The farm-to-table idea first gained ground when Alice Waters opened her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California in 1971. The entire restaurant industry became fascinated by this practice of building relationships with (and more often than not) propagating local organic food producers and propelling the opening of Chez Panisse Over a thousand figurative dominoes, turning the farm-to-table idea into a full-fledged social movement.
More than 50 years later, the phrase “farm to table” is no longer new; They are everywhere. It is standard practice to mention local farms and producers on menus or on the board. Some restaurants even promote dishes made with ingredients sourced from pint-sized herb gardens or an acre of vegetables. There are even multiple opportunities throughout the Seattle area to dine on the artisanal field of a working farm each summer.
Even when restaurants across the United States—including the Willows Inn on Lummi Island—have been proven to lie about the source of the ingredients, “farm-to-table” or “farm-to-fork” remain powerful buzzwords that evoke visions of imperfect products using Dirt still made its way to the back door of restaurants from a bona fide farmer dressed in business clothes.
The truth of the matter is not that simple.
Crops can fail even in the most ideal conditions. And in bad conditions – like the wet, cold spring we all experience – bad can turn worse. Slugs wipe out crops that would normally grow fast enough to outgrow them. Or consider the heatwave in June last year in which cabbage was drowned out by the scorching sun. Every year in the Snoqualmie Valley, floods come earlier, and labor shortages have not spared the agricultural industry. When your restaurant has a farm, it sometimes means that the chef is doing double duty as a farmer.
“It’s easy to Instagram your way to perfection and showcase the kind of perfect farm-to-table experience that happens. But the truth is, it’s not perfect and it’s hard work, and it takes a lot,” said Matthew Curtis, half of the duo behind the Three Sacks Full and Farm pop-up. Creativity coupled with perseverance.
However, there are restaurateurs who wouldn’t get it any other way. These people must be smart when planning their menu, substituting ingredients if things don’t work out on the farm or relying on their larger farming community for help. They are also closely related to their crops and know how to beautifully display even the most humble vegetable. We found three Seattle-area chefs who have farms go from farm to table from buzzwords to lifestyle, mostly without fanfare.
Curtis and partner Michael Tsai have run Three Sacks Full since February 2018, hosting dinners at various restaurants in Seattle, and menus informed by what they grow on their little plot of clover.
The duo moved to Seattle from Northern California in 2017 with the goal of eventually running a restaurant with their own farm. Tsai is an old chef who has worked on farms over the years whenever he wanted to take a break from the kitchen. Curtis’ expertise lies in wine. Soon after moving to the area, Tsai landed a job at Goose and Gander Farm with Meredith Molly, a farm chef who owns the Italian restaurant La Medusa in Columbia.
After spending a season on the farm, Tsai returned to the kitchen, working at Upper Bar Ferdinand, Duvall’s The Grange, and La Medusa, where he still works today. In March 2020, when the pandemic shut down indoor dining, Three Sacks Full went to a biweekly takeout model with two pickup locations. The farm continued to shout alongside Tsai and Curtis to coax specialty vegetables like Italian pinolo tomatoes, Ukrainian polichka beans, and Basque chili out of the field.
They do not grow storage crops such as beets, potatoes or carrots because “a lot of people do it well” in the area can buy these crops from local farmers. And they’ve made choices about only supporting local farmers – although that means giving up things like citrus fruits (Tsai makes his own vinegar instead to add acid or flavor to dishes) or broccoli in the winter – without making an attitude.
“I wouldn’t say using citrus is cheating, it’s just our preference. Sounds pretty judgmental…. I wanted to see if that was something we could do without. Plus, lemons are really expensive,” Tsai says.
They do not consider themselves expert growers; Each season is a learning experience.
“It’s never the same, and you start to gain this personal library of experiences and knowledge about how your crops behave, and eventually we like to think we’re going to get better at it,” Curtis says.
Curtis and Tsai’s #1 priority is for people to find them because the food is good.
“Then people will find out that everything is organic and locally sourced and people can adjust that or not. It’s icing on the cake in some ways. It’s easy to promote if we want to, but not so easy to actually do the work and be intentional about it,” as Curtis says.
Being locally sourced and seasonal seemed easy when they lived in California. But in Washington, only a few vegetables are available in the late winter and early spring months.
“I think of it being seasonal in the winter when you have like, seven vegetables. How do you make a fun menu? How do you sustenance the menu? Vegetables should play like three roles on the menu,” Tsai says.
To keep things interesting, Tsai preserves or dehydrates tomatoes, beans, and hot peppers. They grow some tough winter crops — cabbage, chicory — and stock specialty winter squash, making each vegetable play multiple roles in each pop-up.
