A Farm-to-Table Chef Embraces a Spirit of Cooking, Not a Style

David Vergne/CIA

One very important concept I teach students is that farm to table isn’t necessarily a style of cooking, but a spirit of cooking. It’s a philosophy in which chefs wish to prepare for their guests the most flavorful, tastiest, nutrient-rich food they can. This often means that sourcing is based on local ingredients.

I began my career focused on farm to table in 1977, and my principles haven’t changed since. It was largely because I worked with chefs who followed the teachings of a great man, Fernand Point. He believed in a very basic point of view: “You cannot have great food without great ingredients.”

The CIA program studies the history, values, and future of farm-to-table cooking in America. I firmly believe this begins with understanding the importance of relationships with farmers.

Farm-to-table students work at our farm in the mornings, alongside our farm manager and his crew. This gives them the rare opportunity to be extremely involved in the food that they plant, nurture, and ultimately harvest. They develop a very personal perspective of the menu items they prepare each weekend, and we hope that attitude will carry over into restaurants where they work in the future.

They are taught that every plant has a life cycle—from tender leaves or buds to the plant going to seed—and along the way, how it can be used throughout that cycle. Total utilization takes total understanding.

I stress flexibility in my classes because I believe it’s very important for a kitchen to react to change, and that comes back to local sourcing. What’s not okay is to make a dish and follow the recipe, but end up with something that doesn’t taste good. If my student does that, and his response is, “but I followed the recipe,” I tell the student that’s not the correct way to look at things, because as chefs, we have to keep adjusting. Chefs have a plethora of local ingredients and flavors available to them, and I teach students to use those to create the most flavorful and healthy dish possible.

I’m a big believer that chefs should gather ingredients and then write a recipe or a menu—not the other way around. That’s another key to success; I think chefs disappoint themselves and their customers when they decide on a particular dish, because they are stuck on very specific ingredients and leave little room for adaptability. That leads to buying things out of season. It leads to using foods that sometimes have to be shipped long distances or ripen in transport rather than on a vine.

Chefs might argue that farm to table is tough in areas that have poor agriculture, but I think every location is rich in agriculture if you look for it. Part of each student’s final project is to pick a location in the U.S., whether it’s in the countryside or a city, in which to build a proposed farm-to-table restaurant. They do research and make contacts with farmers in those areas, find out what they’re growing, when farmers’ markets are held, and where the farm stands are, and they use that information to develop menus for the proposed restaurant. They make menus for different seasons, based on the ingredients available.

I wouldn’t call farm to table a trend, but it’s certainly a mentality that has evolved. It went through a pioneering stage and has occasionally been diluted, used as a marketing tool in restaurants rather than a philosophy.

But I think more restaurants will continue to focus on relationships with farmers and how they grow food, and continue to care about where meats and proteins come from. Yes, it’s a little more work, but it’s well worth the expenditure.

Larry Forgione is co-founder and culinary director of the CIA’s American Food Studies: Farm-to-Table Cooking curriculum, which is taught at the Conservatory at Greystone. He is often credited with leading the cultural charge toward farm to table, and was also a close friend of James Beard.

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