Chefs Who Farm
A handful of top Western Washington chefs plant a new spin on farm-to-table dining — by doing some of the farming themselves.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
It’s not hard these days in Seattle to open a restaurant menu and see farm names listed alongside the dishes. Farm-to-table dining is as popular as ever here, thanks to conscientious diners and a slew of regional farms producing high-quality ingredients that excite and challenge the kitchens they end up in.
In rare cases, the chef is responsible, at least in part, for the farming. A handful of Western Washington chefs are getting involved in raising the components that end up on their menus.
Some of these chefs own their farms outright, while other farms are owned by a partner in the restaurant; either way, the farms’ products are almost entirely given over to the kitchen in a system that is ushering in a new chapter in farm-to-table dining.
“All human life once revolved around the seasons. There was no other way,” muses Ron Zimmerman, owner of Woodinville’s celebrated The Herbfarm restaurant. “A restaurant with a farm has little choice other than to connect with the cycles of the seasons.”
Ron’s history as a chef has always been tied to that of a farm. In 1986, Ron and his wife, Carrie Van Dyck, launched the first iteration of The Herbfarm inside a remodeled garage on Ron’s parents’ farm in Fall City. A 1997 fire ended that chapter, but Ron and Carrie were committed to continuing their brand of farm-to-table dining. Today’s restaurant opened in 2001.
The present-day enterprise includes a five-acre farm about a mile from the restaurant, and a 5,000-square-foot garden next to the restaurant, allowing for “last-minute snippets of herbs and the like,” says Ron.
The farm and garden are overseen by head chef Chris Weber, sous chef Jack Gingrich, and farmer Ethan Bahe. The team stewards about 100 crops annually, including herbs, berries, microgreens, fruit, and, as Ron puts it, “interesting vegetables,” like the Makah Ozette potato and the Pellegrini bean, which he says is “among the finest beans on earth.” Heritage breed pigs and chickens round things out. In a good year, Ron says, the restaurant’s August “100-Mile Dinner” is entirely comprised of produce from the farm.
“The appeal to me, as well as, I hope, most of our guests, is that this close connection to a farm offers a chance to reconnect to the natural cycles though the story told by each meal,” Ron says. “The story is what is happening in nature that very day at — or near — where the guest is dining. The colors, textures, flavors, and language of the food, the land, and the people who tend, harvest, and prepare the food should feed and inspire the mind and spirit just as much as it does the body.”
The farm that supports Tom Douglas’s 14-restaurant empire started as a getaway. Tom and Jackie Cross, his wife and business partner, found themselves making more and more trips over the mountains to Prosser to visit friends before buying a 20-acre property that has evolved from vacation home to working farm. That aspect of the business is firmly Jackie’s territory, along with on-site farm manager Devarshi Patel.
“I’ve grown vegetables my whole life,” Jackie says. “My mother, my grandparents — everybody has always had gardens. One year, we had some extra produce, so I brought it to one of the restaurants.” About five acres is currently planted in vegetables.
Every December, Jackie and Tom gather their chefs from each restaurant and discuss what to plant. Those requests are taken into consideration, along with an understanding of what grows well in the hot Eastern Washington climate. Crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, melons, and other heat-lovers that would struggle in Seattle thrive in Prosser. All told, Tom and Jackie’s Prosser Farm produces about 1,500 pounds of produce a week on average.
When it comes time to harvest, there’s a system in place that determines which restaurants get which items. Serious Pie, the couple’s pizza chainlet, always gets first dibs on peppers for its signature sausage and pepper pizza. Lola, the Mediterranean restaurant, takes the first batch of eggplant and cucumber for its Greek salad. “We try to cover each restaurant well with at least one thing that they can count on,” Jackie says.
Each May, the restaurants’ chefs spend a day working on the farm, and then join in for a group meal. “It’s really terrific, and everyone is vested,” says Jackie. “And then when they get their tomatoes from the farm, they think, ‘I remember that blazing hot day when I bent over for five hours planting these.’ And they appreciate them that much more.”
In an attempt to escape rising home prices in Seattle, chef Brendan McGill and his wife, Heidi, bought a piece of land on Bainbridge Island In 2013. The four-acre parcel with a cabin-style home “probably gets about five hours of sunshine in the sunniest part of it,” Brendan says. The name Shady Acres was born.
Brendan made a name for himself first as chef-owner at Hitchcock, the Bainbridge farm-to-table restaurant that, in 2014, earned him a nod as a James Beard Award semi-finalist for “Best Chef: Northwest.” Now, he and Heidi own two Hitchcock Deli spin-offs, Seattle’s Café Hitchcock, and Bainbridge pizzeria Bruciato and cold-pressed juice company Verjus.
The farm already had a mature orchard when Brendan bought it, so right from the start, he was able to harvest plums, quince, cherries, and apples. The property also sports a large bay tree, and the restaurants never need to lean on “the gallon tub of dried bay” you might find elsewhere. Vegetables came later.
Eventually, Brendan struck up a partnership with an established Bainbridge farmer named Kevin Block, who now oversees an expanded farming effort. Deciding what to plant is a balance between what will grow well and what they can source from other farms. “There are farmers that specialize in things and do a great job at them, and we leave that to them,” Brendan says.
