As recently as 100 years ago, referring to food as farm-to-table would’ve earned a laugh. After all, what other choice was there?
Today the picture looks a bit different: factory farms churn out produce and meats on massive scales using questionable farming practices; and yet, more restaurants than ever are boasting the farm-to-table idiom like a badge of honor.
The marketing catchphrase has proven to be a gold mine, as diners grow more concerned with where their food comes from and how it got onto their plates.
With nearly all restaurants now claiming to be farm-to-table—including your neighborhood McDonald’s—it’s never been more important to differentiate between those restaurants that source the majority of their ingredients from local, organic farms and those that deploy the marketing tool each time an ingredient isn’t from a generic food-service truck.
“There’s no monitoring, so we just have to give a good heaping of Catholic guilt to someone who says they’re farm-to-table when 75 percent of their goods are from generic sources,” cautioned Billy Allin, chef-owner of Cakes & Ale, which was rated the No. 1 restaurant in Atlanta by Atlanta Magazine in 2016.
The truth is, it can be hard to tell because many of the commercial food supply companies now give their industrialized ingredients farm-sounding names that often fool consumers, explained Robert Phalen, the chef-owner of One Eared Stag, one of Atlanta’s foremost sustainable restaurants, and an avid forager who also pickles and preserves in-house.
With all these gambits, how can diners know if they’re truly eating a farm-to-table meal? It helps to start with a basic understanding of the term’s true definition.
“It's really about creating a new, ethical food system—fostering a greater connection to where your food is coming from, and focusing on the freshest and best possible ingredients,” said Michael Schenck, founder and COO of The Turnip Truck of Georgia, a company connecting dozens of small, local farmers with restaurants, schools, institutions and consumers throughout the state.
Simply put, farm-to-table is no trend; rather, it’s a deep-rooted lifestyle that hinges on close-knit, symbiotic relationships between chefs and farmers.
Furthermore, the expert chefs interviewed for this story unanimously agree that seasonality is at the core of the expression.
“I prefer the term ‘seasonal cooking’ because it implies that you are responding to what is available at the moment,” said Steven Satterfield, the James Beard nominated chef-owner at Miller Union, who sources the majority of his ingredients from local farms like Woodland Gardens, Crystal Organic and Moore Family Farms, to name only a few.
To take advantage of the season’s bounty, these chefs order local ingredients more often and in smaller batches, whenever possible.
“Common sense tells us that if what you buy lives only a few miles away, and only takes a few minutes to get to you, and has only been out of the ground or was alive yesterday, then it’s going to be fresh[er] and taste better,” said Josh Hopkins, chef at Empire State South, one of the city’s best-loved New Southern restaurants (owned by Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson).
Schenck agrees. “Local produce is anywhere from one to three weeks fresher than conventional, trucked-in produce, which has to have incredible things done to the food to extend the shelf life and make up for the transportation and holding time,” he said. “Not to mention the nutrient value that is lost every day after harvest.”
While local tastes fresher and is more environmentally friendly, close proximity alone doesn’t mean a farm is organic, natural or even good.
“Even the worst farm in the world is local to someone, so most important is the farming practice,” said Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, the largest grass-fed, pasture-raised meat purveyor in the state.
The term means much more than taking a farm-grown product and putting it on a dining table—it’s a backlash against the industrialization, commoditization and centralization of the U.S. food production system.
Animal welfare—farms that humanely raise animals with grass-fed, free-range, pastured practices—and environmental affect are perhaps the most essential tenets of sustainable farming, but it doesn’t stop there.
Many chefs admit they don’t always pick the local, humanely raised meats during blind taste tests, so sourcing becomes a balancing act between flavor, cost, availability, cut, animal welfare, organic certifications, etc.
Farm-to-table also extends beyond sourcing into self-sustenance. Many acclaimed Atlanta restaurants, including Cakes & Ale, Bacchanalia and Linton’s in the Garden, operate their own farms, gardens and apiaries—some even on-site—bringing new meaning to the terms “fresh” and “exclusive.”
