Meet four champions of the farm-to-table dining movement
Farm-to-table dining isn't just a flash in the pan. From Dan Barber to Simon Rogan, we meet four success stories proving that the future of food is in hyperlocal produce and sensitively reared animals
- By Mike Gibson -
When it comes to food philosophies, there aren't many that cut straight to the point like that of the farm-to-table movement.
As the name suggests, it refers to a model wherein a restaurant is run in connection to a specific farm, usually a small and technically minded one, and serves dishes that shift and move with the seasons. It eschews expansive supply chains and favours small-scale (and often organic) farming and an ecologically minded approach above cutting costs.
It might seem obvious, but leaving the ethical and environmental arguments aside, the best thing about the farm-to-table movement is the food itself. Simply put, when produce has been lovingly created in partnership with the chefs who'll end up cooking with it, flavour becomes king.
You're eating food that's travelled minimal distances, that's come from healthy plants and sensitively reared animals, and that imbues a genuine, not to mention unmistakable, sense of place into the resultant dishes. Here are four operations that are currently showing just how well it really can be done.
The Icon: Simon Rogan
Possibly the highest-profile British luminary of the farm-to-table movement is Simon Rogan, chef-patron of L'Enclume, Aulis and Rogan & Co in the Cumbrian village of Cartmel, and until recently, Fera at Claridges in London.
L'Enclume, with its 16 plus-course tasting menus and two Michelin stars, is regularly among the restaurants talked about as the best in the country. Eating there, you can see why: the pure adulation the chefs and staff have for their ingredients is unparalleled, and – even taking the picturesque Lake District setting out of the equation – the food seems like a true reflection of its environment.
Our Farm – a small, technical farming operation a mile or so away from the restaurants – supplies all of the restaurants with vegetables, herbs and other produce.
"Any new chef will spend a month on the farm before they even set foot in the kitchen," Rogan says. "The front-of-house is exactly the same. They need to respect the ingredients, and get the connection between growing something from seed right to the time it goes on the plate.
"It always starts with me and the development team to tell the farm what to grow, but then the menus are very much dictated by what's available," says Rogan. "We've done a lot of work on the farm over the winter – it's bigger and better, with new techniques and new irrigation systems. Come summer, the whole of the menu at L'Enclume will be made up of farm produce."
Using one small farm extensively means the restaurants sacrifice bigger margins on their food, but the upshot is a supply chain whose loop is closed as tightly as it can be, thanks to the close relationship between the kitchens and the farm.
A man who's right in the middle of this relationship is Rory Sheehan, a 'chef-grower' who works on Our Farm as well as in Aulis – a small development kitchen, recently opened to the public, that's adjacent to L'Enclume. It's here that a team of development chefs work with ingredients from the farm to create dishes that will, hopefully, end up on L'Enclume's menu.
"When I first came up here, that was my job role in a sense. It was that link between the restaurants and the kitchens. And it's so important," Sheehan says. "Simon's vision is to have two chefs that aren't on the restaurant rotas coming to the farm in the morning regardless, for one hour, just to walk around and spot things. Because that's what he does, and that's what he wants: he wants everyone to be thinking like him."
As Rogan says, the farm is "designed by chefs, for chefs, run by chefs". It's not a business in its own right: it's a way of working that's purely for the benefit of the end product.
"We are very passionate, and it's cost us a lot of money over the years, but it's not about that," Rogan says. "It's about having ingredients available to me that you can't get anywhere else, to a better standard than anywhere else. So we're totally in control of what we grow, and when we grow it."
Having recently amicably split from Claridges, and with Fera coming to the end of its tenure, Rogan is due to reopen Roganic in late summer – a restaurant outpost in London that shouts about his philosophy to an audience surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers, not hilltops and meadows.
"It is important to have a presence in London: not only is it a world stage, but it also pushes people north," he says. "We found the original Roganic had an impact; Fera had a massive effect worldwide and for our operation in Cartmel, so it's important to carry that on."
The Evangelist: Dan Barber
"He named us the new epitome of farm-to-table," Dan Barber says in an episode of Netflix's documentary series Chef's Table. "He defined us before we really knew who we were."
Barber is speaking about a review that elevated his career in food, written by Gourmet magazine's restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold. It was significant not just because of the profile of the writer, but because it rooted Barber's Manhattan restaurant Blue Hill firmly in the farm-to-table conversation shortly after it opened in 2000, when the movement was still nascent.
