The Meaning of Farm-to-Table: How Dedicated Chefs Go Above and Beyond to Source Their Ingredients

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Farm-to-table can be tricky to define. Let's take a look at how these restaurants go to great lengths to put their delicious food on the table.

Farm-to-table sounds excellent to everyone. Unfortunately, most people have a vague understanding that it's healthy, good for the environment, and tastes good. Since no regulatory authority certifies establishments as farm-to-table, it can be challenging to explain what it means. This article will explore what farm-to-table restauranteurs must go through to prepare their menus.  

Meat From Local Farms May Still Be Well-Travelled

All meat sold in the United States must pass either a state or federal inspection by the USDA. However, there aren't enough slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities collaborating with small-scale livestock farmers. Therefore, if the rancher does not have access to a processing plant, the meat may travel a long distance for inspection before returning to a local restaurant. 

In addition to verifying how fat the meat travels, chefs dedicated to offering their patrons locally sourced products must investigate whether their rancher raises and slaughters cattle humanely, without inappropriate feed or antibiotics. This diligence translates to a significant amount of homework that typical restaurants never worry about.

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Finding Fish Relies on The Seasons And Government Regs

In contrast to beef, the USDA only inspects a few fish species. Therefore, a chef naturally wants to purchase fish straight from the source. Unfortunately, their menu will need to change depending on the current catch. Anything the restaurant offers will be subject to season and local regulations.

For example, states limit the number of fish allowed to a single angler or fishing operation. While some months may allow ample supply to support a local restaurant, others may not. In that case, the regulated fish will disappear from the menu for entire months at a time.

Some farm-to-table restaurants are also their own farms. You can have a similar arrangement with your own vegetable garden. Nothing beats homemade.

Farm-to-Table Is All About Relationships

The problems discussed above require strong relationships with suppliers. In addition to locating ranchers or fishers, chefs must also confirm that they are engaged in herding, fishing, and slaughtering activities that align with the restaurant's guiding principles. For example, most farm-to-table restaurants demand humanely raised beef with no antibiotics.

Any restauranteur interested in opening a farm-to-table establishment should head straight to the local farmers' market as soon as possible. First, they need to start building relationships with farmers who will tell them what is happening with the current year's crops and what to expect down the road.

Farm-to-table chefs often take a farmer's excess produce and ferment or pickle whatever can't be utilized on the menu immediately. The same is true with cattle, and innovative chefs will plan meals around whatever is delivered – even less popular items like organ meat. Farm-to-fork requires creativity and an adventurous palate!

Farm-to-table restauranteurs often collaborate with trusted producers, analyzing the weather and choosing what would be the most beneficial to cultivate for both sides. They may even agree to plan crops a year in advance. It's a complicated relationship that requires labor and commitment. But the rewards are delicious, healthy, and eco-friendly food. 

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Adaptability Is a Farm-to-Table Chef's Secret Weapon

The change of seasons is more complex than most restauranteurs understand. At a farm-to-table establishment, the chef's outlook can change daily. Their entire menu plan could be derailed by a trip to the farmers' market if they see an unexpected delicacy. 

On the other hand, farmers might be unable to produce enough to satisfy the restaurant's demand. An angler can be stuck ashore in bad weather. It is the chef's responsibility to see what is available and how to put things together in a way that is still delicious – even if what's available was unplanned.

It's a Labor of Love – and Many Long Hours

Farm-to-table chefs receive everything in its most natural state. For example, they churn fresh cream from the dairy into butter. And when the rancher delivers a whole hog, they must spend time cutting it up into large pieces, stewing the bones for stock, and curing leftover meat for charcuterie. 

In addition, they could make early trips to the farmers' market to check what they have to work with that day. It's considerably different from a regular restaurant that calls a distributor in advance, makes a specific order, and expects to get what they ask for.

The Cost Passes To The Consumer, Either Way

According to SupplyChain, consumers can expect, on average, to pay about 12% more at a farm-to-table establishment. However, local circumstances can make this higher. As discussed above, the amount of time and effort that goes into sourcing ingredients locally gives tremendous value to the food. And it is worth asking whether the price is actually higher, considering the environmental cost of our current food system.

Farm-to-Table Food Is More Than Just Calories

Farm-to-table restaurants spend much more time and effort sourcing, processing, and preparing their ingredients. This preparation starts before the restaurant even opens. It involves building relationships with local producers and building an adaptable framework that allows them to change their menu at a moment's notice. Restauranteurs and chefs in this lifestyle (it IS a lifestyle!) understand what they are doing and commit themselves to providing you food by bringing you closer to the source.  

So what does it mean when a restaurant is farm-to-table? It means that the restauranteur undertakes a labor of love to deliver a healthy, delicious, and ethical dining experience with nothing between the farm and his kitchen.

Key Takeaways

  • Do Your Homework – Whether you shop for yourself, for your business, or run a restaurant, put in the effort to contact your producers and see how your food is raised. Make sure it aligns with your values!
  • Get to Know Your Environment – Eating at farm-to-table restaurants can be eye-opening. They can often introduce you to new foods you never knew were native to your region. This can bring the benefit of a more varied and exciting diet.
  • Get Involved – Some farm-to-table restaurants are also their own farms. You can have a similar arrangement with your own vegetable garden. Nothing beats homemade.

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