What it Really Means When A Restaurant is “Farm-to-Table”

Anna Horowitz/Thrillist
Anna Horowitz/Thrillist

If every zucchini you’ve ever bought was made on a farm and ends up on your table, doesn’t that mean it’s farm-to-table? It’s not a farm on Mars, after all (sorry Matt Damon).

Not really. There’s no centralized criteria by which farm-to-table is defined, but generally, if you know the farm or ranch your product came from, if you know they’re raising their crops or livestock without added hormones or pesticides, and if you are cutting out the middleman by bypassing commercial vendors, you’re eating farm-to-table.

Anna Horowitz/Thrillist 

It means you not only need to know how your farmer raises livestock, but how the livestock is slaughtered and processed

First thing you need to know: ALL MEAT in the United States must go through either federal inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture or local state inspection. But currently, there’s not enough slaughtering and meat-packing plants that work with small-scale livestock farmers to meet the demand for more of their style of meat -- like grass-fed and locally raised cows, lambs, and pigs. 

For a chef trying to stay as local as possible, it means that even though the meat might come from a small farm nearby, it could end up traveling a very long way to be processed if the rancher does not have access to a facility. Chefs who are committed to providing their clientele with as local a product as possible must go the extra step and check to see where their rancher gets livestock slaughtered, and whether that facility meets the chef’s criteria for quality. That equals a ton of homework your standard restaurants never have to worry about.

It means your restaurant must abide by the quotas put in place to prevent overfishing

Unlike meat, the only type of fish under regular inspection by the federal government in the US is catfish. Because that's the case, a chef's natural inclination would be to want to cut out the middleman as much as possible and buy directly from the fisher. That way, you’re not getting farmed fish or fish caught in what many define as “poorly regulated” international waters. 

Great, now you're getting wild fish from your local waters, caught by a fisher in your area... but that means your menu will have to adapt to the catch of the day. You'll be dependent on your fisher to tell you what’s in season, and what the quotas are on a certain fish put in place to prevent overfishing. For example, in Texas, your daily limit of flounder from the Gulf is 30 fish daily, except in November when your daily limit is two. Yes, two fish. All this means is that even if you do have access to seafood that meets your criteria, there just might not be enough of it to put on a menu.

Anna Horowitz/Thrillist 

It means your relationship with your farmer, fisher, or rancher needs to be rock solid if you want to succeed

Notice how all these issues revolve around constant communication with a ton of suppliers? These guys are your restaurant’s lifeline, and building relationships with them isn't as easy as picking up a phone and placing an order.

Not only do chefs actually have to find these guys, they must also establish whether they're really doing the kind of growing, herding, fishing, and slaughtering that fits the ethos of the restaurant.

For a chef who’s new in town, the first stop he or she should make is the local farmer’s market. You don’t want someone who is going to hand over the beets and say have a nice day -- this isn’t your University Welcome Week type of hookup. You’re looking for something real. Your farmer should be able to engage in a conversation about how they grew the asparagi, about how the green beans are going to be a month late because the ground hadn’t thawed enough to plant them. You want to know what your rancher is feeding the livestock, that those cute little lambs and pigs are treated humanely and not pumped with antibiotics. You want a fisher who will warn you if crab season is starting late because there was unusually high bacteria in the catch because of warmer waters.

Oftentimes, chefs will take whatever crop a farmer has too much of off the farmer’s hands and start fermenting or pickling what can’t be used on the menu right away. And the same goes with livestock -- a chef will help a farmer move the product and start catering the menu around what was brought in, like organ meat, heads, the bellies; chefs have fun with how to twist little-used ingredients into something palatable.

But a farmer will scratch your back too. They might ask a chef about what is specifically needed in the restaurant and then go ahead and plant it. A chef and the farmer can even arrange to plan out crops a year in advance by sitting down, mapping out the weather, and deciding what would make the most sense to grow for both parties. 

It's a complex relationship that reaps great benefits and great food... but it's obviously a ton of work and an emotional investment other chefs don't have to make.

Anna Horowitz/Thrillist 

It means you have to think about the integrity of the farm itself

Not only should you be able to trust your farmer, but you need to be absolutely certain that the farm isn’t situated in a potentially harmful location. Part of choosing your farmer includes surveying the location of the farm to see if there is any external source that will potentially affect the quality of the product. Will rainwater wash down undesirable runoff from a factory that happens to be on higher ground? Is the water tested annually?

Imagine trying to plan a menu, hiring staff, building a space... and wondering if a dairy farm 60mi away has poor drainage. It's distracting to say the least.

It means the world around you dictates your menu

It's obvious that the seasons are going to dictate a farm-to-table menu, but that's not something that changes how a chef is thinking every few months, it's every few days. On a spring day, it means spotting some edible wildflowers on the side of the road and deciding to change up the dessert menu to accommodate this find. A trip to the farmer’s market might derail your entire menu plan because you spotted some fresh duck eggs that were calling out to be thrown in today’s dinner.

Sometimes a farmer may not being able to produce enough to meet the demand from the restaurant. The day's weather might prevent a fisher from going out on the water. Ingredients are constantly fluctuating, not just seasonally, and it’s up to the chef to learn what the limitations are as to what’s available and how to put things together in a way that is still appealing with little notice.

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It means you have less time to spare

There’s a bunch of layers to this, especially when you’re a chef who also owns the farm that supplies your restaurant. Surprise: maintaining your environmentally sound, organic farm is time consuming! You’re taking flamethrowers to weeds because you can’t put down pesticides, and even then you’re still putting down what is called plastic mulch over your rows of plants and poking holes for the plant to grow through unimpeded by weeds.

Even when a farm is not part of the day-to-day equation, a chef is still taking everything from its rawest form possible. The Dairy sends fresh cream -- so you make your own butter. The rancher sends you a whole hog, so you spend your time breaking down large cuts of meat, stewing the bones for stock, and curing whatever you can’t use right away to make charcuterie. You might wake up at 5am and go down to the farmer’s market to see what they have for the day that you can work with. It’s very different than calling up a broadline distributor a day or two in advance and requesting everything that’s needed, the way a traditional restaurant would do.

It means it costs more to run than a traditional restaurant

People want locally sourced food. Of the top five 2015 food trends in a survey of chefs by the National Restaurant Association, locally sourced meats & seafood, locally grown produce, environmental sustainability, and usage of natural, unprocessed ingredients take up four slots. While this bodes well in terms of getting butts in seats, it does cost more to supply your restaurant with quality ingredients rather than ordering from a distributor. Some chefs told us they try and use smoke and mirrors to balance the pricey cost of high quality foods with other aspects of their business that are more cost-effective.

But there's no other way to look at it: time = money. The amount of labor that goes into creating and maintaining this standard of food long before a pan ever hits the fire is a huge investment, regardless of the final price tag on that squab. So what does it mean to be "farm-to-table"? That you work many times harder in an already brutally difficult business to -- hopefully -- create food you're proud of. Also, you get a lot of crusty fisherman in your cellphone contacts. So that's nice.