Is it time to bury the F word? “Farm” is attracting backlash in the restaurant world.
Food writer Corby Kummer, known for smart coverage of the national cuisine scene in The Atlantic, unloosed a salvo in the June issue of Vanity Fair. You can find it a vanityfair.com, but I’ll sum it up:
After heartfelt beginnings a decade ago, the trumpeting about farm sourcing at restaurants – “farm to table,” or F2T in Twitter-code – has not only become a cliche, it’s becoming wince-worthy in the restaurant world.
“It’s time to retire ‘farm to table,’” Kummer wrote. “The term has been drained of any real meaning it may have once had.”
Some of his complaints are the co-opting you expect from any movement: Walls decorated with farm implements, chalkboard lists of “our farm partners” and farm-stand crates have become what Kummer calls “the modern version of Pastis carafes and Gauloises ashtrays in an Akron bistro.” They’re just another yank on your emotions now.
But what Kummer really questions isn’t the watering-down of marketing. His complaint is that focusing only on where the ingredients were grown (or who grew them) can hide a lack of talent on how to cook them.
Before you grab a dirt-caked hoe and aim at Kummer’s toes, let me say this: I don’t think any of us would question the importance of putting our food money where our farms are.
When I go to a local market in spring and find fresh asparagus and crisp sugar snap peas instead of starchy corn and Blue Lake green beans trucked from Florida, I whisper a hallelujah for visionary farmers. I value every drop of sweat they spend in fields to bring me wonders I could only dream of a decade ago.
My disappointment, though, stems from a couple of things. One is familiarity: Now that we all can shop shoulder-to-shoulder with chefs, our expectation has changed. I can buy it and cook it myself. So if I’m going to pay a chef $30 a plate for it, I should expect the chef will do something better than I can do.
The other disappointment comes from misplaced focus. You locally sourced it? Great. But you still have to do something wonderful with it.
Yes, I’ve had terrific food made with local ingredients. The pan-seared trout with tomato beurre blanc at Block & Grinder, pretty much anything that involves chef Trey Wilson’s garden at Custom Shop.
But I’ve also had N.C. coast fish that was so clumsily butchered, it was shot through with cartilage and inedible. I’ve had cocktails featuring creative syrups made from local ingredients that sank under the too-harsh taste of locally made whiskey that needs four years in a charred-oak barrel to mellow. I’ve had bisque from cauliflower that was burned instead of roasted, stone-ground grits so overcooked they were gummy and cold popcorn on gritty salad.
Which is more important – “it’s made with local ingredients and it tastes good”? Or “wow, that tastes great – and it was made with local ingredients”?
Now that local food is well established, maybe it’s time for the conversation to shift. Kummer noted that at the top of the restaurant world, some chefs who have their own farms, like Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York and David Kinch of Manresa in California, no longer emphasize that they have them. What they want you to experience isn’t reverence that they grew it, it’s delight when you eat it.
“That’s what the future of farm-to-table should be,” Kummer concludes. “Food that speaks for itself without having to tell you where it comes from.”