Likewise, farm-to-table puts a large emphasis on cooking with lesser-known and more sustainable ingredients—like guineas, sardines and rabbits—minimizing waste with practices like whole animal butchery (hint: if you see fish collar on the menu, order it!).
The same goes for produce. “We utilize as much of the product that walks in the door that we feel is edible by the guest,” said Allin, who composts all waste and uses scraps to make pestos, charcuteries, stocks and staff meal.
Farm-to-table also aims to get consumers to shift their mindset from meat-centric to vegetable-focused. Anyone can make a steak taste delicious, but who can make broccoli and turnips the tastiest item on the menu?
Steven Satterfield, the city’s top vegetable guru, that’s who. Dig into his field pea and boiled peanut salad as proof.
“We organize our menu by produce first,” he said. “As the seasons change, we have discussions among the team to decide when we will phase out an ingredient and when to bring in a new one that's coming into season.” Satterfield composts edible scraps to give back to the land for nutrient-rich soil building.
Hopkins, who uses vegetable scraps to make vinegars, family meals, purees, stocks and sauces, can relate. “We consider produce to be a huge part of our menu—it’s delicious, interesting and provides so many different dynamics, as it changes constantly and there are endless ways to cook a vegetable.”
Of course, sourcing from local, sustainable, organic farms isn’t cheap. Chefs report as much as a 50 percent increase in cost when sourcing this way, which often leads to criticism regarding the affordability of their restaurants.
Yet, consider what goes into sustainable farming—not only do these farmers pay their employees a far better wage than the average industrial farm, but it’s also more labor-intensive to produce food naturally.
“At small farms, the work is mostly done by hand, as they do not have the economies of scale that huge operations have, nor the big expensive machinery to automate the seeding and harvest,” said Schenck.
Likewise, cooking truly farm-to-table takes sweat—doing your own butchery, making everything from scratch, including all of the vegetable and starch prep.
“The most expensive thing I have in my restaurant is labor,” said Allin. “There’s no labor when you rely on freezer-to-fryer cooking. Almost everything here is made ‘a la minute’—we are truly cooking for you when you sit down in our restaurant. We’re not just assembling a plate.”
"There’s a reason Mercedes are more expensive than Toyotas. And if you ride in one, you get it. It’s the same way with farm-to-table," added Allin. "Ultimately, it’s a personal decision. But when it comes to the food you put into your body, do you just want to get to your destination, or do you want to do it in a way that makes you happy, healthy and supports the greater good?”
Farm Winery to Table…Not So Much
Even the most honest farm-to-table restaurants in Atlanta seemingly have an aversion to serving local wine. Unanimously, all of the above chefs said they don’t currently serve Georgia wine because, for the price, they can pour something of equal or better quality. That, and local wine doesn’t resonate with their customers.
“We applaud Georgia wine makers and have had some quite delicious wines,” says Allin, though he doesn’t currently serve any. “We are always reassessing and are open as we move forward.”
“I think they need to look again,” assures Doug Paul, who co-founded Georgia’s Three Sisters Vineyards & Winery with his wife, Sharon. “Consumers want variety and they want to support their local economy, and our wines aren’t overpriced. Our sweet spot is around $20 per bottle, and the quality is there.
Georgia wine is not your granddaddy’s fruit jar wine anymore—we have dry Cabernets and barrel-fermented Chardonnays and Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines that are making deep impressions on critics.
Local wine is just as important as local food; but consumers have to ask for it, too. If you’re willing to pay a premium price for Kevin Rathbun’s steak, why not for a limited edition bottle of Cabernet Franc produced not 50 miles from where you’re sitting?
We’re not getting rich off of making wine. We are a small business, and if you spend an extra five bucks, you can enjoy something that’s not mass-produced and 100-percent Georgia grown. It’s not just about price, it’s about supporting local economy.”