The duo draws a little inspiration from farm owner Molly who doesn’t get much attention for being a farm-to-table restaurant. “It just does it,” Tsai says.
Reliance on the community
Molly, an Ohio native, moved to Seattle in 2008 with the intention of starting a farm.
2008 wasn’t a great time financially to start a farm or restaurant, so Molly spent a few years working on several farms and restaurants in the area. When Goose and Gander Farm started Carnations in 2011, she was raising some pigs, growing herbs, and selling to restaurants while still working as a chef. A few years later she started a Weekly Subscription Fund (also called a CSA program) and in 2012 she bought the La Medusa restaurant where she worked.
“I grow a lot of the things I use in La Medusa, but the idea of this is a small farm growing for one restaurant has never really come to fruition. I run the two companies completely independently,” Molly says.
There are times of the year when all the produce that La Medusa uses come from Goose and Gander Farm and other times when the produce comes from other small local farmers. There is always room for error.
“I’m lucky to have this community of farms that I grow side by side and I have friends and I know and I can reach out and be like, ‘Oh my God, slugs ate all the lettuce this week. Can I have two boxes?'” Molly says.
And sure enough, she says that while restaurants that technically claim “farm-to-table” ideals but get the majority of their produce from major distributors still buy from farms, they’re committed to spending their dollars as close to home as possible. And this is not a noble example; She says it’s “just me and how I run the business.”
People stop having deep, important conversations about issues and only talk about buzzwords. The next trendy thing. This is a problem in the restaurant industry in general. I don’t know how you fix that, but I think it’s still really important for people who go to eat in restaurants to decide if they think supporting small farms is important. And you go into a business they know they do, Molly says.
Thirty percent of La Medusa’s customers are regulars, and Molly says she has to “look in the faces of her customers every week,” when she asks them to buy her produce and eat at her restaurant, she feels she has to emulate the behavior, despite running a restaurant and farm Difficult.
“People don’t really realize how comprehensive it is to run your own restaurant. It runs your life, as is a farm. Part of the reason I’m going to keep doing both things as often as I can is because I think it’s really important to practice what you preach. Sure, I’m not Someone I’ve never bought anything from Amazon but someone who’s like, ‘Is this something I can get from someone I know? I’ll do it if I can,'” Molly says.
Agriculture stimulates creativity
Woodinville The Herbfarm is the grandfather of Washington restaurants with farms. Chris Webber, now chef and co-owner, was one of those people who went to work there precisely because he “wanted to work in a place where the produce was still tainted with dirt”, although he knows how that was more than the ideal romantic he is.
“It’s hard to imagine someone who wouldn’t love the idea of going out to a park, picking something up, bringing it inside and making a nice dish out of it. It’s almost a basic thing that we broke up with. Everyone wants it,” says Webber.
The farm-to-table side of the dining center is located at The Herbfarm, which was originally started in 1986 in a garage on a small farm owned by Bill and Lola Zimmerman. Their son, Ron, was a chef, and his wife, Carrie Van Dyke, was the host. A fire destroyed the building in 1997 and the restaurant reopened in its current location, next to the Barking Frog next to Willows Lodge in 2001.
Weber came to the restaurant in 2010 and has served as its chef since 2012. In 2021, he and general manager Jack Gingrich took over the management of the restaurant from Zimmermann and Van Dyck when they retired. Over the years, Webber has worked as a farmer several times on the restaurant’s Five Acre ranch property – a job he loves but doesn’t have time to do.
When asked why he maintains such a commitment to a farm and restaurant, he laughed a little before admitting that there was “no practical reason for it.” It’s more work, time, effort and stress. Especially in the times when the farm went without a specialized farmer.
“From a financial point of view, this doesn’t make any financial sense. So why would you do that? I think there is a connection. For us, a restaurant so steeped in seasonality and sourcing of ingredients, it helps remind us of these things and helps teach us about seasonality. It ignites creativity. I’m from A firm believer that creativity is just about caring,” Weber says.
Weber believes that the farmer is an integral part of the restaurant. They are the people who bring a different perspective and influence to the menu or even the culture of the restaurant. These effects can be small, such as using different cultivation techniques to grow vegetables that do not grow naturally in this region, such as Malabar spinach. But they can also be more involved — like the cider they made into wine and vinegar at the end and they’re currently aging in the wine cellar.
It’s something Weber and his crew would derive from and add each year to create a solera, or Spanish method of aging that blends younger wines with more mature wines. Weber credits the farm for linking it to traditions like this, ultimately helping the restaurant create new ones.
“We’ve been around for a long time and we’re always changing. That’s because we have a farmer that forces that to happen. We prioritize food. Above everything. That’s what we’re trying to do. Sure, we can change the tablecloths, or we can invest in the farm,” says Webber. “I will choose the farm every day.”