Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 2
Part ll: Seeds and Soil
Written onJune 01 , 2012
When I tell farmers that I’m planning to grow a portion of the food for my Montpelier restaurant, sometimes they laugh at me. “Good luck with that,” one wiry, tanned grower at the farmers’ market chortled, noting that I’d probably lose money for the first three years rather than save a bundle. “Let me know how it goes for you,” he suggested as I walked away, a wicked gleam in his eye.
As I wandered past the other stalls, examining emerald spinach, rounds of bloomy-rind goat cheese, and pungent wild leeks, I couldn’t shake off the sense that the sarcastic farmer thought I was a fool, perhaps an arrogant one at that, for not leaving the seeding and weeding to professionals. But I’m convinced that this is a move in the right direction.
In 2010, before Salt was even open, I’d already begun dreaming up plans for a large garden that could supply some of its produce. Given our focus on making things from scratch—bread, crème fraîche, ice cream, ravioli—scratching around in the dirt seemed like a natural extension. But I didn’t have land, let alone a greenhouse, so the idea lay fallow until a lucky conversation last winter over some Allagash beer and a plate of smoked meat.
Every Thursday evening, Nutty Steph’s Vermont Granola and Chocolate Shop in Middlesex morphs into a bar, offering truffles, flights of bacon, and banjo music to order from a “song menu.” The event provides a gathering spot for farmers, foodies, artists, and musicians. It’s a raucous and intimate environment, which can sometimes be fodder for conversations that would otherwise not happen and opportunities that would otherwise not arise.
One such night, I learned that Jaquelyn Rieke and Josie Green, Nutty Steph’s co-owners, had purchased a campground in Marshfield, intending to use it as a farm and intentional community. It was a little forward, but I couldn’t resist popping the question that night. “Is there enough land for me to use some for a small farm?” I asked casually, a strip of fat-slicked meat dangling from my fingertips. Jaquelyn answer was yes, and her follow-up was even better. “We’ve got a really big greenhouse,” she noted. “You can use some of that, too.” A few weeks later we came to a financial agreement and the Salt farm was born.
From a restaurateur’s point of view, growing ingredients is an easy way to differentiate one’s dishes from those produced by others. A few years ago, I noticed that I could recognize a particular farmer’s mesclun blend and that it was showing up in salads at a bundle of local eateries. It’s a wonderful mix, packed with flavor, and it’s thrilling that so many restaurants are buying local lettuce. But with our own patch of greens, our salads will fluctuate in wild, colorful ways as we harvest edible flowers, a plethora of herbs, baby butterhead lettuces, and Asian mustards. Perhaps we’ll mix the homegrown items with those from another farm or two. Maybe some weeks we’ll have enough of our own.
It’s understandable that those who grow food professionally in Vermont tend not to grow the unusual items we’re planning, or don’t grow them in large quantities. During the harvest, farmers rake in significant income with cherry tomatoes and ears of super-sweet corn. How much money is there in growing scads of shiso or salad burnet, when few Vermonters are familiar with them and fewer still regularly employ it in their kitchens?
For Salt to thrive—with its tiny capacity and off-the-main-drag location—it needs to do things differently than other spots. We don’t have signature dishes on which to stake our reputation. Instead, every three weeks, we reinvent our menu, so the more ingredients we have at our fingertips, the easier it is to make each iteration deliciously surprising and to draw new customers as well as regulars. Using fresh garbanzo beans and okra from our garden, plus foraged sumac and Vermont goat or lamb, we’ll be able to showcase the flavors of the Middle East. From another patch, we’ll be able to pluck rich-tasting winter squashes and a variety of beans for drying to use later in cozy, cold-weather dishes.
There’s also something romantic about the notion of nurturing a plant from before it pushes through the soil and basks in the sun for the first time to the point when it disappears into somebody’s mouth. I imagine serving cooling gazpacho in August and being able to boast that we grew all of the cucumbers and tomatoes ourselves. Or offering a dish of stir-fried long beans and seeing an eater’s eyes grow wide as she realizes that her plate is piled with legumes as long as garter snakes. Explaining that the same people who poured the water and cooked the meal also had their hands in the growing process makes the story of the food a little bit sweeter.
Salt, of course, needs some typical items, too—onions, carrots, and celery for stock, buttery golden potatoes for all kinds of things—and we won’t be growing any of them. The last thing we want to do is to stop buying from central Vermont farmers, the ones who do this for a living, so we’ll be purchasing our staple ingredients from them. The brand-new Farm at Vermont Compost will be one of our major suppliers, and we plan to supplement their produce with goods from our neighbors at Owl Hill Farm in Plainfield and Wellspring Farm in Marshfield (just 2.6 miles down the road from the campground).
Saving money is certainly another reason why I’m starting a micro-farm for Salt; the profit margins at restaurants are notoriously small, and anything that improves the bottom line is a boon. Luckily, Salt dropped just a few hundred dollars on seeds and will spend a bit more on equipment, and because I’m on salary, my labor is already accounted for. If we produce a mere 120 pounds of food for which we would otherwise have paid five dollars a pound, we’ll have made back our investment, minus the time I’m happy to give. Some of my tasks at the restaurant will be delegated to others during the growing season, and I plan to work more than usual. In return, I expect to be fit, tan and a little bit wiser at the end of the growing season even if my hourly wage has dropped to nearly nothing.
In any case, the financial aspect of this project isn’t the most important motivation. Just as appealing, if not more, are the benefits of working outdoors, gaining a better understanding of what it takes to produce what we use, and adding delicious (practically free) vegetables to our staff meals. (Staffers will be helping me with all aspects of the garden, and will get excess veggies as part of the deal.)
I know that I won’t be able to produce my peas, spinach, and chard as efficiently as professional farmers can, but I’m not growing food because I think I can do it better. I expect to make copious mistakes, to shed tears over losses, and to get less sleep than I’m accustomed to. Also, with late planting and shallow topsoil that needs to be built up over time, I’m not expecting bumper crops this year.
But if we can produce a few bushels of greens, some cucumbers that we can pickle for the winter and 50—or 500—pounds of rainbow-colored heirloom tomatoes then even if our Middle Eastern red eggplants fail to thrive, my staff and I will be better off for having had the opportunity to dig in the dirt, soak up the sun, and better understand what it takes to supply some of the sustenance we need to make Salt a success.