After years of importing, chefs are staying local

After years of importing ingredients from all over the world, chefs are going back to basics and staying local. The goal is to limit the human impact on the environment; less flying, driving, and fuel consumption (all of which leaves a smaller "eco-footprint"). Farm-fresh fare is also packed with nutrients, doesn't have to be sprayed with chemicals to protect it for the long haul to the restaurant, and just plain tastes good. Everybody wins, from farmer to chef to diner.

Thinking globally and sourcing locally is not just politically correct, it's also personally rewarding for the farmer. Cynthia Sandberg, the owner of Love Apple Farm, near Santa Cruz, California, supplies the fruit and vegetables for Los Gatos's Manresa restaurant. "It's a very special feeling to see something on a plate prepared by a world-famous chef and be able to recognize the exact vegetable that I picked for him earlier that day," she says.

Sourcing products from local purveyors is not exactly new, of course: Chefs like Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Peter Hoffman (Savoy), and Dan Barber (Blue Hill) were all pioneers in the locavore movement. But the phenomenon is finally national in scope and impact. Here follows a selection of some of the lesser-known and more interesting farm-to-table restaurants around the country, all of which promote locally grown or raised animals, vegetables, herbs, and fruit.

When you sit down to A.R. Valentien's Artisan Table dinner, you'll understand why executive chef Jeff Jackson buys most of his ingredients from nearby small farms or specialty food purveyors. The meal is served in a casual setting, with 10 to 16 people at a communal table, and the menu changes every week as the best local producers supply their seasonal foodstuffs.

"I get fresh produce for the menu from the Santa Monica farmers' market," Jackson says. "It's one of the most amazing markets in the country." Jackson shops there on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning, he has taken delivery of the ingredients for that night's dinner. Local clams and scallops from Baja are on the Artisan Table menu when available, along with half-hog porchetta seasoned with garlic and chiles. Chef Jackson is also filling his regular menu with juicy local strawberries (served with shortcake and also in a frozen soufflé), baby artichokes, fresh halibut, and tender early fava beans. All the dishes are paired, naturally, with California wines. (The Lodge at Torrey Pines, 11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla, CA; 858-777-6635)

Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm in Ben Lomond, California, says the support of local restaurant Manresa is crucial to her business's survival. But it's a symbiotic relationship. "Most farms limit themselves to just a few different things to grow," she explains. "I've got to juggle a hundred more than that. It's a challenge for [chef David Kinch], too, as he is constantly changing his menu to accommodate what is coming out of the garden."

Sandberg sells all her vegetables to Manresa; she even filled in her swimming pool to create extra growing space. "The trip from the seed to the table in some cases is a long one. A celeriac or tomato seed I sow in the greenhouse in February won't be served until October, after months of exacting care," she explains. "What's great is that the chef knows all those things: He's seen that seed back in February, he's observed the sprouts coming out of the ground, he's watched as I tended it, he's admired it as I pulled it from the soil, and finally he gets his hands on it. Then he puts the finishing touches on a whole project that he and I know has taken eight or nine months .… Most people will briefly look at it and pop it in their mouth without a second thought."

Perhaps the most stunning edible example of the grower/chef partnership here is a dish titled "Into the Vegetable Garden," which includes the leaf, root, flower, and shoot of some 30 vegetables and herbs. It's served with "edible dirt" 'made from potato, parsnip, and roasted chicory root. (320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA; 408-354-4330)

Montagna at the Little Nell
Chef Ryan Hardy is a master cheesemaker as well as a chef, and when he moved to the Rockies he was delighted to find great suppliers. "This part of the country is just unbelievably rich in great raw ingredients," he says. "We are working with several local farmers and purveyors, including one local [source] I met with to procure goat's milk for my cheese."

Hardy took things a step further last year when he purchased a family farm with his business partner. They renamed it Rendezvous Farm, and now that's the source for the restaurant's pork, lamb, chicken, and eggs. Beef comes from local grass-fed cattle, and the organic bacon from Niman Ranch.

