In the Kitchen: Herbfarm

Where the Kitchen Meets the Farm
by Jill Lightner
photo by Lara Ferroni

“I want to add some quail this year,” says Keith Luce, executive chef of the Herbfarm, to Bill Vingelen, the restaurant’s head farmer. “The good eggs are tough to find without getting them from California.” Bill is half-smiling, and making the calming sounds that a very nice man makes when he’s not arguing, but not completely sold on the new idea, either. Keith, to one side, says quietly, “look, you can see his wheels turning…oh, man.”

After a slight pause, they both laugh, and Keith says, “Bill doesn’t like to say ‘no’….hey, what about peacocks? Yeah!” There is more laughter. It’s a reasonable bet that future Herbfarm menus will feature quail eggs from the farm, and that said farm will never be home to a peacock.

More seriously, Keith says, “I can’t imagine my job without this farm, without Bill.”

Bill apologizes that there’s not much going on at the moment; it’s early in the season and things aren’t yet rolling along with summer harvests. His idea of “not much” translates to what the rest of us call “a whole lot.”

Plump and sassy chickens (including several fine Ameraucanas) stroll about, some outside the enclosure, some digging hen-sized holes for dirt baths. For chickens, they are exceeding relaxed. As of quite recently, there is no rooster.

Keith mentions that the other day, he found a fertilized egg. Keith and Bill debate how long it might take, post-rooster, to return to fully non-fertilized eggs. There is surprise that it’s taken as long as it has, and some good-natured speculation that perhaps one of the wild drakes popped in for a visit. These are the jokes that guys on farms make everywhere.

About five percent of all the eggs used at the Herbfarm come from these hens. Keith clearly treasures them, and uses them in simple dishes that are meant to be pure fresh-egg goodness. One example: poached, and topped with an American caviar.

The hoop houses are full of herbs and starts—onions, sorrel, radishes, rose geraniums and pineapple sage. The last two are famously passed around on a tray, at the start of dinner in the restaurant. Each diner crushes their chosen herb and drops it into a glass of sparkling wine. At dinner, it’s lightly fragrant and festive. Here in the hoop house, it’s stunning. The entire room smells tropical, all the odder for being a dismal afternoon at the end of winter, in Woodinville. Leaves and shoots are torn off and passed around. It’s the most micro-green salad imaginable. A tiny crunch, a burst of pure radish or onion or pineapple sage flavor, and then, poof—it’s gone.

Heading to the other side of the field, Bill points out the winter vegetables still growing: Salsify, daikon radish, parsnips (“parsnips store better in the ground,” he says). They have an additional acre of land for the coming year, and the King County Conservation District will be delivering a cultivator soon—it’s free, and they’ll come take it away once he’s done. Bill says hand cultivation would take him most of the season, but “who can afford a piece of machinery like that?” Bill is a big fan of the KCCD. It’s a program that functions invisibly to everyone but farmers.

He mentions what he expects with the arrival of spring. Asparagus, planted last year. The Marshall strawberry, a small, sweet variety that used to be “a Bainbridge Island staple,” he says.

In fact, the Marshall is a variety of strawberry that Renewing American Food Traditions (RAFT) lists as facing extinction. The Oregon Strawberry Commission has called it “the finest eating strawberry in the world.” It was nearly wiped out by viruses imported after World War II. Hearing that Marshalls will be on the menu feels like spotting an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, one of those rare moments when a creature of myth becomes reality.

Bill points to a shallow depression in the soil near the parsnips, and tells Keith that he’s filled it in twice. It’s the remnant of a pit where they roasted a pig; Bill theorizes that a coyote still smells the tasty drippings, and is digging in search of a meal. Talking about pig pits leads to a story from Keith: He grew up on a Long Island vegetable farm. His Italian grandfather wanted to celebrate American Thanksgiving, but didn’t see much reason to cook in a particularly American fashion. He pit-roasted a turkey every year, stuffed with homemade sausage, homegrown onions, and pasta.

