanted to take a break from the kitchen. Curtis’ expertise is in wine. Shortly after moving to the area, Tsai took a job at the Goose and Gander farm with Meredith Molli, a farmer chef who owns the Italian restaurant La Medusa in Columbia City.

After a stint on the farm, Tsai returned to the kitchen, working at Upper Bar Ferdinand, Duvall’s The Grange and La Medusa, where she works to this day. In March 2020, as the pandemic ended indoor dining, Three Sacks Full went to a biweekly takeout model with two pickup locations. The farm noisily continued along with Tsai and Curtis coaxing specialty vegetables like Italian Pienolo tomatoes, Ukrainian Poletschka beans, and Basque peppers out of the field.

They don’t grow storage crops like beets, potatoes or carrots because “a lot of people do it well” in the area who can buy these crops from local farmers. And they’ve made choices about only supporting local farmers — even if that means forgoing things like citrus (Tsai makes her own vinegar instead of adding acid or flavor to dishes) or cauliflower in the winter — without attaching an attitude to it. .

“I wouldn’t say using citrus is cheating, it’s just our preference. It seems very judicious…. I wanted to see if it was something we could do without. Also, lemons are very expensive,” says Tsai.

They don’t consider themselves experienced farmers; each season is a learning experience.

“It’s never the same, and you start to gain this personal library of experiences and knowledge of how your crops are going to perform, and ultimately we like to think we’re going to get better,” says Curtis.

The number one priority for Curtis and Tsai is for people to find them because the food is good.

“Then people will find it’s all organic and locally sourced and people can tune into that or not. It’s the icing on the cake in some ways. It’s easy to promote it if we want to, but what’s not so easy is actually putting the work in and being intentional about it,” says Curtis.

Being locally sourced and seasonal seemed easy when they lived in California. But in Washington, there are only a handful of vegetables available in the late winter and early spring months.

“I think about being seasonal in the winter when you have seven vegetables. How do you make a menu that is interesting? How do you give enough sustenance to a menu? A vegetable will have to play three roles on the menu,” says Tsai.

To keep things interesting, Tsai pickles or dries tomatoes, beans and peppers. They grow some hardy winter crops – kohlrabi, chicory – and store special pumpkins, making each vegetable play multiple roles in each pop-up.

The duo takes a little inspiration from farm owner Molli, who doesn’t get much attention for being a farm-to-table restaurant. “She just does it,” says Tsai.

Relying on the community

A native of Ohio, Molli moved to Seattle in 2008 with the intention of starting a farm.

2008 was not a good time financially to start a farm or a restaurant, so Molli spent a few years working on various farms and restaurants in the area. When she started Goose and Gander Farm in Carnation in 2011, she was raising a few pigs and growing herbs, selling to restaurants while still working as a cook. A few years later, she started a weekly subscription box (also called the CSA program) and in 2012 she bought the La Medusa restaurant where she worked.

“I grow a lot of things that I use at La Medusa, but this idea that this is a small farm that grows into a restaurant never materialized. I run the two businesses quite independently,” says Molli.

There are times of the year when all the production that La Medusa uses comes from Fazenda Ganso and Gander and other times when production comes from other small local farmers. And there is always room for error.

“I’m lucky to have this community of farms that I grow alongside and I’m friends and I know and I can come in and be like, oh God, the slugs ate all my lettuce this week. Can I get some boxes?” says Molly.

And sure enough, she says that while technically restaurants that claim “farm-to-table” ideals but get the majority of their products from major distributors are still buying from farms, she is committed to spending her dollars as close as possible. possible from home. And this is not a high ideal; she says it’s “just who I am and how I run the business”.

“People have stopped having deep, important conversations about issues and just talk about the buzzwords. The next thing in fashion. This is a problem in the restaurant industry in general. I don’t know how you solve this, but I think it’s still very important for people who are going to eat at restaurants to decide whether they think supporting small farms is important. And go to companies that they know do that,” says Molli.

Thirty percent of La Medusa’s customers are regulars, and Molli says that because she has to “look her customers in the face every week,” when asking them to buy her products and eat at her restaurant, she feels she must model behavior, even running a restaurant and a farm is difficult.

“People really don’t fully understand how comprehensive it is to run your own restaurant. He runs his life, even with a farm. Part of the reason I will continue to do both in the capacity I can is that I think it’s very important to practice what you preach. Of course, I’m not a person who has never bought anything on Amazon, but am I a person who is something I can get from someone I know? I will if I can,” says Molli.

Agriculture awakens creativity

Woodinville Restaurant Herbfarm is the granddaddy of Washington’s farmhouse restaurants. Chris Weber, the chef and now co-owner, was one of those people who specifically went to work there because he “wanted to work in a place where the products still came with dirt,” although he knows how much he romanticized that. ideal is.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying the idea of ​​going out into a garden, picking something up, bringing it inside and making a nice dish out of it. It’s almost a primordial thing that we disconnect from. Everyone wants that,” says Weber.

The farm-to-table aspect is at the heart of dining at The Herbfarm, which originally started in 1986 in a garage on a small farm owned by Bill and Lola Zimmerman. His son Ron served as the chef, his wife Carrie Van Dyck was the host. A fire destroyed the building in 1997 and the restaurant reopened in its current location adjacent to Barking Frog by Willows Lodge in 2001.

Weber joined the restaurant in 2010 and has been the head chef since 2012. In 2021, he and general manager Jack Gingrich took over the restaurant from Zimmerman and Van Dyck when they retired. Over the years, Weber has been replaced as a farmer a few times on the restaurant’s Five Acre Farm property – a task he enjoys but doesn’t have time to do.

When asked why he keeps this commitment to a farm and restaurant, he laughs a little before admitting that there is “no practical reason to do so”. It’s more work, time, effort and stress. Especially during the times when the farm was left without a dedicated farmer.

“From a financial point of view, it makes no financial sense. So why do? I think the connection exists. For us, a restaurant very steeped in seasonality and provenance of ingredients, helps to remind us of these things and helps to teach us seasonality. Awakens creativity. I strongly believe that creativity is just paying attention,” says Weber.

Weber believes that a farmer is an integral part of a restaurant. He is a person who brings a different perspective and influence to the menu or even the culture of a restaurant. These influences can be small, like using different cultivation techniques to grow vegetables that don’t normally grow in this region, such as Malabar spinach. But they can also be more involved – like the apple cider they turned into wine and ultimately vinegar and are currently aging in the cellar.

It’s something Weber and his team will extract and add each year to create a solera, or Spanish method of aging that pairs younger wines with more mature wines. Weber credits the farm with connecting the restaurants to traditions like these, helping the restaurant create new traditions.

“We’ve been in the market for a long time and we’re always changing. And that’s because we have a farmer who forces this to happen. We are prioritizing food. Above all. That’s what we’re trying to do. Of course, we can change the tablecloths, or we can invest in the farm. I will harvest the farm every day,” says Weber.

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