The meat is spotlighted throughout the menu, as in the fresh rigatoni and Rendezvous Farm lamb sausage. Other local choices include homemade goat cheese and farm green salad, or seared sea scallops with farm potatoes, apples, celery, and warm orange vinaigrette. (675 E. Durant Ave., Aspen, CO; 970-920-4600)

Woodfire Grill
Chef Michael Tuohy has long been a supporter of organic growing, and helped launch Georgia's Organics, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy, local, sustainable food in the diet of people across the state. While he uses local produce to create dishes, his cooking shows North Californian influences, hinting at his San Francisco roots.

His commitment to adapting his menu with the seasons is clear: The day's fresh, local ingredients take center stage on the homepage. And even the decor has a local theme: Tuohy asked Atlanta-based craftsman Tracy Hartley to make some of the tables and wood paneling for the Grill.

In many cases, the menu pays homage to the farms that provided the fare: There's a Wood-Oven-Roasted Bramlett Farm Trout with Anson Mills Grits, Steel-Pan Greens, and Herb Butter; and a Chilled French White Asparagus with Sauce Gribiche (an aïoli sauce with chopped herbs, capers, lemon juice, and spices) and Ashland Farm Micro Celery. (1782 Cheshire Bridge Rd., Atlanta, GA; 404-347-9055)

North PondChef Bruce Sherman can sound preachy but ultimately he believes farm-to-table dishes just taste better than others. "By the nature of the relationship and the quality of the products supplied, the flavor of every dish is dramatically improved," he maintains. "And philosophically, my involvement and partnerships make a more direct and meaningful impact on the local community and economy, and allow me to connect more personally with the food we serve." Put simply: People are much more interested in understanding where their food comes from.

Sherman supports local farmers and artisans by using recently harvested products and highlighting the special character of those ingredients. "We choose preparations and pairings meant to accentuate their unparalleled flavor," he says.

Recent sample entrées include cream mushroom-stuffed maple crêpes, Parmesan flan, royal trumpet mushrooms, shaved vegetables, and pecans; and grass-fed rib eye à la plancha, crisp artisanal polenta sticks, glazed radishes, garlic parsley coulis, and red wine glace. (2610 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago, IL; 773-477-5845)

Cinque Terre
Chef Lee Skawinski, who co-owns Cinque Terre and Vignola in Portland with Dan Kary and Michelle Mazur-Kary, sees the Slow Food and farm-to-table movements as two related trends, complementary ways to de-emphasize industrialized food systems. "Diners now are more savvy about knowing whether restaurants are buying everything from the back of one box truck or whether they're going out there and really trying to source local and fresh meats, cheeses, fish, and vegetables," he says.

The Karys' Grandview Farm in Greene, Maine, supplies nearly 40 percent of the ingredients for both restaurants. "Everyone at the restaurants pitches in with planting and harvesting at the farm. It's wonderful that we can plan in advance specific ingredients and menu items, and have the freedom to experiment with new varietals and seasonal offerings," says Skawinski. "In addition, we've been longtime supporters of over a dozen local produce farms, artisan cheesemakers and fishermen, and livestock businesses."

Skawinski also takes kitchen staff and servers to Italy at least twice a year to meet growers and learn about production methods: "We just returned from our most recent trip, and we'll be planting some new Italian varietals of lettuces, greens, and chicories, plus many other Italian-style vegetables. We found a wonderful Italian cress that we'll be planting, plus a great, really 'crinkly' Tuscan spinach, and a beautiful four-colored red lettuce. We've also added fresh, edible flowers to our menus, and found two styles of flavorful dandelion that we plan to start planting in the next few days." (36 Wharf St., Portland, ME; 207-347-6154)

Chester Creek CafeTimes sure have changed for environmentally aware chefs. "I am 61 and was a hippie farmer in the early '70s," says chef and cafe co-owner Carla Blumberg, and "that was a very frustrating and disorganized time. Food prices were very low, it was difficult to compete with big stores, and there was no infrastructure. If you wanted to sell your stuff, you either had to have a stand or try to make a deal with a local grocer. The grocers were all about price — 'local' was not a concept. The scene was so alternative that it had no credibility, and nobody was willing to put any money into it."

