Farm to table cuisine is a phrase that has been increasingly tossed around, added to menus, and popped up in chefs’ interviews but what does it really mean?
For centuries all food was farm to table. People grew most of their own food or bought it from nearby farmers. The food that they put on the table was fresh, local, and literally farm to table. During the early part of the twentieth century society moved away from that. More people moved into urban areas and improved transportation and refrigeration made it possible for foods to be transported from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. Food was no longer picked on the farm and served within just a day or so. Now it was in transit for weeks.
The longer the time between harvest and fork the more quality is lost. Nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly.
The slow food movement sought to bring quality ingredients back to the table. Foods were to be eaten as soon after harvest as possible and chefs began sourcing ingredients from local farmers when they could. Some even began growing their own kitchen gardens on the restaurant property to ensure the quality of their dishes.
A common fallacy is that the farm to table label means that the ingredients are organics. While this may be true in some cases in others it may also be true that the foods do not carry an USDA certified organic label. Sometimes the farmer uses organic techniques but can’t afford to jump through the hoops that the government requires for the certified label. Other times the farm may use non-organic fertilizers or pesticides.
What Are the Traits of Farm to Table Cuisine?
Since farm to table is such a popular concept some unscrupulous restaurants are placing that label on their menus without any thought at all. Others are just uneducated as to what the term really implies. Here are some traits of farm to table cuisine.
Fresh, Seasonal, and Local
The majority of the ingredients in the dishes on the menu are fresh, local, and seasonal. You won’t find strawberry shortcake in January in Wisconsin or cranberry sauce in Texas in July. If you were to tour the kitchen you’d see produce in its original state not row upon row of canned goods. The chef may be able to tell you exactly which farm the ingredients come from but even if he can’t he should be able to honestly say that they were purchased locally from a farmer’s market or co-op.
Heirloom and Heritage
Many of the ingredients in the farm to table movement are heirloom vegetables and heritage meats. These terms are given to plants and animals that have traditionally been grown by generations of farmers. They are not hybridized and because of that they are more flavorful, hardy, and easier to produce than many of the hybridized foods. When a farmer produces heirloom foods he is investing in the future by keeping the item from becoming extinct. Heritage pork and turkey are especially popular, now.
Since fresh food has so much flavor chefs often choose to serve it as simply as possible. There are usually no heavy sauces to mask the fresh flavors of the food and the ingredients may be served lightly steamed or even raw. There aren’t many dishes that are better than a sliced, homegrown, vine ripened tomato, drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with some salt and cracked pepper. There’s no need for creamy dressings or tons of cheese because the natural fresh flavors are so intense.
Now that the farm to table movement is so common chefs are looking ahead to the next trend. The natural progression from fresh, seasonal, and local is artisan dishes — foods that are made by hand in small batches. It’s a good time for any restaurateur to think about how his food is defined and seek to go beyond the fresh aspect and on into the artisan aspect. With the current love affair with unique foods, American diners will continue to seek out dining experiences over just taking care of their appetites.