We thought maybe it was just the Boulder bubble, but apparently the over-use of farm-to-table has caused more confusion than clarification. Because so many restaurants and food brands are using the phrase, it doesn’t have much meaning any more. A recent article in Vanity Fair by Corby Kummer covered the almost cliche phrase; take a look:
I used to dream of being able to go to a restaurant near where I live that would serve the freshest and most local vegetables nearly naked, so that diners could taste them in their just-picked glory rather than lost in cloakings of purslane pesto and thick almondromesco sauce. Where simply grilled pieces of meat and fish would arrive glistening with the lightest painting of olive oil. Where chefs would seek out local cheese-makers and farmers who cared about the pigs and cattle and chickens they raised, like the food producers and farmers I’ve made it a practice to seek out, buy from, and write about in an attempt to keep them in business. Why couldn’t the restaurants I went to and reviewed save me the trouble of finding everybody for myself? Why did I have to root everyone out, argue with my editors over whether “artisanal” was a word, and wait till I was headed across the Bay Bridge to Chez Panisse to know I could trust the provenance of what was set in front of me?
I forgot to be careful what I wished for.
Today, chefs can’t shut up about where every morsel that went into every dish got its start in life. “Locavore” isn’t enough: new words are necessary. The friendly diner in the Brooklyn-analogue neighborhood in Atlanta where I’ve been spending some time is called “il Localino.” No chef would dare to seek investors without a business plan that boasts of its “farm-to-table” cuisine—a term now so common that it has inspired its own irritating abbreviation, F2T.I realized that things were getting out of hand recently at Commonwealth, a restaurant in an attractively revitalized former light-manufacturing neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just a decade ago, it would have been enough to emphasize exposed-brick walls, hardwood floors gouged by machinery, and harsh, ugly industrial light fixtures with softly glowing “Edison” bulbs that Edison would be unlikely to recognize. But now the entrance was an ersatz farmers’ market with crates of fruits and vegetables, chalkboards listing local farms, and bottles of maple syrup. The restaurant’s brick walls were covered by flimsy strips of wood that turned out to be packing crates. The effect didn’t really say “farm.” It said something more like “farm drag.” And it wasn’t near a farm. It was near a lot of old factories and a huge new Google office complex.
The West Village, in Manhattan, isn’t exactly farmland, either, much less the Bohemia it once was. The hedge-fund traders who are now the only residents who can afford its charms are finding their way to Blenheim, a restaurant named for the 150-acre “smörgås eco farm” that its owners, a Norwegian-born former designer named Morten Sohlberg, and Min Ye, his wife and a former investment banker, run in the Catskills. They’ve rigged out the restaurant with the requisite Edison bulbs, unstained wide-plank wainscoting, and dozens of jagged-toothed saws, oxen yokes, and other implements that look like exhibits in a museum of agriculture. Farmshop, in Brentwood, California, bordering the Gold Coast of Santa Monica, has a full-wall black-and-white picture of a barn and silo with a rolling mowed field in the background, and a father and son strolling through elephant’s- eye-high corn in the foreground. It’s unlikely that father or son would be able to afford much at the neighboring boutiques in the Brentwood Country Mart, like Broken English jewelry and Calypso St. Barth.
All this is the modern version of Pastis carafes and Gauloises ashtrays in an Akron bistro. It feels particularly misleading when excessive earnestness is a cover for fatally unimaginative, formulaic food. Transparency about sourcing and insisting on food raised to ethical standards is laudable: every chef and restaurant owner and shopper outside Brooklyn and Berkeley should think about it. But purity and moral superiority are not excuses for not knowing how to cook.
