Farm to Table

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I saw the future in Newark, New Jersey. It was green. Really green. No GMOS, no pesticides and it was delicious. Aero Farms is a high-tech farm that has been working for a few years now. It not only is growing beyond it’s million pounds of greens, but is inspiring the community. In fact it has donated a small farm apparatus to the local charter school Phillips Academy. The academy has an amazing school kitchen program and a roof top garden. I was pleasantly surprised to meet one of ICC’s graduates there, Robert Wallauer, who is their chef and Food Service Director.  The program itself is run by Ecospaces Education, lead by the dynamic Program Director Frank Mentesana. It is no wonder that Michelle Obama chose the school last month to visit!

Robert Wallauer and Frank Mentesana

Now what really makes these greens exciting is that with lighting and patented growing medium technologies Aero Farm is making tenderer and exquisitely delicious greens. I for one, never hopped on the kale bandwagon but the baby kale I tasted in Newark was so tender, with a flavor that screamed out for a touch of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil that I instantly became a fan. The micro watercress as crunchy, refreshing and I popped like candy.

For us gardeners to hear that seeds germinate and grow in a matter of days, not weeks is nothing short of miraculous. Now, you might say you are committed to the earth and soil grown greens. As a lifelong gardener, I would have said that too until I think now of the plight of the world.

We have 8 million people living in NYC alone. We want them to eat fresh produce every day. In an ideal nutritious world that is 58 million servings a week. The land around NYC is developed and the few open spaces are too expensive for farming. If we are serious about fresh produce we need to look to the underdeveloped suburbs around our cities.
Aero Farms is leading the way. And I am fully on board that bandwagon!

A big shout out to Mark Oshima and the Aero Farm team for inviting me to Newark. They are changing the world.

Marc Oshima

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Firstly, let me apologize for such a lull in blog posts. As President of the Friends of USA Pavilion at EXPO Milano 2015, I have had my hands full. The Pavilion is so exciting that I just have share the developments. For those of you who might not be familiar with EXPO Milano 2015, there will be a World’s Fair (EXPO) in Milan from May 2015 through October 31 2015. Six months of wonder.

USA Pavilion rendering James Biber Architects

The theme is “Feeding the Planet; Energy for Life.” Over 140 countries will participate. We have all been challenged with the daunting task of how we will responsibly feed the planet when our population explodes to 9 billion people. If we continue to produce, consume and waste food at our present rate, we will not only not have enough food but won’t have enough energy to produce the food. Climate change and dwindling natural resources like fresh water also will add to the dilemma. Each participating country will take a stab at demonstrating how to meet and solve these challenges.

The USA Pavilion theme, American Food 2.0 will highlight some of our greatest thinkers on the subject. ICC’s grad Dan Barber will speak to his Third Plate, and Dean Cesare Casella will be cooking at the JBF House Milano. Architect Jim Biber of Biber Architects has designed  a beautiful and transformative building: it is a true vertical farm. Thinc, the exhibits firm that designed and programmed the 9/11 Museum, will be designing our exhibits.

Harvesting the vertical farm, rendering James Biber Architects

The USA Pavilion will be three floors. The roof will serve as a bar/garden and communal meeting place. The middle floor is a boardwalk, boardwalks have historically been an avenues of food and community, and fun too! We were able to purchase the actual Coney Island boardwalk after Hurricane Sandy. That floor will have exciting stations speaking to the pressing issues, highlighting various points of view on how to solve them and introduce American personalities and institutions that will play key roles in solving the problems. The ground floor will be a visual delight of the great American foodscape from barbecue to immigrant food to Thanksgiving dinner.

Whew! If you are at all interested in food and the future, you must plan on visiting. This World’s Fair will be a benchmark in the history of EXPOs and will rival the best. We at ICC are proud and honored to be a part of it. Please visit USA Pavilion:American Food 2.0 website for information, social media and updates.

Roof Deck rendering James Biber Architects

A warm human touch will be the 120 student ambassadors who will serve as guides and docents. They will be bi-lingual and speak a polyglot of languages. These students are being recruited from colleges all over the country and trained by the University of Southern California.

