Lee Hawley reaches down to help me climb up the steep ladder so I can join him in the cab of his bright green combine. He guns the motor with authority, and we head off for a quick tour of his freshly harvested fields.
Personally, I’m a city person, more used to driving on Los Angeles freeways than I am cruising around on a farm. In North Idaho, I’m very far from home. I’ve made the trip at the invitation of restaurants here to see exactly what “farm-to-table” means.
This stop: North Idaho
Not far from Hawley’s farm, we stopped in Moscow, Idaho, to eat at chef Nikki Woodland’s Nectar.
Located in an area of exceptionally rich farmland, Woodland buys her produce from local farmers, explaining the key to her cooking is a sentiment heard frequently on the trip, “I like to source great ingredients, treat them simply and let people enjoy them without too much fuss.”
Hawley is proud of the food he grows, and Woodland is just as proud that her food is not only delicious but connected to a community of local farmers. She likes having her menu shaped by the seasons and what’s available locally, so she won’t buy vegetables out of season, and she’s fine with that.
The farm-to-table label
When we hear the phrase, “farm-to-table,” we imagine a farmer driving a beat-up pickup to the back door of a neighborhood restaurant to unload wooden crates filled to overflowing with leafy bunches of arugula, round and firm beets, thick stalks of celery, fat leeks, freshly laid eggs, plump chickens, freshly cured bacon, ripe apples, dark red cherries and juicy peaches.
That’s good farm-to-table.
Bad farm-to-table is a marketing campaign that pays lip service to those fantasies.
On a trip last fall to Spokane, Wash., and North Idaho, I discovered a community of chefs who really mean it when they say what they cook comes from farmers they know on a first-name basis.
In Spokane, at Italia Trattoria, chef and co-owner Anna Vogel relies on the abundance of small farms within a 100-mile radius to supply the restaurant with the majority of its produce, cheeses, poultry, eggs and meat.
Vogel lets the seasons craft her menu. When summer’s tomatoes disappear, she turns to root vegetables for inspiration.
At dinner, we had several salads. The best was a charred octopus salad. Vogel used a light mix of local produce — Italian parsley, thinly sliced new potatoes, celery and red onions, tossed in olive oil flavored with roasted tomato essence and lemon — to contrast with the bits and pieces of pepper-crusted octopus caught in the waters off the Washington coast.
Because this was the end of summer, the farms she relies on still had tomatoes, but they weren’t flavorful enough to be eaten fresh off the vine.
She roasted the local tomatoes to make a sweet-tart sauce for her potato gnocchi. A Dungeness crab risotto was decorated with thin parasols of heirloom tomatoes from Beanie Blue’s Farm located on South Hill in Spokane.
In downtown Spokane at Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie, executive chef Jeremy Hansen and sous chef Jeff Vance take their inspiration from country cooking.
To make their house-made sausages, sides of bacon, assorted charcuterie and jars of homemade pickles, chefs Hansen and Vance source their produce and pigs from local farmers.
From the charcuterie and cheese menu, we sampled the result of those relationships. Their cheeses, house-cured smoked trout gravlax, pork and duck prosciutto, sopprasetta, salami, toast rounds, flavored mustards and a selection of house-made pickles were all delicious.
Many chefs who work in large cities rely on farmers markets to connect them with seasonal produce. Again and again on this trip, we met chefs who have taken that connection a step farther.
Chef David Blaine at Latah Bistro walks the walk when it comes to farm-to-table.
On Monday, Blaine calls the farmers he buys from to find out what they are harvesting that week. Doing quick culinary math, he plans his weekly menu and puts in his orders.
For him, good cooking and community go hand in hand. As the chef, he closes the circle between suppliers, consumers and the seasons.
After two states, four days on the road, six wineries and seven restaurants, I had experienced the obvious, that farm-to-table can be so much more than a marketing label.
Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.
Photos, from top:
Chef Nikki Woodland in the kitchen at Nectar in Moscow, Idaho.
A tractor on the farm of Lee Hawley in North Idaho.
Credits: David Latt