As Keith reminisces, more stories are shared, including the one all farm kids will recognize: As soon as his legs were long enough to reach the pedals, he drove the tractor. An adult would get it aimed in the right direction, and follow along doing the more complex parts of planting while young Keith did his best to keep the tractor in a straight line. At the end of the field, he’d stop, and Dad would turn it around. They’d head back in a straight line, Keith at the wheel again.

Several minutes are spent in admiration of the farm’s slightly ridiculous mammals: Mangalitsa pigs. These pigs look like pigs do, all broad sides, tiny eyes and floppy ears, but with exceptionally high-volume ’70s hairstyles. One is substantially larger than the other three; the big one will stick around for another year, until he reaches somewhere around 550 pounds, twice the size of a typical American pig ready for butchering. The pigs are difficult to not envy, as they are feasting on extra loaves of wood-fired bread from the kitchens. Several loaves disappear in mere minutes. Mangalitsas are known for their exceptional ability to pile on layers of fat.

Back in the kitchen, Keith shows off some lardo from the first year’s pigs, and says proudly, “seven inches of fat!” (A Berkshire raised in similar comfort would create a maximum of five inches of fat.) He shows off a few hams curing in the walk-in. The feet are crossed daintily at the ankles. They are smooth, pink and curvaceous. He says it first: “They’re really kind of sexy.” For omnivores, it’s true. They are the ’40s pin-up models of ham.

The walk-in looks like the cool fruit room of an old farmhouse. There are small dishes of herbed butter, made in-house. Tidy jars of honey, of both the pale blond spring and the chestnut-colored fall varieties. Prosciuttos are curing on the wall, both pork and lamb. Flats of eggs, one in a range of colors that is clearly straight off the farm. Flat, creamy bags with the date, and the word “lard” written in felt-tip pen. Stacks of small, roundish red pears. Mason jars of goats’ milk yogurt.

Keith gets a package delivered. He glances at it, still chatting, and then says, “Oh, these should be good. Excuse me, please.” (Keith is remarkably polite.) He cuts into the box; the return address of Oregon Wild Edibles is visible. Keith talks about Jim Wells, the proprietor, who forages for black truffles with dogs. He carefully unwraps three truffles; each is nearly the size of his fist—about ten times bigger than black truffles I’ve seen at farmer’s markets. Keith sniffs, nods, and proceeds to gently wrap and store each truffle as carefully as if it were a soap bubble.

Outside, the spectacular wood-fired oven is remarkable in its newness. Stacks of apple wood lay neatly under an eave. Racks for grilling meats or vegetables are on one side of the oven; something akin to a pizza oven is on the other side. The bread is baked in the pizza oven, which isn’t a typical way to bake great bread.

Keith explains how this oven was a trial-and-error process for him and his crew; they ignored standard wood-fire directives that bread shouldn’t be baked with any direct heat, and the insistence that fir is a terrible wood for cook fires. Actually, he says, fir provides a quick, short-acting burst of heat that can be effective for helping things caramelize; there is the bonus that it’s easy to source locally. The thin, crisp crust of the bread is proof that rules are indeed made to be broken. The ashes are returned to the farm; peas particularly enjoy the alkalinity supplied by wood ash.

What comes through more than anything else is a genial obsession with quality. He wants everyone, starting with the pigs they’re raising, to experience the world with their mouths. This leads to the simple purity of housemade butter, and also to a playful use of molecular gastronomy techniques—powder made from browned butter and toasted hazelnuts. As Keith talks about science—the microbiology of farming, the physics of wood-fired ovens—it’s hard to escape the idea that here is a slightly nerdy perfectionist.

He is also humble. When food is especially delicious, it silences the people eating it. Tasting the prosciutto and the goats’ milk yogurt leads to absolute silence. The yogurt: Perfectly tangy, with a thick layer of cream. The ham: So tender it dissolves into ephemeral flavor. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s pretty good.”

Get your own farm-fresh eggs and try Keith’s simple recipe for Eggs with Eggs.

The Herbfarm
14590 NE 145th Street
Woodinville, WA 98072

Each seasonal theme at the restaurant lasts two to three weeks. Dinner reservations are available Thursday-Sunday.

Jill Lightner is the editor of Edible Seattle and writes the blog As a girl, she was notoriously incapable of driving a tractor in a straight line.

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