It's not breaking news that Seattle chefs have close relationships with farmers. It's no surprise that almost all the restaurants opening these days reps a "farm-to-table" style of dining. Lately, there's even been a lot of name-dropping going on, farmers are getting their credit on the menu, as in you might see something like "Josh's greens" in a salad—that's Josh Hyatt of Newaukum Valley farms. Though it sounds a little like the pitch for the 70s sitcom Green Acres, there are quite a few local city chefs taking out that middleman, getting their hands dirty, and giving "farm-living" a try.
A long time Woodinville establishment, The Herbfarm, has been a forerunner of farm-to-table-style of dining since the 80s. Husband and wife team, Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck began with intermittent, coursed dinners in their garage using produce from the surrounding farmland. The Herbfarm is to Seattle, what the French Laundry is to Napa. It’s reserved for special occasions; usually celebrating a hefty raise of some sort, but the concept is much more than just fine dining. Zimmerman and Van Dyck are showcasing sustainability at its finest. Zimmerman’s latest feat is creating a nine-course menu with all ingredients, down to the salt, from within 100 miles. George Page of Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island was another early adopter, though sadly his La Boucherie restaurant recently morphed into an every-once-in-a-while affair.
Zimmerman and Van Dyck have inspired many a chef to start their own farms. Chef Brian Scheehser of Trellis is on his 13th year of farming in Woodinville. He says he owes his start to the Herbfarm duo, “We took care of the bees over at the Herbfarm, and they let us use their tractor.” Scheehser’s farm started on a mere eighth of an acre at the South 47 Farm, and now his plot is up to 10. “You learn to plant enough, but not too much,” says Scheeher. He grows produce from all shades of the rainbow, and he shows it off especially in the two-hour salad—where the ingredients were picked under two hours before it's served—on the Trellis menu. The act of farming has caused many realizations for Scheehser over the years, “It keeps you in touch with what’s in season, and the realities of Mother Nature, you see why farmers will lose their farms, and you can never bank on one crop.” Matt Dillon is also part owner of Old Chaser Farm on Vashon Island, which supplies proteins and produce to his restaurants, and puts on one hell of a CSA.
The Learning Curve
Tom Douglas and wife-business-partner Jackie Cross, are huge supporters of local and sustainable dining. And Cross is no Eva Gabor; she’s taken the reigns on the project. They bought a 20-acre farm, in Prosser, Washington, and dedicated about three acres to growing organic produce. Prosser Farm is now in its third year of big production, supplying vegetables to Douglas’s bazillion restaurants. But the team, like Scheehser, is also still learning about the trials and hardships of farm life. When I spoke with Cross and her lead farmer Dev Patel, I could hear the disappointment in their voice. Due to a strong windstorm their bean and tomato crop was severely damaged. Luckily Cross and Patel said they overplanted this year, and should still be able to recover and send lots of produce out to Seattle. But it’s a learning experience for everyone involved in the company and even diners—when you’re growing the tomatoes, they might not show up every year on July 22.
The Next Generation
Colin Patterson of Sutra started a farm a little over a year ago with his wife, providing produce for the vegan restaurant. They also hold special event farm dinners, that often include yoga-pose pairings. And Brendan McGill, of Hitchcock and future Altstadt in Pioneer Square, is gearing up to join the farm gang. He and his wife own a 4-acre property on Bainbridge Island. They plan to have full vegetable production by next spring and have already put the orchard on the property to good use. Using plums, Asian pears, figs, apples, and quince regularly on the Hitchcock menu.
Though the Green Acres premise is as hokey as sitcoms can get, the eventual moral showed the joy of reconnecting with the countryside. And these chef-farmers are doing just that. The consensus among them is that farming brings you closer to nature and food in general. It’s also a path that’s bound to change the way we eat out, focusing more on what’s in season and wasn’t blown away by the wind.