Happy Earth Day! What better way to celebrate than to eat locally grown and locally made food. Set the table in a way that truly embraces Mother Nature.
A bit of history is needed. For the soon-to-be-released book, “Savoring Gotham,” about the history of food in New York, this Examiner wrote three chapters. One of them is about the Farm to Table (or F2T) movement. Excerpted here, in homage to Earth Day, is the fascinating food story about Farm to Table.
The 21st century brought a burgeoning desire to eat local, seasonal, and healthy food, giving rise to the Farm to Table movement (F2T) – a “what’s old is new again” culinary consciousness but with a bold, powerful creativity that celebrated food as lifestyle, a peasant vs. aristocratic cuisine; ignited food as entertainment, and coalesced a potent political force.
In reaction to flavorless, industrial food grown for “transport vs. taste,” F2T evolved as a lifestyle and popular buzzword by 2013 – a way to refer to a “new type of NY cuisine:” food made with locally-sourced ingredients, most often from small family farms using integrated production practices.
Community food systems – a concept used interchangeably with “local” or “regional” — were created to foster food security, sustainability, food and agriculture-related businesses by way of farmers’ markets, community and school gardens, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
F2T characterized a food-based — food-obsessed — phenomenon emphasizing enduring relationships chefs developed with their local farmers, fishermen, foragers, dairymen, and artisanal food makers in order to know where their food came from.
Relationships soon led to stewardship.
While it’s become commonplace for restaurants listing where their food comes from, Brooklyn’s River Café was the first restaurant to name the farm, the varietals, and the region of the ingredients in 1980.
The chef then, Larry Forgione, is also credited with coining the term, “free range” for the restaurant’s commercially produced naturally raised and fed chickens.
It was while Forgione was working in Europe that he first noted the reversal of how fresh ingredients were used:
“In Europe, farmers and producers were producing for restaurants and everyday cooks got to use the same ingredients, whereas in America everybody was producing for the masses, and the chefs also had to use what was produced. Forgione returned to NY, thinking, “It was time we started to reverse the wheel a little bit, and I started working with a lot of farmers and producers.
In addition to Forgione, referred to as the “Godfather of American Cuisine,” a few of Gotham’s food rebels took steps to resist corporate ingredients around the mid 80s, including iconoclastic chefs and the restaurants they owned, primarily The River Café’s Michael “Buzzy” O’Keefe and chef Charlie Palmer, Forgione’s An American Place, Anna Rozenweig’s Arcadia, Jonathan Waxman who returned from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse to launch Jams restaurant, Peter Hoffman’s Savoy restaurant – “often credited with getting the locavore movement started in NY, and Lutece’s chef Eberhard Mueller, who so revered ingredients he traded his toque, becoming a grower along with his wife, Paulette, at their North Fork Satur Farms. And a featured chef and grower in this Examiner’s book, The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook
These chef/owners were at the ramparts percolating some NYC restaurants, carrying forth Nouvelle Cuisine’s simple, casual approach to food prep and cooking. Nouvelle cooking gained popularity after WWII and continued to the mid-80s when F2T took hold. Both cuisines use regional dishes, recipes, and the freshest ingredients for inspiration. Its chefs are noted for extreme inventiveness, creating new combinations and pairings.
F2T chef and food leader Chef Hoffman confirmed Nouvelle Cuisine opened up things for chefs. “We no longer felt the need to follow the codification of haute cuisine and Escoffier.”
F2T embraced the dictum of Nouvelle’s chic comfort food, continuing to practice the rigors of French technique but without the imports.
Chef Hoffman described how pioneering NYC chefs came to see that the best berry, for example, didn’t need to be an exotic import; rather grown nearby. “The shortest amount of time the fruit is off the vine or the plant, the more flavorful, intense the taste.”
This idea started a shift. “We saw great flavors and great taste in local things – not in imported foods and aristocratic cooking.
Farm-to-Table was freedom –a celebration of ingredients. A taste of our land, our waters, our place,” noted Chef Hoffman.
As the anti-aristocratic cuisine, F2T celebrated simple, ingredients-based “peasant” dishes, long relegated to second-class status in Gotham’s dining pantheon.
In fact, it was 2010 before Del Posto became the first Italian restaurant since 1975 (only the second-ever) to receive a four-star ranking in The NYTimes.
Increased food diversity and makers’ culinary self-expression led to food as entertainment in restaurants and the media. If there was no F2T there would be no Food Network or the plethora of popular cooking shows, channels, and YouTube.
Now, food was the star. Cooking was personality-fueled drama and discovery. NY’s PBS even featured its own Farm-to-Table series.
Chefs, bakers, mixologists, and home cooks couldn’t get enough. No ingredient or Mash-Up was overlooked as too quirky, too trendy.
With increased popularity and power, F2T developed into a social and political force, too.
Food became more than sustenance. Food was semiotics.
Chefs’ relationship with local food systems became an on-ramp; where food-as-a-prism was driving more than dining.
Chefs were now spokespeople and leaders for workers rights, food safety, small family farm advocates, White House policy, nutrition, school lunch programs, urban farming, and support for homegrown breeders and soil breeding. New York City Chefs including Bill Telepan, Tom Colicchio, Dan Barber, and Peter Hoffman, have led a growing cohort of chefs who’ve taken on food-based social and civic leadership.
Be a steward of our natural resources. Celebrate Earth Day with reverence and delicious enthusiasm. Cook with ingredients from the Grow NYC Greenmarkets. Dine at the burgeoning number of farm to table restaurants: Blue Hill, Back Forty, Almond Restaurant, Telepan , the new Hudson Garden Grill at the New York Botanical Garden (Hudson.GardenGrll@starr-restaurant.com) — and a full menu of others that add to the radical New York food scene.