3 Seattle-area restaurants with farms where ‘farm-to-table’ is more than just a buzzword

The idea of ​​farm-to-table first gained footing when Alice Waters opened her Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. The whole restaurant industry became enamored with this practice of prizing relationships with local, organic food producers (and more often than not publicizing it) and Chez Panisse’s opening pushed over a thousand metaphorical dominoes, turning the idea of ​​farm-to-table into a full-fledged social movement.

Over 50 years later, the words “farm-to-table” are no longer novels; they’re everywhere. It’s standard practice to mention local farms and producers on menus or on chalkboards. Some restaurants even tout dishes made with ingredients sourced from their own pint-size herb gardens or acreage of vegetables. There are even multiple opportunities around the Seattle area to dine in a literal field of a working farm every summer.

Even as restaurants around the US — including Lummi Island’s Willows Inn — have been shown to lie about the provenance of ingredients, “farm-to-table” or “farm-to-fork” remain powerful buzzwords that evoke visions of imperfect produce with the dirt still on it arriving at the back door of restaurants from a good-natured farmer in overalls.

The reality of it just isn’t that simple.

Crops can fail even in the most ideal conditions. And in poor conditions — like the cold, wet spring we’ve all been experiencing — bad can turn to worse. Slugs decimating crops that could normally grow fast enough to outpace them. Or consider last year’s June heat wave with cabbages singed by the scorching sun. Each year in Snoqualmie Valley, the floods come earlier, and the labor shortage hasn’t spared the agriculture industry. When your restaurant has a farm, sometimes that means the chef pulls double duty as the farmer.

“It’s easy to Instagram your way to perfection and project this sort of ideal farm-to-table experience that’s going on. But the reality is, it’s not perfect and it is hard work, and it does take a lot of creativity along with the persistence,” said Matthew Curtis, one half of the duo behind the Three Sacks Full pop-up and farm.

Still, there are restaurateur farmers who wouldn’t have it any other way. These people must be nimble-footed when menu planning, subbing in ingredients if things at the farm don’t turn out or leaning on their greater farming community to help. They’re also intimately connected with their crops and know how to showcase even the most humble vegetables beautifully. We found three Seattle-area chefs with farms who take farm-to-table from buzzword to a way of life, mostly without fanfare.

seasons of learning

Curtis and partner Michael Tsai have been running Three Sacks Full since February 2018, hosting dinners at different restaurants in Seattle, the menus informed by what they grow on their small plot of land in Carnation.

The duo moved to Seattle from Northern California in 2017 with the intention of eventually running a restaurant with its own farm. Tsai is a longtime chef who has worked at farms over the years whenever he wanted to take a break from the kitchen. Curtis’ expertise lies in wine. Shortly after moving to the area, Tsai got a job working at Goose and Gander farm with Meredith Molli, a farmer chef who owns Columbia City Italian restaurant La Medusa.

After a season spent on the farm, Tsai got back into the kitchen, working at Upper Bar Ferdinand, Duvall’s The Grange, and La Medusa, where he still works today. In March 2020 when the pandemic shut down indoor dining, Three Sacks Full went to a biweekly takeout model with two pickup locations. The farm kept chugging along with Tsai and Curtis coaxing specialty vegetables like Italian Piennolo tomatoes, Ukrainian Poletschka beans, and Basque chilies out of the field.

They don’t grow storage crops like beets, potatoes or carrots because “so many people do it well” in the area they’re able to purchase those crops from local farmers. And they’ve made choices about only supporting local farmers — even though that means forgoing things like citrus (Tsai makes his own vinegar instead to add acid or flavor to dishes) or cauliflower in the winter — without attaching an attitude to it.

“I wouldn’t say using citrus is cheating, it’s just our preference. It sounds very judgey…. I wanted to see if it was something we could do without. Plus, lemons are really expensive,” Tsai says.

They don’t consider themselves to be expert farmers; every season is a learning experience.

“It’s never the same, and you start to gain this personal library of experiences and knowledge of how your crops are going to behave and ultimately we like to think we’ll get better at it,” Curtis says.

The No. 1 priority for Curtis and Tsai is that people find them because the food is good.

“Then people will find out it’s all organic and locally sourced and people can tune into that or not. It’s icing on the cake in some ways. It’s easy to promote it if we wanted but what’s not so easy is actually put in the work and be intentional about it,” Curtis says.

Being locally sourced and seasonal seemed easy when they lived in California. But in Washington, there are only a handful of vegetables available those late-winter and early-spring months.

“I think of being seasonal in the wintertime when you have like, seven vegetables. How do you make a menu that’s interesting? How do you give enough support to a menu? A vegetable is going to have to play like three roles on the menu,” Tsai says.

To keep things interesting, Tsai preserves or dries tomatoes, beans and chilies. They grow some hardy winter crops — kohlrabi, chicories — and store specialty winter squash, making each vegetable play multiple roles each pop-up.