Farm-to-table has honorable origins. When Alice Waters started listing the names of farms on the menu of Chez Panisse, it was to remind people that food really did grow on farms. Waters wanted to re-establish the link between the seasons of the year and the food she served, and she wanted to credit everyone who produced every part of the meal.Those good intentions went amok when chefs around the country started to outdo one another with menus that took on the name-clotted length of petitions: “Treviso grown by Warren Weber in Bolinas in the third row of the radicchio plot at Star Route Farms.” Lambs gambol on the green, steers graze on antioxidant-rich grasses, chickens peck for all-natural grubs—all under the loving gaze of ethics majors—right until the moment it’s time for the nail gun. You might not be able to tell what you’d actually be eating, but you’d know a lot about who grew it, raised it, or caught it. Then farmers’ markets, spurred by the very awareness those menus created, started giving regular people access to the ingredients that had given chefs their competitive advantage—and chefs lost their edge.
“Those goddamned markets,” says Loretta Keller, a chef at Stars during the heyday of California cuisine and then herself the owner of successful San Francisco restaurants. “When the public got access to what only we could get before, we lost our bragging rights. We had to compete for products that made us special.” That generally meant one of two directions: insistence on cozy, exclusive deals with farmers and playing up farm-to-table, or moving to laconic, five-word menu descriptions that left the guessing to the diner.
Worse, the language and iconography have been co-opted by the very companies to which the movement was supposed to be an alternative—“farmwashing,” as the practice is called. “It Begins with a Farmer,” a series of ads featuring pictures of wholesome-looking tillers of the soil, carries messages such as “A Mother’s Love Begins with a Farmer.” The sponsor? Monsanto, the global purveyor of genetically modified seeds (and scourge of farmers who resist them). McDonald’s, under siege as the public looks askance at the processed foods it blames for obesity, has been fighting back against its increasingly strong rival Chipotle, which built its market share on claims of ethical suppliers (claims under frequent dispute, but that’s what you get when you try to seize the moral high ground and make a lot of money). Four years ago McDonald’s started a “What We’re Made Of” campaign to make customers “feel good about the high-quality ingredients that go into our menu.” Two years later, it ran a “farm-to-fork” campaign featuring potato, beef, and lettuce farmers displaying products that actually grew in (or on) the ground. McDonald’s also sent 18-wheelers up and down Britain bearing billboard-size black-and-white linoleum prints featuring antique tractors and drawings of happy sunflowers, with banners that read (for instance), OVER 17,500 BRITISH & IRISH FARMERS SUPPLY OUR INGREDIENTS. The graphics on its burger bags could be on feedbags for wholesome farmers.
Small-time fast-food places use the same language. A New England chain of 18 hamburger restaurants called b.good shows a farmer on its home page and touts “real food” (including “real fries”). A five-location chain headquartered in the Southeast features grass-fed beef and calls itself Farm Burger. Sweetgreen, with 31 locations and counting, was started by four young Georgetown graduates who had a finger on the pulse of their peer group. Sweetgreen outlets feature pictures of farms everywhere, and have big blackboards listing the day’s farm suppliers. Supermarkets looking for a halo effect hang huge banners showing the handsome but weather-beaten farmers they buy from, but not the huge industrial producers they buy a great deal more from.
The language is even becoming the object of irony. A flight attendant recently apologized for the little plastic container of rock-hard, artificially flavored ice cream she passed out around me as a snack at the end of an international flight by saying, “Well, I’m not sure I can say it’s ‘artisanal’ … ”
It’s time, then, to retire “farm-to-table.” The term has been drained of any real meaning it may have once had. Chefs themselves are getting sick of it. Sean Brock, who at his Husk restaurants, in Charleston and Nashville, has helped revive an entire region’s historic cuisine through assiduous research in old cookbooks and newspapers, told me that he commanded his P.R. staff right from the start not to use “farm-to-table” in any piece of publicity. When I asked Michael Scelfo, chef of a popular new Cambridge restaurant called Alden & Harlow, about what looked to be deliberate farm-to-table branding—the menu features whimsical line drawings of mushrooms and onions—he said, in essence, Don’t you ever call it that again. “We make it a point not to advertise that we source our food as thoughtfully as we can,” he said. “You owe that to your customers. You don’t need to browbeat them by listing farms.” And in fact what he was serving was brawny, meaty food meant to put the focus on the chef, not the farm.