Years later, Blue Hill has a Michelin star, Barber's other restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, about 100 miles upstate in the bucolic Hudson Valley, is 11th on the 2017 World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and he recently gathered some of London's best chefs for his first venture in our capital – an iteration of his wastED food-waste pop-up.
Where Blue Hill is a church of farm-to-table dining, the restaurant at Stone Barns is a cathedral: an expansive, world-class restaurant project set on a working farm and attached to an educational centre for sustainable food.
Barber and his team of chefs and farmers experiment with the breeding of new grains, vegetables and other produce through a version of landrace farming: small-scale, intricate work tailored around tight crop rotations and 100% organic methods.
There are no menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, either – waiters guide diners through a set of courses tailored to their tastes, and they're encouraged to try things like bread made with Barber Wheat – a type of heritage wheat custom-bred by Barber with the help of a food scientist – served unadorned, in an attempt to let them connect completely with their dish and its ingredient.
Barber is effusive about the farm-to-table philosophy. He sees it not only as a food movement, but the true endgame for the sustainable food movement as a whole. And with a foot in the city and the country, he knows that getting the message across to a city diner is different from a diner who's travelled for miles and finds themselves surrounded by farmland while they eat.
"I think when diners are [at Blue Hill at Stone Barns] it's easier," he says. "But I also term that as a challenge – or an opportunity – for urban restaurants that are increasingly focused on advertising their connections to farms. As the world continues to become urbanised, there is a way to connect with the natural world, and a great way to do that is through a plate of food. Delicious food is inexorably tied to great ecological stewardship; they're one and the same thing."
Delicious food is inexorably tied to great ecology
If these sound like the words of an academic, not a chef, there's an explanation for that. Barber originally wanted to be a writer before his career in food started, and the impression is that he sees cooking as a conduit to preaching his philosophy.
Not only has he written a book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, that sets out his vision of a truly sustainable food system, but he served as an advisor to Barack Obama on the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Put simply, this is a man who's using cooking at the very top level to relay an idea that goes beyond simply the restaurant scene.
Barber cooks mostly at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, but he sees his original Manhattan restaurant as a key piece of the puzzle – one that can turn someone who's simply out for a good meal into someone who can take an active part in the movement.
"To be sitting in midtown Manhattan and having a jawdroppingly delicious carrot is to connect yourself with great environmental stewardship, because you can't have a jawdroppingly delicious carrot without good stewardship; you can't have it without a good seed; you can't have it without good soil; you can't have it with a good farmer who's not making the right crop rotations; you can't have it with a farmer who's picking it at the wrong moment; you can't have it with a farmer who's shipping it 3,000 miles away.
"It's easier for us to make those connections when your table is surrounded by farmland, definitely, but that's not to say that we can't do very much the same thing in the middle of a bustling city like London."
The Family Farm: The Gladwin Brothers
When The Shed restaurant opened in Notting Hill a few years ago, the idea of foraging food that grows wild was still yet to hit the mainsteam. By now, its owners Richard, Oliver and Gregory Gladwin – three brothers born in Nutbourne, Sussex – have opened Rabbit in Chelsea and Nutbourne in Battersea. The restaurants all express facets of their childhood: a farm-to-table model, with a focus on English wine and foraged food.
Born on a vineyard to two chefs, the Gladwins have always had both the country and restaurants in their veins.
As a trio, they represent all three prongs of the farm-to-table model: Gregory farms livestock on the family's farm in Ashurst Wood, West Sussex (about an hour away from Nutbourne), Oliver is the executive chef at all three restaurants, and Richard is the out-and-out restaurateur; the business mind that sews it all together.
Given their childhoods, it's no surprise that the farm-to-table format was one that came naturally.
"We know from 26 years' experience of farming grapes that we're going to harvest the first, second or sometimes the third week of October – that's when grapes ripen in Nutbourne, Sussex," Richard says. "We know that the tomato farm that we use comes on in late March and goes through till last picking at the end of November, and that's our window for selling tomatoes. After that, you need to move that dish on – you need to find something else."
"Working with farmers, talking to them about when the produce is ready, you can forward plan, but you also can let your farmer lead you in your menu development being utterly seasonal."
Foraging, too, plays a part in dictating the seasonal changes that are so integral to farm-to-table dining: "Wild food dictates when it comes out – it's not being pushed and farmed to harvest at a certain time of year – so when the wild garlic starts, that gives us the signal that's spring is here; wild garlic broth comes onto the menu, and we can then start adapting our menus into springtime. Foraging is the most seasonal menu point that you can get. It's totally wild; it works with what's going on outside. And I think Oliver very much uses that as a map."