Nowadays, there are distributors that focus exclusively on farm-to-chef and farm-to-grocery customers. "In Minnesota, we have the Heartland Food Network, an agency that focuses on the middleman problem," she says. Blumberg and her co-owner, Barb Neubert — and staff — support local farmers and promote ecological balance through their food. "It gives us pleasure to be able to help assure that conscientious stewards of the land have adequate income for their labors," she says.

On the menu: Blumberg uses aged regional cow's and goat's milk cheeses in her Cheddar Trio Salad, accompanying those items with fresh pear and a mix of toasted walnuts and pecans, spring greens, and Dijon croutons, with a rhubarb vinaigrette. Whiskey-soy-glazed free-range organic roast chicken is served with black barley zushi and gingered green-top carrots. (1902 E. 8th St., Duluth, MN; 218-724-6811)

Tupelo Honey Cafe
There was only one way for executive chef Brian T. Sonoskus and owner Sharon Schott to guarantee they'd have the freshest organic ingredients at their restaurant. So they did it: They started their own ten-acre farm, Sunshot Organics. "We grow herbal flowers and use them to garnish all the entrées," Sonoskus says. "We also grow Brandywine tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs for our salads, as well as berries."

They aim to provide as much food for the business as possible, supplementing with items from other local producers and businesses. Whenever possible, they buy organic and support local farmers, artisans, and businesses. "We serve all organic free-range chicken and eggs, " Sonoskus and Schott explain. A local bakery supplies the bread, and nearby breweries deliver their best beers. The brews change by season: Dogfish Head's Aprihop is supplied during the spring months, and beers from Highland and other local brewers are also integrated into the menu. The final local touch: Artists from the community hang artwork and photographs in the café. (12 College St., Asheville, NC; 828-255-4404)

Poppy Hill Tuscan Cafe
It doesn't get any more mutually beneficial than this: Co-owner and chef Scott Mahar works hand in hand with nearby farmer Jane Van Zalhah at Friendly Cottage Farms to decide what's planted and how it's nurtured. "All of the ingredients are chemical-free and all-natural," says Mahar. "The bottom line is that we're putting stuff into people's bodies, and we have an inherent responsibility to feed guests well from a health and flavor perspective."

Serving local fare also gives chefs more control over their ingredients: "Why should I buy my eggs from Lincoln, Nebraska," he wonders, "when I can buy great-quality eggs from someone just up the road from my restaurant? It may cost a bit more, but we know where the eggs came from, what the farmers were feeding their chickens, and we support our local economy to boot."

This year he's experimenting with some different ingredients for Poppy Hill: several new varieties of heirloom tomatoes, zucchini blossoms, summer squash, and beets, as well as zucchini, arugula, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. (1000 Charles St., Fredericksburg, VA; 540-373-2035)

Time is literally of the essence at executive chef Brian Scheehser's Trellis restaurant. One of the specialty items on his menu is the Two-Hour Salad — the ingredients are harvested less than two hours before hitting the plate. Scheehser can manage this feat because he plants his own three-acre garden with a seasonal menu in mind.

"I got into sustainable farming because I wanted better control over the ingredients I use in cooking," he explains. "I wanted to be able to handpick my produce to assure I was getting the best vegetables and fruits for my dishes. I've gotten very comfortable out there, and I love getting my hands into the soil. It's exciting to try new techniques and plant different types of seeds. It also works out better in the cost department."

Scheehser pairs the produce he grows with meat, fish, and fowl from local artisan producers, and the seasonality is stressed on his menu—for example, the restaurant doesn't guarantee ahead of time exactly which ingredients will be served. A variety of Washington wines, such as Woodward Canyon Nelms Road Cabernet and Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Riesling, also feature prominently among the offerings. (220 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland, WA; 425-284-5900)