Even the restaurants that were the first true believers have dropped the names, mostly. Greens, in San Francisco, which opened in 1979 to help fund a Zen center and gradually lifted vegetarian food from its sprouty origins, barely mentions a farm. “It’s exhausting to look at all that description on a menu,” Annie Somerville, the chef there, told me recently. “We don’t want people to be exhausted.” The salads and vegetables are still sparkling and worth eating and paying for, largely unadorned as they are—a rare feat that might in fact take decades to learn to pull off.Chez Panisse itself seems to stick to a rule of less is more when it comes to listing farms on the menu, since nearly all its vegetables come from Bob Cannard, the farmer whose entire harvest the restaurant has long bought for itself. “I’m furious about fast food taking over ‘farm-to-table,’ ” Waters told me recently over pappardelle with asparagus, crème fraîche, prosciutto, and mint (no farm names in the menu listing). “They’ve hijacked the terms of the movement.”
A blackboard with a laundry list of supposedly local farms now raises warning flags for Waters and like-minded chefs, who wonder: Has the owner really gone to the farm? Is the name-dropping anything more than protective covering? Cory Mosser, an organic farmer turned farm consultant in Atlanta, recently bought the domain name “FarmToFable.net,” with the aim of featuring “independently confirmed stories of false claims about food sourcing.” Steven Satterfield, Atlanta’s farm-to-table leader at his Miller Union restaurant, does have a blackboard in his entryway but downplays farm names on his menu. “If you’re going to say it, you need to walk the walk,” he says.
But you don’t need to talk about it. Some chefs have walked the walk for a long time, and kept their mouths shut. Rick Bayless, whose Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, in Chicago, gave rise to a group of restaurants, cookbooks, and TV shows, has been supporting and helping to start farms around Chicago for decades. But his identity was and remains vested in trying to understand Mexican food in all its diversity. Ana Sortun has won a national following for the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean food she researches and serves at Oleana and Sarma, her restaurants in, respectively, Cambridge and Somerville, near Boston; it so happens that she’s married to Chris Kurth and with him co-owns Siena Farms, which grows most of the produce she serves.
That’s today’s real cachet: having your own farm and not making a big deal about it. Dan Barber’s Blue Hill, not far from Blenheim in the West Village, was the first ambitious, urban restaurant to associate its own name with that of a farm (owned by Barber’s grandmother in the Berkshires). The restaurant has a spare urban chic and is free of farm iconography, and the same goes for his much larger Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Westchester. Both restaurants practice what Barber proposes in his influential recent book, The Third Plate: that chefs try putting the wholefarm on their plates year-round—including all the non-choice cuts and the roots and the usually discarded parts of the vegetable. From the start, his food has been experimental, ambitious, influenced by the newest waves of thinking in France and Spain—and never coy or quaint.
Manresa is tucked into the mini mini-malls of the quaint streets of downtown Los Gatos, in Silicon Valley. Chefs around the country and around the world admire its chef, David Kinch, for his complex, Japanese-themed food. They envy him his access to every bit of the production of Love Apple Farms, in nearby Santa Cruz, owned by Cynthia Sandberg. I admire Kinch for his inventiveness. But what I really admire is that, even though for chefs his name is synonymous with “Dude’s got his own farm,” you don’t see or hear anything about it. The restaurant looks California Arts and Crafts with Japanese touches—no scythes or pitchforks on the walls. The solemn servers talk less about the sweet turnips, chrysanthemum, and flowering coriander that are all featured and come from the farm than they do about abalone and black cod and monkfish liver from faraway waters. The most impressive dish I tried was small chunks of Wagyu beef imported from Japan, served in a Japanese-style dashi broth with tiny cubes of fresh black truffle from France.
You could be glad you paid $198 for the dozen or so courses of the tasting menu, or not. You could appreciate the fact that many of the ingredients came from 13 miles down the road, or not. But you didn’t need to listen to a word about the farmer, or how his pigs went to Montessori school. That’s what the future of farm-to-table should be: food that speaks for itself without having to tell you where it comes from.