Each of the brothers is immersed in the farming operations – even Richard, as the most business-minded of the three, goes back to Nutbourne and Ashurst Wood to work at the weekends – but all three are aware of the possible pitfalls of the system from a supply perspective.
After all, no one uses the farm-to-table model because it's the easiest or most economic one.
"The secret is to make sure that we deliver into the restaurant as well as a good supplier would," Richard says. "Because your head chef, your commis chef, your manager want the same service that you would get if you were using general suppliers."
"Yes, there are some differences – but with a little bit more forethought and menu planning, stuff like that shouldn't be too much of an issue. We try and run it as close to a supply business as we can."
As well as their family farm, which provides lamb, beef and other livestock, and their foraging expeditions, the Gladwins' restaurants rely on a collective of locally owned farms around their hometown.
These include the aforementioned Nutbourne Tomato Farm; Nutbourne Place farm, which grows salad leaves; and dairy farmer Charlie Hughes' farm, where they source the raw milk used in their homemade yoghurts, cheeses and ice creams.
"I describe it as pooling in our local farming community," Richard says, describing the difficulty with aiming for a totally self-sufficient operation, "You can't run two fishing boats as well as a wheat farm and a tomato farm. I think the best way to do it is to turn it into a community."
The Trailblazer: Tom Adams
Of all the barbecue joints that opened up in London over the last decade, Pitt Cue has perhaps the most surprising story. What started out as a food truck on the Southbank morphed into a tiny but acclaimed restaurant in Soho, before outgrowing that site and emerging as a palatial European barbecue restaurant in the City.
It now includes an on-site brewery, and has more in common with vaunted Basque grill restaurant Asador Etxebarri than its American-style street-food beginnings.
Pitt Cue's meat is so good because what goes into it is of pure, unbridled quality. Adams has his own herd of pigs: mangalitsa, a hairy breed that's Hungarian in origin and highly prized for its incredible taste and texture.
"It was only about six or seven months into the restaurant being open that I was back home in Winchester at this farm," he says "and it dawned on me: why weren't we trying to link everything together?"
"Before, I very much had my blinkers on with regards to how restaurants worked. I thought everything was formulaic – you had suppliers and order sheets, you worked within the confines of your kitchen and you'd try and source the best you could. But it was only once I was down there that I thought: why can't we do it? It spiralled from there."
Having handed over the reins of Pitt Cue's enormous custom-built grill to his trusted head chef Oscar Holgado, Adams is now more often found in Cornwall, at his country retreat Coombeshead Farm.
ultimately it’s about 100% control over the product
What started as a passion project, set up in partnership with British-born New York chef April Bloomfield, has now become his life's work: a country house where people interested in Adams' farm-to-table philosophy can come for a night or more, dine at a communal table (soon to become a slightly bigger setup in one of the farm's barns) and immerse themselves in the surroundings. Where Pitt Cue is a quintessential city restaurant, Coombeshead is its countryside cousin.
The points of contact with the city and the country, as well as the different types of support that both lend to the farming communities Adams sources from, are invaluable. "By the time diners get to Coombeshead, they're probably already half convinced; they're intrigued about a certain way of eating, or a philosophy.
"But Pitt Cue has a support network that operates in a different way. Whereas in Cornwall we might spend basically nothing on produce each week, Pitt Cue now supports small farmers in a way that I could have only dreamed of. Because of the amount of produce it takes from small farmers, in many ways it is probably more of an asset to the farming community than Coombeshead is."
Like the Gladwins, Adams' sense of community is at play, and total self-sufficiency isn't necessarily the goal: "Ultimately it's about having 100% control over the product, and you can do that whether it's you farming it or just having an extremely close relationship with the person doing it for you."
"And sometimes I think it's better to have someone with the experience and the skill sets and the knowledge, but who works closely with you – rather than trying to do everything yourself and maybe not doing it as well or as responsibly or as it would have been if it were selectively done through a group of really good farmers."
So, while Pitt Cue is a machine, Coombeshead is a true reflection of Adams' view on food and farming. It's a space far away from London's baying dining crowd; a contemplative operation where research and development is part of the day to day, and new techniques can help inform the way his restaurants and supply chains work.
Even since it's opened, Adams says, "We've put in five more raised beds over the winter and a polytunnel," and opened a bakery that sells bread wholesale around the south-west. Adams' projects in the restaurant and hospitality world seem open-ended, and he seems at ease with that. "I'm just hoping that down here we can look at increasing our knowledge of food systems and farming to the stage when we're able to be of some benefit to the restaurant world."