We will also have a space across from our Pavilion that will contain food trucks. We will be showcasing American food in its diversity and deliciousness. Everything from lobster rolls to fried clams. Hamburgers to tacos. We want to bring the great bounty of American regionalism to our Pavilion and introduce the 25-30 million EXPO visitors to the real deliciousness of American cuisine.

Outside the walls of the Pavilion and the EXPO itself, we will infuse a bit of the States in the city of Milan itself. The Mayor of Milan, Guiliano Pisapia  graciously visited the ICC and is excited to welcome us to his city to showcase our top chefs and to liven the piazzas around the city with American outdoor eating events. Tailgating anyone? Also in the city we will hold TED-like talks (Beard Chats) and panel discussions to hear from a myriad of experts on the various ways we can overcome the big issues. Last but not least, we will run a James Beard House in central Milan and showcase the best and brightest chefs from the USA.

Scenes from December Milan and site visit, with Amb Reeker and, at the site with Mitchell Davis

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I recently had the opportunity to interview Dan Barber of Blue Hill NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns for my radio show, Chef’s Story. It wasn’t the usual interview where I ask all about his childhood, background, influences etc. I dove right into thorny topics with him. Dan as you might know has written a seminal book, The Third Plate. It is unapologetic. It cautions, enlightens and instructs us on the dynamic and evolutionary trajectory our food system is on. It is as frightening and exciting as a Transformer movie.

Dan Barber, The Third Plate, photo of Dan: Mark Ostow, photos courtesy of Blue Hill at Stone Barns

One aspect of our talk really struck me and I want to share it with you. Vegetables are not benign to the earth. They need a lot of water, fertilizing and human labor. They take a lot of land. Dan is not an opponent of vegetables, but he is first and foremost a responsible guardian of the earth. He believes we can all live sustainably, if we live an educated, humbled and moderate life. We should understand not just the nutrients and calories in our food but what I will coin here, its earth factor (EF). What does it take from our earth to produce a tomato, a pound of beef, an acre of GMO corn?

Dan used the term ‘the tomato is the hummer of the vegetable/fruit world.’ It uses a massive amount of water: 13 gallons per tomato. So can we be righteous eating a tomato from drought stricken California? Over eating a marbled 16 ounce T- bone steak? Should we avoid both as excessive EF? Interesting.

I do think socially conscious people want to know what they are eating. And they have a right to know. But next to the ingredients and nutrition labeling, don’t we need and want to know the EF factor too? I would.

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One of the great benefits of a summer vacation is to combine a culinary experience with a ‘primo’ summer spot. I have been longing to take the perfect road trip and find the James Beard award winning chef, Melissa Kelly in Rockland, Maine. Down the road from Bowdoin College and past numerous outdoor shops selling colorful canoes, one comes upon Primo Restaurant perched above Rockland’s harbor nestled in acres of organic vegetable bliss.

Melissa Kelly

And of course, there you will find Melissa Kelly, a native of Long Island, NY and the wunderkind that dreamt all this up.  Retreating to Maine from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in the Hudson Valley, NY (where she earned her first James Beard Award in 1999), Kelly opened Primo in 2000, on a 4.5 acre farm. And there she defies the short growing season with a truly farm to table restaurant. In fact, we have to give her credit that she was doing the farm to table thing before it was called that or became the standard tag for a country restaurant.

I ate the most delicious salad, perfectly fresh swordfish and a berry-licious dessert. My companions devoured lobsters. After the meal we were allowed back in the kitchen and were given a tour by Chef herself. How impressive. I didn’t realize that not only does she raise her own chickens, but slaughters them too. There are few chefs that know how to slaughter a chicken! Melissa also made us tour her basement…actually it’s her modern day prosciutto curing cellar!  The hams hung side by side. Premiums bits with lesser cuts. Nothing, of course, is wasted.

I think a novel could be written about Melissa. The purity of her spirit, the level of innovation and the pure deliciousness of her food, makes her a heroine for me. It’s worth a trip. So make your vacation mantra: “Rockland Maine next year!”

