Cassie Parsons is out to change the way Charlotte eats. She is the executive chef and proprietor of Harvest Moon Grille in Uptown's Dunhill Hotel, and also the co-owner, with Natalie Veres, of Grateful Growers Farm in Lincoln County. Opened in 2010, the restaurant is a stellar example of the recent "farm-to-fork" movement. In the case of Harvest Moon Grille, you might say it's "farmer-to-fork."
"All we offer is seasonal, locally produced food," Parsons says. "We don't serve food out of a can or a box. If you apply the term 'farm-to-fork' to Harvest Moon Grille, it means real food from real farms within 100 miles of Charlotte." Parsons likes doing business with other small farmers who are as concerned with stewardship of the land and who are focused on contributing to the community.
"We are challenging the food system by encouraging our guests to ask questions about the foods they are eating," Parsons says. "We want them to make honestly informed decisions on where their food is coming from and who is growing the food."
She is optimistic that enthusiasm for locally-produced foods is increasing here in Charlotte and nationwide. "Natalie and I started farming seven years ago and we are amazed at the growth in interest in food and where it comes from," she says. "Today, there are more and more farmers selling directly to consumers and restaurants, and farmers markets are popping up everywhere."
Parsons is quick to tout the benefits of eating local – chief among them are freshness, nutrition, flavor, security, safety and economic impact. Local food has something for everyone, she says, and people are seeing health improvements as a result of eating better quality food.
"We spent $400,000 last year on locally produced food," Parsons says. "That doesn't just help the farmers we buy from, it dominoes into the community. Our ventures have made a positive difference for so many people in our community, and the ripple effect is powerful and widespread."
Parsons is excited about those looking to join the local-food movement by starting their own garden.
"We can grow so many things in our area because of our mild climate. I'm even getting lemons from Mint Hill," she says. More and more plants are being bred to thrive in our area, Parsons says, like hardy kiwi and even olive trees.
Her advice to gardeners? Grow what you love to eat.
"Herbs, salad greens and blueberries are some things that are relatively easy to grow and don't take up tons of space," she says. She recommends consulting with a local farmer or county cooperative extension office for guidance on varieties that are well-suited for our area. "Windcrest Farms (in Monroe) offers classes and starter kits to home gardeners, and Renfro Hardware in Matthews is a perfect place for great advice and all the items you need to grow food," Parsons says.
Part of what Parsons and Veres do every day is help educate the public and promote the importance of local food. "Natalie and I believe that the best education is being a positive example. Every guest experience is an opportunity to inform and promote locally grown food," she says. Harvest Moon Grille sponsors cooking classes on a regular basis, and Grateful Growers Farm participates in farm tours. Parsons says she wants people to get back to the joy of cooking and sharing meals and doing it with great, locally produced ingredients.
Educating other chefs is also a part of Parson's mission. She plans to have a chef's garden in Uptown so that chefs can have a vested interest in where their food is coming from. Her vision is to "eventually grow so much food that we could also provide food to our homeless population or people in the community who need food." The garden wouldn't be about creating handouts, she says, as everyone will have to be a working member.
Harvest Moon Grille offers a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) program. This is an increasingly popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.
Usually, a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public, typically consisting of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (or a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
The restaurant's CSA is called the Home Edition, and Parsons says it's getting bigger every day. Since Harvest Moon already gets great ingredients from local farms, she says, they just expand their orders so they can share with their members, who pick up a bag every week. If consumers are interested in joining, Parsons advises emailing the restaurant at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive information about their current programs.
Parsons feels that as awareness grows about the dangers of industrialized food, more and more people are caring about the origins and the true contents of their food. She had a chef in Charlotte tell her about four years ago that Charlotteans don't care about where their food comes from. She says that chef and others have underestimated this community.
"While we still have a long way to go, this community has the most amazing people here who love getting to know the farmers and the importance of what they do. This community wants to feed their families clean food," Parsons says. "We can't make people care, we can only give them tools and information to make good decisions."
Parsons predicts that "local food" will become the norm in the coming decade. People can't underestimate their power as consumers, she says. "We can't wait for a 'system' to change into what we want it to be," she says.
"We must create the change by our own actions. Every meal contains statements about the system(s) we support. What does your plate say about what is important to you?"
Harvest Moon Grille
The Dunhill Hotel
235 N. Tryon St.
Charlotte, NC 28202
Courtesy of Executive Chef Cassie Parsons, Harvest Moon Grille
Raw carrot salad This salad is a great low calorie and fresh alternative to traditional mayo-based salads.
1/2 pound grated carrots; Barbee Farms (www.barbeefarms.net) or Rosemary Pete (www.rosemarypete.com) preferred
2 tablespoons raw garlic, minced
4 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon parsley or thyme (whichever is available)
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and serve.
Pork loin roulade with sausage and sage cornbread stuffing
For the cornbread:
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons of butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter an 8-9 inch baking dish or cast iron skillet. Combine dry ingredients. Whisk together the milk and egg. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the egg and milk mixture, and whisk or stir until well mixed and smooth. Stir in the butter. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 20 minutes.
For the roulade:
1/2 pound sausage (Grateful Growers Farm preferred, www.ggfarm.com)
1/2 of one onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
4 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley chopped
1-2 cup(s) chicken stock or pork stock
1 pork loin (Grateful Growers Farms preferred, www.ggfarm.com)
Sautee the sausage. In a mixing bowl, add the cornbread, cooked sausage, onion, carrot, herbs and stock. Taste and season with salt if needed. Butterfly the loin evenly. Take a portion of the sausage stuffing and stuff the pork loin. Use butcher twine to tie the loin together. Sear the loin on all sides. Roast in the oven at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.