The duo takes a little inspiration from their farm landlord Molli who doesn’t get a lot of attention for being a farm-to-table restaurant. “She just does it,” Tsai says.

Leaning on community

An Ohio native, Molli moved to Seattle in 2008 with the intention of starting a farm.

2008 wasn’t a great time financially to start a farm or a restaurant, so Molli spent a few years working at various farms and restaurants in the area. When she started Goose and Gander Farm in Carnation in 2011, she was raising a few pigs and growing herbs, selling to restaurants while still working as a cook. A few years later she started a weekly subscription box (also called a CSA program) and in 2012 she bought the restaurant La Medusa, where she was working.

“I grow a lot of stuff that I use at La Medusa, but this idea that this is a small farm that grows for one restaurant never came to fruition. I run the two businesses quite independently,” Molli says.

There are times of the year when all the produce La Medusa uses comes from Goose and Gander Farm and other times when the produce is coming from other local small farmers. And there’s always room for error.

“I’m lucky that I have this community of farms that I farm alongside and am friends with and know and can reach out to and be like, oh, God, the slugs ate all my lettuce this week. Can I get a couple boxes?” Molly says.

And sure, she says that while technically restaurants that claim “farm-to-table” ideals but get the majority of their produce from large distributors are still buying from farms, she is committed to spending her dollars as close to home as possible. And that’s not some ideal lofty; she says it’s “just who I am and how I run the business.”

“People stopped having in-depth, important conversations about the issues and they just talk about the buzzwords. The next trendy thing. That’s a problem in the restaurant industry in general. I don’t know how you fix that, but I do think it’s still really important for the people who go eat in restaurants to decide if they think that supporting small farms is important. And go to businesses they know do that,” Molli says.

Thirty percent of La Medusa’s customers are regulars and Molli says because she has to “look her customers in the face every week,” when asking them to buy her produce and eat at her restaurant she feels she has to model the behavior, even though running a restaurant and a farm is difficult.

“People really don’t fully grasp how encompassing running your own restaurant is. It runs your life, same with a farm. Part of the reason I’ll continue to do both in the capacity I can is I do think it’s really important to practice what you preach. Sure, I’m not a person who has never purchased anything off Amazon but I am a person who is like, is this something I can get from someone I know? I’m going to do that if I can,” Molli says.

Farming sparks creativity

Woodinville restaurant The Herbfarm is the granddaddy of Washington restaurants with farms. Chris Weber, the chef and now co-owner, was one of those people who specifically went to work there because he “wanted to work in a place where produce came in with dirt on it still,” even though he knows how over romanticized that ideal is.

“It’s hard to imagine somebody who doesn’t love the idea of ​​walking out to a garden, picking something, bringing it inside and making a beautiful dish out of it. It’s almost a primal thing that we’ve come disconnected from. Everybody wants that,” Weber says.

The farm-to-table aspect is at the center of dinners at The Herbfarm, which originally began in 1986 in a garage on a small farm owned by Bill and Lola Zimmerman. Their son Ron acted as chef, his wife Carrie Van Dyck was host. A fire destroyed the building in 1997 and the restaurant reopened in its current location, adjacent to the Barking Frog by the Willows Lodge in 2001.

Weber came to the restaurant in 2010 and has been the head chef since 2012. In 2021, he and general manager Jack Gingrich took over the restaurant from Zimmerman and Van Dyck when they retired. Over the years Weber has subbed in as a farmer a few times at the restaurant’s Five Acre Farm property — a task he likes but he doesn’t have time to do.

When asked why he maintains this commitment to a farm and a restaurant he chuckles a bit before admitting that there is no “practical reason for it.” It’s more work, time, effort and stress. Especially during the times the farm has gone without a dedicated farmer.

“From a financial standpoint, it doesn’t make any financial sense. So then why do it? I think there’s the connection. For us, a restaurant that is very steeped in seasonality and ingredient provenance, it helps to remind us of those things and helps to teach us seasonality. It sparks creativity. I’m a big believer in that creativity is just paying attention,” Weber says.

Weber believes that a farmer is an integral part of a restaurant. They are a person who brings a different perspective and influence to the menu or even the culture of a restaurant. Those influences can be small, like using different growing techniques to cultivate vegetables that don’t normally grow in this region, like Malabar spinach. But they can also be more involved — like the apple cider they made into wine and ultimately vinegar and are currently aging in the wine cellar.

It’s something Weber and his crew will draw from and add to each year to create a solera, or Spanish method of aging that blends younger wine with more mature wine. Weber credits the farm for connecting the restaurants to traditions like these, ultimately helping the restaurant create new traditions.

“We’ve been around for a long time and we’re always changing. And that’s because we have a farmer that forces that to happen. We are prioritizing food. Over everything. That’s what we’re trying to do. Sure, we can change the tablecloths, or we can invest in the farm. I’ll pick the farm every day,” Weber says.

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