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Almost always I would describe David Bouley as an “outside the box” thinker but now he has truly gone so far outside that he is inside the box! What am I talking about? Well, his new restaurant/studio location, Bouley Botanical in TriBeCa once again breaks the mold on how you perceive the concept restaurant. It is a white rectangle room inside a giant garden box. The floor to ceiling windows are full of copper growing boxes!

Copper Growing Boxes

David is constantly challenging himself to think about food. He was the first chef in New York to put the provenance of ingredients on his menu. No one will forget his coining the phrase “day boat” cod, lobster, scallops. His home state of Connecticut and French grandparent’s gardens gave him a cornucopia of delicious, natural and fresh ingredients He spent many hours with the farmers and fishermen. He figured out how to get their products to New York City. Now he has gone one step further. He has brought the farm to NYC. He has built his kitchen to be a lab, and his basement a commissary. He also found Renee Giroux.

Renee Giroux, David Bouley, Bouley Botanical

Renee Giroux is the talented farmer of Gilbertie’s, a three-acre covered farm in Easton, Connecticut. Her thing is soil. Her soils are alive with all the beneficial insects, nematodes and other nutritious elements that make a delicious leaf. Her understanding is more than biodynamic, it is holistic and is pushing the envelope on natural growing techniques. She and David are creating a container farm lab at Botanical. The air itself in the space is a gift to your lungs. You sense the well being the minute you walk in.

David Bouley in the kitchen

When you think of growing vegetables or greens it is easy to think of soil elements and water. But have you thought of wind? The constant breezes in nature play their part in building the muscle of strong stems. Thus, while you dine at Botanical, at regular intervals a breeze comes out of nowhere! It brushes your cheek like a little pick me up. The various boxes surrounding you are doing their happy dance. Happy dance? Just think, if you have to give up your life to be an ingredient, wouldn’t you want it to be for the genius of David Bouley?

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Dorothy w/Daniel Humm

Last Monday was a stellar September day. Not only was the sky peacock blue and the air tinged with perfect fall crispness but I was spending the day with many of the top chefs in the world at the idyllic Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills, NY. Joan Roca, Michel Gras, Daniel Humm, Ferran Adria and so many other super stars joined Dan Barber, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill NYC to do a deep dive on seeds and genetic engineering. What? Did you say genetic engineering? Are these chefs into GMOs? Actually not.

Stone Barns Center

From top left clockwise: Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, Adam Kaye, Floyd Cardoz

L to R: Michel Gras, Dan Barber, Dorothy, Francois Payard, Daniel Humm

What they heard from world glass genetic breeders and discussed among themselves from 10 am to 7:30 pm is the concept of chefs working with genetic breeders to create exquisite fruits, vegetables and grains. Actually that is something that nature itself has been doing for the past 10,000 years. Think a nectarine, which is a cross between a peach and a plum. How is that different from GMOs? GMOs are genetic transfers between two species that would not cross pollinate in nature. Think fish gene inserted into a tomato.

Ferran Adria

Acorn Squash

So, what did we learn? That genes are place sensitive. Have you ever brought home seeds from a vacation, planted them and found them not to be as delicious as your lingering memory?  There is a reason for that. Great seed growers plant hundreds of seeds and then watch for the one or two plants that are vibrant survivors in their field tests. Your soil may not have the same characteristics as the test fields and hence, the attributes of the seed might not perform as well in your backyard in Brooklyn. You might start thinking about saving the seeds from the best tasting tomato in your veggie garden and become a geneticist yourself. I think a lot of the chefs left thinking they were on to expanding their horizons in that direction.

Menu courtesy of Stone Barns Center

After yesterday it seems so obvious that chefs in their never ending quest for the most delicious meal, will now have to go beyond the farm and into the labs of these seed breeders. It is there that they can select, test, harvest, select, test, harvest, select… and here we thought farm to table would be the ultimate trend. Now we have conception to compost! I never saw so many chefs, so excited. We ate a dinner of the aforementioned conceptions: see Gaston Acurio’s squash, which has just a number not a name. I’d also like to mention that we at The International Culinary Center were so honored that our Farm to Table students were asked to help out in the kitchen with these iconic chefs. A new challenge in the top ranks of the culinary universe!

ICC Students

You heard it here first, look for the names of seed breeders on your next menu!

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