Often, the bounty must be matched by creativity to make sure the abundance isn’t wasted. Brendan has used plums for umeboshi, a Japanese method of pickling the fruit; unripe walnuts for the Italian spirit nocino; and even the flowers of the bay tree, which lend “an intense and beautiful flavor.”
Now the duo raises a growing passel of Mangalitsa pigs, plus fruit and vegetables like kale, chard, collard greens, tomatillos, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, winter squash, and ground cherries. “For a while this spring, we didn’t sell one piece of pork out of Hitchcock that wasn’t our own pork, which was a big dream come true for me.”
Restaurateur and James Beard Award–winning chef Matt Dillon says owning a farm simply makes sense. “It’s all part of making people food. It’s no different than learning how to butcher salmon or learning which purveyor I should buy my pasta from. I like vegetables, and I like working outside, and I look cooking — it’s just part of what we do.”
Matt, who owns fine-dining farm-to-table restaurants Sitka & Spruce, Corson Building, and Bar Ferdinand, says he chanced upon the land for his Vashon Island farm — a former organic U-pick blueberry farm — after another property he was trying to buy fell through.
Today, Old Chaser Farm supports pigs, chickens, cows, sheep, orchards, and a range of vegetables. Food is divided among a 60-family CSA program and the restaurants’ kitchens. Bar Ferdinand gets most of its produce and protein from the farm, so Matt buys only seafood, dairy, and some sundry items like rice and flour to supplement what he grows. Any leftover produce heads to his other restaurants.
Matt, who lives on Vashon Island, spends a lot of time on the farm. He’ll often spend time there in the morning, on his way into the city, to repair fencing or work on building a new barn.
Deciding what to grow involves careful calculations that Matt and his farm manager, Brian Lowry, have honed over the years.
“It’s an equation with how much land do you have, how much manpower you have, what your soil type is, what your sun exposure is, and what your infrastructure is, as far as hoop houses and space and ability to transplant or direct seed,” Matt says.
They’ll experiment with a few new varieties while relying on what’s worked in the past: cherry tomatoes, shishito and padron peppers, fava beans, garlic, and others. Some things get used fresh, while others are stored for the winter, pickled, dehydrated, canned, frozen, or otherwise preserved. “We’re always evolving that way,” says Matt, “trying to be the most thoughtful about what we’re doing.”
Renee Erickson’s bevy of respected restaurants, known for her signature rustic European-meets-Pacific Northwest cuisine, rely on a network of local farms — including her restaurant group’s own La Ferme des Anes on Whidbey Island.
Renee’s business partner, Chad Dale, bought the 17-acre property in 2011. The name is French for “The Donkey Farm,” even though that species isn’t included in the farm’s menagerie. “It’s just a silly name because I’m kind of obsessed with donkeys,” Renee says.
Cows, sheep, and chickens are well represented. The cows are various French breeds whose meat is hung to age at Bateau, Renee’s French-style steakhouse on Capitol Hill, which recently received the lone four-star review ever bestowed by The Seattle Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero. Eggs are shuttled to next-door doughnut shop General Porpoise, and vegetables and fruit are spread among Bateau and restaurants The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Whale Wins, which earned Renee a James Beard Award last year for Best Chef: Northwest.
Renee says she and La Ferme farmer Morgan Savage are careful to plant only vegetables that grow well and don’t create competition for the local farmers that they want to continue supporting. Though it’s a learning process — and a constant work in progress — running a farm improves the product on the plate.
“We’re really learning a lot about how hard it is to farm,” Renee says. “It’s insanely hard. The more I learn, the more respect I have for the cost and effort that goes into it, and I’ve developed a better awareness. And knowing where your food comes from and having the opportunity to raise it is exciting.”
Now an accomplished chef, Jay Blackinton got his start on a farm.
Jay co-owns Orcas Island’s celebrated Hogstone’s Wood Oven with John Steward, who gave Jay a job splitting wood on his Maple Rock Farm. The two hit it off and decided to open a restaurant together. Now Jay also oversees the newly opened Aelder, which serves locally focused tasting menus. This year, he was named to Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs list and was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award.
Maple Rock Farm has a CSA and a farm stand, but much of its produce heads straight to Jay’s kitchens. The farm specializes in storage crops that can last through the winter, plus tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, and other greens. And Jay is at the farm every day.
“I feed the pigs and harvest most of what’s needed for service,” he says. Working almost exclusively with what the farm produces means Jay has to think on his feet. A lovely dish of deep-fried bolted kale flowers, served with rhubarb and green garlic, was knocked out of commission by a rainstorm that destroyed the flowers.
This year has been particularly tough for Maple Rock. Winter was harsh, and spring was slow to take hold. Jay and John have planted a new field, and it has struggled with fertility. Then, the pesky wireworm showed up and devastated their harvest. Once, the pigs escaped just before Jay started serving dinner, and he had to sprint to the farm to collect them.
“It’s a tough row to hoe,” he says. “But it’s what makes the most sense to me. While all restaurants are about pleasure and joy, I think we also have a responsibility to work with what we have, and not go too far out of our means. It’s crazy, and it’s hard, but it’s also super rewarding. It’s worth doing, and it’s my life’s work.”
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.