Monday, December 31, 2012
Farm to Fork and TerraMae are two very different new Chattanooga area restaurants with a common denominator: embracing the farm to table movement.
While they have diverse culinary styles ranging from traditional Southern to molecular gastronomy, they’re both taking flavor cues from the South and striving to source local ingredients.
It would be, it seems, a growing new trend. But it certainly isn’t new and it isn’t really a trend at all. Rather, farm to table food is a return to a way of life that’s been a long time coming. To eat “farm to table” is to eat like generations of Tennesseans before us, like our grandparents and great-grandparents. Surrounded by land cultivated by local farmers, Chattanoogans are blessed with a bountiful foodshed.
The markets brim from season to season with everything from baskets of hearty greens and sweet potatoes with dirt still clinging to their dusky skins to cheerful pints of berries and piles of gemcolored heirloom tomatoes to pork chops, fresh eggs and stone-ground cornmeal. The support of local restaurants is a great boon to farmers, in turn allowing them to serve the community better. Seasonal, local food returns to us the joy of meals with a sense of time and place, meals that taste like the vibrant seasons of Tennessee.
Spearheaded by Alice Waters at her Berkeley, Calif. restaurant Chez Panisse in the 1970s and motivated by a desire for flavorful, quality ingredients, the farm to table movement embraces serving seasonal, local produce and works to build strong relationships between the farmer, chef and diner. It’s communal. It’s about slowing down and being where you are when you’re there. It’s about winter root vegetables and summer tomatoes. The seed of this movement, planted not unlike the seeds in so many kitchen gardens, is now, more than 40 years later, flourishing exponentially each year. This is evidenced in Chattanooga by the ever-growing number of restaurants, both old and new, that incorporate local ingredients into their menus.
More farm to table restaurants means support for the local economy and the peace of mind of knowing where the food you eat comes from and exactly how it’s produced. It means cutting down the environmental impact of food shipped from thousands of miles away. In short, it means better health for our bodies, city and planet. But perhaps the most exciting reason to choose farm to table? Fresh food picked at its peak of flavor tastes amazing. Chefs know that in the end they’re only as good as their ingredients. As such, it’s no wonder that Chattanooga’s best are keen to work with these beautiful local ingredients, and you can absolutely taste the results. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making glazed carrots or carrot foam, a local carrot is going to taste better.
These two new additions to the local restaurant landscape offer such unique experiences that you’re certain to find something that suits you whether you’re the sous vide short rib sort, someone who likes a great hand-cut French fry or someone who loves it all.
Located downtown in the elegantly renovated dining room of the historic Stone Fort Inn, TerraMae (Portuguese for “mother earth”) takes its name to heart. The restaurant features a menu rich with local products and indigenous flavors inspired by the Appalachian Trial.
When Executive Chef Robert Stockwell first moved to Chattanooga he spent every day possible at the farmer’s markets, tasting everything from cheese to honey, and he now sources microgreens from Lee & Gordon, produce from Crabtree Farms, Sequatchie Cove and Humble Hearts Farm cheeses, Sale Creek honey and meats from Cloud Crest Farms.
When developing the menu, he and food and beverage director David Mitchell had brainstorming sessions with locals where they asked them what foods they grew up eating. Chef Stockwell then took those classic favorites and reinvented them using local ingredients and contemporary culinary techniques that he learned while working under a litany of famous culinary talents from pastry chef and co-author of “On Baking” Eddy Van Damme to Robert Green (of Chicago’s famous restaurant Tru), among many others. For instance, the menu includes a “deconstructed” chicken and dumplings that features chicken cooked sous vide.
Sous vide, which literally means “under pressure,” is a technique of vacuum sealing food and cooking it in a temperature-controlled water bath, and it results in food that is succulent, tender and never over cooked. He also does 72-hour sous vide short ribs alongside vibrant, tender baby vegetables fresh from the farm.
With food that appeals to all the senses you can enjoy everything from a tower of scallops ensconced in smoke that comes swirling out of a lifted glass to a terrine of foie gras scattered with tendrils of microgreens and a rainbow of edible flower petals like confetti alongside a Pollockesque streak of balsamic reduction and luminous pomegranate seeds.
His plates almost seem to have story, his food a plot complete with twists and turns. The dining room itself, renovated by interior designer Cris Angsten, echoes this fusion of dramatic modern sophistication with the comfortable traditions of the South with its Civil War-era stone walls flanked by tufted banquettes reminiscent of cozy living room couches, mounted antlers, chandeliers and unexpected Normandy blue ceiling.
The atmosphere at TerraMae is one of understated elegance at once dramatic and inviting just like its innovative menu anchored in the past with humble, farm fresh ingredients.
The daring thing about simple food is that there are no culinary smoke and mirrors to hide behind.
Chef Joseph Black serves up traditional Southern food with a “culinary kick” like herbed tarragon and basil grits with pecorino. Chef Black, a Ringgold native, started cooking 20 years ago as a way to pay the bills, but he quickly developed a passion for food and has since been at the helm of restaurants from Key West to Corpus Christi, including serving as executive chef at Hennan’s here in Chattanooga and at The Farm Golf & Country Club in Dalton.
After tossing the idea around with a friend, the next thing Black knew he was opening up his own restaurant and doing what excites him most: cooking simple, honest food to bring “the culinary experience to the everyday realm,” an experience that’s accessible to everyone. And it does excite him — that much is clear from the care taken in his cooking and the smile on his face when he talks about sharing his love of food with the average person.
His dishes allow the ingredients to shine, ingredients like local turnip greens done in bacon grease, whole-grain mustard and Vidalia onion potlikker or a grilled Springer Mountain chicken sandwich.
The eggs he uses are procured from an Armenian woman in Keith, Ga., that raises seven different varieties of chickens, and at any given time of the year you’re sure to find plenty of local produce making an appearance on the menu. Be sure to not miss his hand-cut fries, fried green tomatoes with a house-made remoulade, and the crab cakes, which all enjoy local favorite status. And don’t forget a tall glass of peach tea, a half-and-half mix of sweet and unsweet, with a touch of peach nectar that achieves that elusive state of sweet tea perfection.
The daring thing about simple food is that there are no culinary smoke and mirrors to hide behind. Without talent and quality ingredients, simple food will fall flat, but one bite of, say, his golden-crusted, pan-fried grouper with those creamy herbed grits and you will see that his straightforward food is brilliant in its finesse, which is the only real secret ingredient.
Beth Kirby is a freelance writer, photographer and recipe developer living in North Chattanooga and whose work aims to share a love of local food and the unique culinary traditions of the South. Read more about her love of local food at localmilk.blogspot.com .