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What is Farm-to-Table?

Lobster Lettuce Cup

Foodie Speak is a series where Taste It Tours breaks down a common word in the foodie vocabulary to explain what it means, where it came from and why it’s an important part of keeping your foodie card.

Quite possibly the biggest buzzword throughout the restaurant industry in the past five years has been “farm-to-table” (also known as “farm-to-fork”). The idea that restaurant customers care where their foods come from evolved from an eco-friendly trend to a way of life for chefs everywhere.

So here’s the 411 on farm-to-table.

How does it work?

With farm-to-table, the name really says it all. The point is that chefs source as many of their ingredients locally as possible, utilizing farmers’ markets for produce and partnering with local meat and dairy farms.

The benefit of farm-to-table is not just in cutting out the middle man. Buying local foods means less of a transportation requirement, and therefore less freezing of foods. Food stays fresher, and ideally will taste better as a result.

There is even a safety component to farm-to-table food. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) published a whole curriculum for students about the safety of farm-to-table and highlighting all the potential health risks as food is processed and transported.

When did it become mainstream?

Individual chefs and restaurants have utilized farm-to-table since the 1960s, but in 2003, Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal co-founded a restaurant called The Kitchen in Boulder, Colorado that only bought food from local farmers. It soon expanded to several other US cities, and he became one of the first celebrity farm-to-table restaurateurs.

Soon after, restaurants began posting on the menu the farms where foods were sourced, and brands like Niman Ranch became as well-known as Oscar Meyer. Environmentalists embraced the trend because it meant less greenhouse gases used in transportation and less antibiotics and pesticides used in food preservation.

Then the wave of organic food hit in 2011 when health studies showed the hazards of farming fruits and vegetables using pesticides. The general public became more concerned about health than price, and restaurants took note.

The movement arguably reached its peak in 2014, when 80 percent of Americans identified sustainability as a priority for food purchases. Since then, most every new independent restaurant opened in the US has some sort of farm-to-table component.

What are the downsides?

As well-received as farm-to-table has become, it does have some drawbacks, including:

  • Price: Mass processed food is usually cheaper for restaurants to buy, just like Walmart can sell you cheaper clothes than a mom and pop store. Restaurants have to pass the costs on, so that $5 salad at Applebee’s will often be $8 or $9 at a farm-to-table restaurant.
  • Limited Selection: If you want to get lobster in Kansas City, farm-to-table isn’t really an option. Since farm-to-table food is sourced locally, restaurants (and therefore their customers) are reliant on the variety of foods available within a 50 mile radius. Selection will also be affected by seasons, because it’s harder to grow fresh produce during the winter.
  • Easy to Fake: The farm-to-table movement has become so big that many restaurants have been accused of food fraud, claiming ingredients are sourced locally when they aren’t. Since there’s no way to identify local foods by sight or taste, a few dishonest chefs can reap all the benefits of farm-to-table without actually paying them forward.

Why do foodies embrace it?

Foodies want to know as much about their food as possible, because taste is only one part of their culinary experience. The farm-to-table movement gives a reassurance that the food they are enjoying has a positive back story.

Foodies also take pride in their location, and want to show off the great foods grown in their city and/or state. Californians love their avocados, Idahoans are passionate about potatoes and Floridians can’t get enough citrus. Foodies will get especially excited by a chef that best utilizes the local cuisine, coming up with new recipes that best represent the area.

This is also a big reason why farm-to-table has become so huge in the food tourism industry. Many foodies love to travel, and they will often target restaurants that embrace farm-to-table to get the most authentic local food experience.

Where is it Going Next?

Chef Dan Barber wrote a book called The Third Plate all about the future of farming and restaurants. He explores the topic of “nose-to-tail” when it comes to animals, or using as much of the animal in food preparation as possible, and is trying to figure out how to apply this to produce. An example he has put into practice is taking the ribs of kale and dicing them into kale risotto, which is served as a separate dish. He also tries to buy as many different types of produce as possible from his farm partners, and not just the top selling crops.

We’ve seen plenty of foods go from nowhere to the mainstream this century (kale, acai), so don’t be surprised if you see some foreign foods on menus in the future. Also, the next time you’re at the local farmers market, keep a look out for the chef of your favorite local restaurant.


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