By Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, Assistant Editor
Seed to table. It sounds like a small movement — from a backyard garden to a kitchen table, perhaps. But the concept spans much further than that and is gaining traction across the country with chefs who are involved in the process, from the time the seed is planted to getting the food on the restaurant plate.
In addition to keeping it local, some chefs are keeping it really close to home. The “it” being the garden — taking more control over the how, what, and where (chefs’ own backyards, restaurant rooftops, patio pots, and even farms) of growing, and using whatever crops up to guide what is on their own menus.
From the Garden
The Wine Cellar & Bistro, located in downtown Columbia, Mo., showcases a seasonal "Seed to Table" menu created from heirloom vegetables, all selected from seed by the executive chef and owner Craig Cyr, and grown on the Cyr’s own certified organic farm just outside of Columbia.
What started as an “attempt” at organic gardening in 2008 has become the Wine Cellar Certified Organic Gardening Project, in conjunction with Missouri’s Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture at the Cyr's home and farm on Cedar Lake.
In 2013, owners Craig and Sarah Cyr began planting and harvesting from their home garden for The Wine Cellar & Bistro. The 5,625-square-foot garden (known as The Garden Project) yields at least 500 pounds of tomatoes and more than 500 pounds of cucumbers — enough to fill the Cyr’s kitchen and basement with home-canned tomatoes and salsas — in addition to chard, okra, carrots, watermelon, and more to feed the restaurant’s seed-to-table menu.
Although the menu changes, you can find “Organic Garden Project” items like the heritage hard-cooked eggs in the greens and asparagus salad; the chickweed, mint, and oregano in the salsa verde; and the bronze fennel in the asparagus risotto.
Everything has been grown from seed or plants, weeded, composted, and picked by the Cyrs and their children. It is a real family affair. CCUA teaches hands-on classes at the farm, demonstrating how food comes full circle from the garden to the plate.
On the Farm — Literally
On a larger scale, located in the heart of its own working fields and orchards, Applecrest Farm Bistro in Hampton Falls, N.H., overlooks the farm that supplies it (Applecrest Farm Orchards). The supplies? Whatever happens to be harvested from the fields that day. It could be asparagus, beans, beets, microgreens, strawberries — anything that’s seasonal and fresh.
Applecrest grows more than 40 varieties of apples, peaches, nectarines, raspberries, blueberries, sweet corn, and pumpkins, as well as herbs, flowers, and an array of summer vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumber, lettuce, peas, potatoes, radish, rhubarb, squash, tomatoes, and zucchini.
The Farm Bistro operates daily year-round in a 12,000 square-foot barn, offering farm-inspired recipes like cider donut bread pudding; peach and apple chutneys; greens with cider vinaigrette; heirloom apple butter; cider mustard dressing and heirloom cider vinegar; and from-the-farm elixir house-infused apple spice smoky quartz white rum.
Garden to Glass
M Restaurant in Philly is making the farm-to-table movement even better, as one of the only restaurants in Philadelphia that is also seed to table, meaning it is “involved in every step of the growth of the ingredient” to the point “when it is presented beautifully on your plate.” The establishment plants and harvests herbs and peppers from its seasonal garden onsite.
The owners of M Restaurant, Gene and Deborah Lefevre, own a nearby farm where the remainder of the restaurant’s ingredients are grown and harvested weekly, including zucchini, yellow squash, bugle butternut squash, and tomatoes. The farm next door, the Nagy Farm, harvest peaches, plums, and apples that are used by the restaurant.
The restaurant even hosts such outdoor events as weddings and corporate functions in its onsite gardens, open seven months a year, which are reminiscent of the south of France.
Interestingly, all of the cocktails (collectively called Garden to Glass) served by M are created with their own herbs grown onsite, which they also infuse into their liquor — everything from rosemary-infused gin and jalapeno-infused tequila to mushroom-infused vodka, tomato-and-basil-infused vodka, and cucumber-infused vodka.
Planting the Seed Early
The seed-to-plate and seed-to-table concepts are planted as early as elementary school.
Designed in collaboration with the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Greenmarket Youth Education's Seed to Plate program teaches New York City school children in fifth and sixth grade about the food system, with lessons in agriculture, nutrition, farmers markets, and cooking from farmers and chefs.
High school sophomores in Madison, Wis., are training for careers in culinary arts through the Goodman Community Center’s Seed to Table program TEENworks — an innovation campus in partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District.
In its fourth year with the school district, through the Seed to Table Innovation Campus, students work in the kitchen, gardens, and workshop at Goodman learning skills in the foodservice and agricultural industries. TEENworks has built and distributed more than 100 herb boxes to the community.
Students provide full-service catering through Working Class Catering (a classroom of sorts where students are integrated throughout all parts of the business to learn how to run a full service catering company). The menu is all house-made from scratch, from gluten-free to vegan to everything in between, using local and organic ingredients. The “Gourmet Wisconsin,” for example, features cinnamon French toast with Door County cherry compote. Highlights of the vegan menu include gluten-free Mediterranean stuffed red peppers with golden raisins and almonds, roasted butternut squash, and tofu in a yellow coconut curry sauce, and ginger sesame seitan.
The only initiative in the country of its scope, the Recipe for Success Foundation’s chef-inspired Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education program in Houston introduces pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students to the entire lifecycle of food, in addition to nutrition awareness and lifetime skills. The program has educated 30,000 and counting — with help from professional chefs, gardeners, nutritionists, and teachers.
Worth the Risk?
There is no disputing that acting as restaurant owner, chef, and gardener can be a risky business, but those harvesting from seed to table agree that the benefits well outweigh the challenges.
Because the majority of foods on the menu are going from seed to plate, prices are more affordable. Taking out the middleman affords guests additional value. Community perception can also be invaluable to a restaurant. And, so far, consumers view the seed-to-table movement, and those who practice it, positively.