The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Florida’s Restaurants, Growers Work Together To Bring Fresh Food To Table [From Field To Feast]
Posted Nov 18, 2012 by Jeff Houck
Updated Nov 19, 2012 at 05:59 PM
A sow nurses a piglet at Nature Delivered Farm in Brooksville.
ORLANDO - The emergency call went out two weeks ago: Nature Delivered Farm, a small-scale farm near Brooksville operated by a mother-daughter team, was having cash-flow problems and needed to sell some of the pigs they raised
To the rescue came Greg Baker, chef and owner of The Refinery restaurant in Tampa and a regular Nature Delivered customer. He contacted other local chefs to see if they could place orders.
John Matthews, founder and operator of the Suncoast Food Alliance, put out the word among restaurants he deals with in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Within 36 hours, 15 orders for fresh Duroc pork. Baker took two pigs. Chef Mark Heimann of Marchand’s at the Renaissance Vinoy resort in St. Pete took one, too. Chefs Chad Johnson of SideBern’s in Tampa and Byron Gable of the Grand Hyatt in Tampa bought pigs as well.
Nature Delivered owner Rebecca Krassnoski expressed gratitude on her Facebook page.
“These folks really came through for us,” Krassnoski wrote. “These great restaurants not only create fantastic food every day—they all rallied together to ‘save our bacon’ this week. This is what ‘local’ is all about.”
Two years ago, Krassnoski likely would have gone under without that support network.
Florida’s newly established connection between the farm and table is captured in the new book “Field to Feast; Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans.” (University Press, $28).
Propelled by an eat-local movement that swept the nation during the past decade, chefs around the state increasingly are turning to sources closer to their restaurants for ingredients, say authors Pam Brandon, Katie Farmand and Heather McPherson.
To tackle the book, the writers split the state into thirds, with Brandon taking south Florida, Farmand covering north Florida and the Panhandle, and McPherson covering the state’s midsection.
Farmand, editor of Edible Orlando magazine, said the chefs she met, all of whom were under 40, are seeking out local farms because it makes their food tastier.
“They do it because the ingredients are better,” she says. “They love their farmers and talk about them with such passion.”
McPherson, the Orlando Sentinel’s longtime food editor, says it’s a revolutionary idea for Florida chefs to list the farms they deal with on their menus. Some, like Boca Kitchen Bar & Market in Tampa, write the farms’ names on a chalkboard outside next to the valet parking stand.
“It’s almost as if there’s a renaissance of community,” she says. “Chefs want you to know, ‘This is my provider.’”
At the same time, Americans wary of food safety are turning to local farms, farmer’s markets and co-ops for their produce and eggs.
“They’re recognizing that If 150 people are going to handle your spinach by the time it gets to your table, it’s going to affect something along the way,” McPherson says. “If three people are going to handle that pork or spinach – or two, just the farmer and you – it’s a better thing.”
“Field to Feast” authors (left to right) Heather McPherson, Katie Farmand and Pam Brandon.
The state’s three regions are wildly different in climate and crops. South Florida is home to tropical fruits and sugarcane. Northern Florida foods mimic those of southern Georgia and Alabama. In addition, the entire state is surrounded by seafood. (That topic is for another book.)
Central Florida’s agricultural base long ago was founded upon citrus and cattle, tomatoes and strawberries. But there are surprises to be found, such as at the 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin. Farmer Robert Tornello hydroponically grows arugula, radishes, broccoli rabe, Asian greens, daikon, mustard greens, collards and hot peppers, among other crops.
Much of the water for Tornello’s off-the-grid farm comes from rainwater runoff collected in cisterns. The water not only nourishes the crops, it also is used for the farm’s cooling system during the summer. Pioneering Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi is a fan and customer.
The book also tells the stories of people like Harris Wishnatzki, a New York City fruit and vegetable pushcart peddler who moved his family to Plant City in the late 1920s to start a farm. Today, Wishnatzki Farms is Florida’s largest strawberry producer, processing 30 million pounds from 1,200 acres.
“We took all the major crops in Florida and found the largest farms,” says Brandon, a cookbook author, managing editor of Edible Orlando and Farmand’s mother. “We made sure someone was hitting one of those to make sure we didn’t miss it.”
South Florida, Brandon says, has been at the forefront of the local-eating movement with such chefs as Norman Van Aken, Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz and Allen Susser sourcing their ingredients from nearby farms for more than a decade.
The state’s northern region has a few notable chefs sprinkled around Destin, Seaside, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Jacksonville. There, though, community supported agriculture, or CSAs, are booming among home cooks.
That includes Orchard Pond Organics, located on a sprawling former plantation outside Tallahassee. Orchard Pond offers community garden plots for a yearly fee and a promise to not use chemical fertilizer or genetically modified plants.
“People in north Florida love and support their farms,” Farmand says. “These farms are thriving and surviving not because of restaurants.”
In central Florida, chefs have established their own networks of support. Someone like Julie and James Petrakis of The Ravenous Pig and the new Cask & Larder restaurants in Winter Park will find a farm or provider and share the information with a nearby restaurant.
On the menu at Cask & Larder: Pig ear crostini with golden palm mustard, fried egg and frisee.
Restaurateurs and chefs came to realize that niche restaurants need each other. Cask will thrive because Luma on Park in Winter Park thrives. If Luma thrives, so will Spanish River Gill in New Smyrna Beach.
Some who still worry about consistency and supply are going as far as creating their own farms, not unlike what Tampa restaurateur Bern Laxer did in the 1970s for Bern’s Steak House.
“I have never seen so much collaboration among chefs,” McPherson says. “It’s bigger than even I knew it was.”
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FINDING THE FIELDS FOR YOUR FEAST
These central Florida farms are open to the public or offer tours and special events that are booked in advance. (Keep in mind that the farms are often where the farmers have their homes. Make sure to call ahead.) A more extensive list of farms is included in the book “Field to Feast.”
View Florida Farms and Markets in a larger map