Over the last few years, the farm-to-table movement has been gaining momentum in the United States. With the release of books such as Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and films like Food, Inc., Americans are becoming more aware of where our food originates and how it’s produced. We understand the economic and social significance of supporting small farms and the environmental sustainability of shopping and dining locally. We’ve started demanding non-genetically modified, hormone- and pesticide-free produce and meat at our markets and in our restaurants. We’ve become more educated about the treatment of livestock, the importance of feeding them a more evolutionarily aligned diet, and the humaneness of pasture raising. In short, Americans are developing a more thoughtful approach to food and are gradually returning to the diet of our grandparents.
To learn more about supporting our local economy here in the Metro region, Washingtonians can turn to Think Local First DC, a non-profit organization “that works with independent businesses, consumers and policymakers to grow a sustainable local economy.” One of TLF DC’s initiatives includes Eat Local First, a campaign encouraging residents to patronize dining establishments whose menus feature foods from area orchards, farms, bakeries, and dairies. The initiative also highlights the benefits of shopping directly at local farms and farm markets in order to support “the hard-working small farms that need our business to sustain,” as well as to shrink our carbon footprints by reducing the distance food must travel to reach consumers.
In celebration of “locavore” dining’s burgeoning popularity, Eat Local First sponsors DC’s Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week each July. Between July 9 and 16 this year, independent restaurants in Washington, DC, that source food locally will be featuring farm-to-table menus, special local entrées, or discounts on local food. To shed a little more light on this exciting enterprise, we delved into the minds behind some of our city’s local-centric eateries.
Perhaps no Washington franchise is better known for its involvement in a myriad of social issues than Busboys & Poets, founded in 2005 by Iraqi-American artist Anas “Andy” Shallal. It should come as no surprise that the two downtown outposts will be participating in Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week, featuring specials throughout the week.
Many restaurants have begun to feature grass-fed, free-range beef from local farms as well a cage-free eggs over the past few years; and Busboys & Poets’ menu features both. But Shallal’s commitment to locavore dining goes beyond these more common gestures. He describes his restaurants as “a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul.” He may as well add “the local economy” to that list.
Shallal has partnered with Engaged Community Offshoots farm network (ECO City Farm) to source greens for every salad served in his four Busboys locations. Located within the Beltway in Prince George’s County, ECO City Farm is an educational non-profit “designed to serve as a prototype for sustainable local farming.” The organization offers certificate courses in urban farming – open to the public – and a New Urban/Immigrant Farmer Training Program in addition to providing area restaurants with produce and meats. In addition to ECO City Farm, Shallal uses another local organization, Taharka Brothers, to source the delicious ice creams found on Busboys & Poet’s menu. Taharka Brothers, based in Maryland, is a visionary company that hires at-risk urban youth and “teaches them the intricacies of business strategy and entrepreneurship with the ultimate goal that each of these student-workers will found his own business.” Once trained, these youth manage the company and all profits are put back into the foundation that made their success possible. Shallal’s relationships with ECO City Farm and Taharka Brothers serve a twofold purpose when it comes to growing our area’s economy: supporting local organizations that, in turn, give back to their own community.
Another of DC’s shining farm-to-table gems is U Street’s Local 16, known for “farm driven, Classic American fare.” The restaurant partners with Whipple Farms in Rixeyville, VA, started in 2001 by Washington attorney Doug Whipple. Particularly discouraged by the poor caliber of produce found in most supermarkets, Whipple “got really interested in food quality”, wanting to see if he could “grow the best vegetables in the world.” After much reading, research, trial and error, he launched Whipple Farms. He specializes in biodynamic, heirloom produce and cage-free eggs. Five acres are dedicated to growing produce, and another nine dedicated to growing grain feed for his chickens.
Whipple has a particular affinity for Local 16 and the relationship he’s cultivated over the years with head chef Edan McQuaid. Even if Whipple doesn’t hear from the chef for an order in a given week, he’ll head over to the restaurant anyway with produce he thinks McQuaid will like. “He doesn’t just talk the talk like a lot of other restaurants,” Whipple says. “He walks the walk.” McQuaid’s been known to drop Whipple the random e-mail praising the fresh cucumbers or a bounty of tomatoes he’s been recipe testing.
So what does Whipple recommend at Local 16? “They have this Farmer’s pizza,” he says. It features sauce made from Whipple’s heirloom tomatoes and an ever-changing array of Whipple Farms veggies, depending on what’s in season. Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week seems the perfect time to sample this farm-fresh pie. The restaurant will feature farm-to-table specials all week.
Partnering closely with local farms is a business move that seems to benefit more than a few of Washington’s farm-to-table restaurants. It’s a strategy that made so much sense to EatWell DC, the group behind Commissary, The Heights, and Logan Tavern among others, that they eventually started their own. We spoke with Josh Hanh, EatWell’s Operating Manager, about the company’s dedication to local dining which really begins with EatWell Natural Farm. The farm was “an idea many years in the making” as the restaurant group worked to “fill a gap” in their supply chain. EatWell found that they were unable to continue sourcing local produce and meats at prices that remained affordable to diners, “so we set out to find a farm of our own to grow naturally raised vegetables and fruit” to feature in each of EatWell’s DC restaurants.
EatWell’s partners found the ideal location in LaPlata, Maryland, on nearly 14 acres of land that started as a tobacco farm, evolved into a horse farm, and ended as a goat farm before EatWell purchased the property. Seven acres of EatWell Natural Farm are now dedicated to growing all-natural, pesticide- and herbicide-free fruits and vegetables to be served in each of their five downtown restaurants. Everything from lettuce to edamame to bok choi is grown from seed, with the exception of the tomato and pepper plants, started by an heirloom grower in Alabama. And as fertilizers aren’t used on the farm either, EatWell has begun gathering all compostable material from its restaurants for use on the farm.
During Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week, Hahn promises menus that feature a bounty of produce harvested from EatWell Natural Farm. At this point in the season he says to expect “tons of tomatoes, Swiss chard, arugula, mustard greens, beets, peppers, cucumbers, fresh herbs and lots more.” These items will be highlighted on menus at EatWell DC’s Commissary, The Heights, and Logan Tavern.
Craving something light during Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week? Maybe something sweet? Or even caffeinated? Dupont Circle’s Yola has you covered. Opened in December, 2010, this comfortable neighborhood café is the brainchild of Washington native Laura Smith. While teaching abroad in Switzerland a few summers ago, she came across a yogurt bar – a fresh yogurt bar, not frozen – and wondered why she couldn’t make the idea work in DC. With start-up money from her father, they found a space in the vibrant Dupont Circle neighborhood and opened Yola with a commitment to serving a local menu.
Farm-fresh yogurt – regular and Greek-style in flavors like maple, lemon and cherry – arrives weekly at Yola from Blue Ridge Dairy in Leesburg, Virginia, and Trickling Springs Creamery in Pennsylvania. This yogurt serves as the base of Yola’s build-your-own parfaits. Once you’ve selected your sustainably produced, local yogurt, stroll along the toppings counter to customize your creamy treat with fruit sourced from Virginia and Maryland farms. Or order up a Counter Culture latté, steamed (and decorated!) with Trickling Springs Creamery’s grass-fed milk. Head into Yola between July 9 and July 16 this month to sample some of Yola’s featured parfait specials during Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week.
Washington’s farm-to-table restaurant scene has grown by leaps over the past few years, Eat Local First’s Farm-to-Table Restaurant Week initiative is the perfect opportunity to sample what these fabulous local restaurants have to offer.
For more information on local businesses, as well as Farm to Table Restaurant Week DC, visit www.eatlocalfirstdc.com.