In the Southeast, Transplanted Portland Chef Finds Farm-to-Table Concept a Hard Sell
North Carolina Restaurant’s Clientele Protest if Hungry Deer or Late Frost on Local Farms Take Salad Off Menu
March 2012 — In his career as a chef, Marco Shaw has punched his ticket in some of the nation’s leading venues for local cuisine, including New Orleans and Santa Fe. Before he moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 2009, he ran a restaurant for more than a decade in Portland, Oregon, a city arguably second to none in its devotion to local food.
“The dining culture is a lot different in the Southeast…. In Portland, no one ever called me to ask what exactly was on the menu that night.”
It is the kind of place where, as told in a half-satirical episode on the IFC-TV show Portlandia, people ask servers in restaurants not only where the chicken on the menu came from but also whether it had any friends.
Durham, situated in the cosmopolitan Research Triangle area of North Carolina, has an emerging local food culture of its own that is notable enough to have caught the attention of the New York Times not once but twice in the last several years. A new generation of farmers – entrepreneurial and often organic – have taken over swathes of rich farmland that used to be filled, fencerow to fencerow, with tobacco. They are raising everything from quail and rabbits to heirloom peppers and pink-eyed peas, and are selling their produce at farmers markets that have sprouted in the area and to a new breed of chef, dedicated to serving local produce and supporting local farmers.
Shaw is one such chef who was drawn to the region by that story. But Durham is no Portland, as he has discovered, somewhat to his consternation. A restaurant with a locally-sourced menu is a harder sell in North Carolina than he realized it would be, as Shaw explained in an interview.
Q: How does Durham compare with Portland in terms of the level of support for local food?
A: It’s a lot different. In Portland, local food is such a part of the culture that people understand what it’s about. There are farmers markets every day and a lot of people are cognizant of where their food comes from and how much that actually costs. Here, we are at the beginning of a movement, but people still expect to see certain things on the menu all year. It’s hard to explain to people when I don’t have salad, and it’s hard to explain that I sometimes have to pay $9 a pound for lettuce when they can get it for 99 cents at the grocery store.
Q: Have you found farmers in the Durham area who are receptive to working with you?
A: I have had no trouble finding great farmers. A lot of farmers prefer not to work with the typical restaurant. That can be a challenge because the restaurant wants large quantities and complete consistency. If you’re a farmer and you send an e-mail saying you are harvesting Little Gem lettuce this week and okra and some radishes, the typical restaurant is going to want x amount of radishes, and they are expecting that. And then when you come in and say, the deer ate some of it and groundhogs ate some of it and so there’s not as much product, a typical restaurant can’t use that farmer anymore, because they’re expecting to get 36 heads of romaine and if you can only deliver 12, they are left scrambling. We are a lot more flexible in our menu and in what we’re doing, so it’s easier for us to connect with farmers. I don’t need three weeks’ worth of romaine lettuce. I just need enough to get me through one night. But it takes time to build up that relationship.
Trading Cress for Okra
Q: What can you get from farms in the Durham area that you couldn’t get in Portland, and vice versa?
A: I’m able to get things like okra that I was not able to get in the Northwest. And we have a longer growing season here, so the winters are a little less tricky for me, menuwise, than in the Northwest. There, I got more varieties of greens, like cresses and other things that do better in the humidity. And there were a lot more berries in Northwest, and of course mushrooms. You can forage for a lot more things there than here.
Q: What do you do with okra?
A: I have stuffed them. I have fried them. I roast them whole. I have also dried some and made chips. We make soups. We make gumbo. We pickle some for the bar and for our charcuterie plates. I cook them with corn when I have corn. I find them to be a nice accompaniment for chicken and fish.
Q: What are some of the things that you’re getting from local farms right now that you are especially excited about?
A: Right now, we are getting a bunch of awesome radishes and some heirloom turnips, which are really nice to have. And we are just starting to get salad greens.
Q: What do you do with radishes?
A: Tons of different things. We pickle them. Some of them we salt cure. We make a hot radish pickle with some peppers that we canned last fall and use them at the bar in a cocktail. I roast them whole with the greens on for fish. We shave them thin and use them as a coating for fish.
Q: I noticed that you have heirloom yellow hominy on your menu. What’s the story with that?
A: That is one of the few things that I don’t get out of North Carolina. I get it from Anson Mills in South Carolina. I get grits locally, but I also get grits from them. And they have Carolina gold rice and wild rice that the slaves brought with them. They also have Sea Island peas, the original pea that people used for hoppin’ john. But that yellow hominy is pretty special. It’s a lot of work to make. It’s a two-day process.
A Bounty of Local Peanuts
Q: I also saw peanut pesto mayo on the menu. That must be something you’ve added to your repertoire since moving from Oregon to North Carolina.
A: I have an endless supply of peanuts in this part of the country, so we use peanuts in a lot of different things. We use them raw. We boil them. One of the farms that we use had a bunch of green peanuts in the fall, so we roasted some and we have a bunch of them that we use for crusting chicken and in salads. For the peanut pesto, we used up some of the herbs from our garden.
Q: How did you first get interested in the farm-to-table concept?
A: I’m originally from Washington, D.C., but I’ve worked everywhere. I went to college in Virginia. After college, I waited tables and started cooking the year after that. I cooked in a place in Williamsburg that was using a lot of local farms, and then I was in New York and New Orleans. And then I spent two years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the Coyote Café. They were using a lot of local farms and I started getting interested in that back then in the 1990s. After having researched what Alice Waters was doing, my next stop would have been her restaurant, Chez Panisse. I went to Berkeley and looked around and I really like that area, but I couldn’t afford it. So I went to Portland. That was in 1997. When I got to Portland, there were a couple of restaurants that were doing farm-to-table and I started learning the philosophy and started worrying about the local economy and looking for the best way to help the local economy. I also started learning how different the product was. I would get lettuce from a produce company and it would have a three-day shelf life. If I was getting stuff direct from the farmer, it was beautiful product and it could literally sit in my walk-in for a week and a half. So that attracted me. In Portland, when I open my first restaurant, Fife, in 2002, we were pretty much on the cusp of the farm-to-table movement in the Northwest. We sold that in 2009 and came here.
Pining for Portland
Q: Have you enjoyed the challenge of being in a place where the farm-to-table concept is not as well established and you are more of a pioneer?
A: It is hard. It is a lot harder than I thought. We looked at a bunch of cities before we moved here, and just reading about the Research Triangle area of North Carolina and visiting Durham, it felt like Portland in 2000 – on the cusp. But after getting here, I realized that it’s a little farther away than that. It has been trickier. The big issue is cost. It is expensive to do this and to get people behind it. It also involves having to change your menu frequently. In Portland, my menu changed every day. Here, that does not work for the clientele. What I have found – and other chefs I have talked to have said the same thing – is that the dining culture is a lot different. In the Southeast, people want the same thing. People will make plans to go to a restaurant because they have heard of a dish. People call to ask what’s on the menu tonight because they heard that a dish was really good. In 13 years in Oregon, that almost never happened. People never called me to ask what exactly was on the menu that night. They went out to dinner because they knew of our restaurant and its reputation and what we were doing. Here, I still have people who don’t understand when we don’t have salad because it’s too hot and things died, or too cold and things froze. I still get pushback if there is no salad, or when I don’t have asparagus in March or strawberries for Valentine’s Day.
Q: Are you ever tempted to throw in the towel and go to the nearest wholesale market and buy some of that stuff, wherever it came from?
A: That would hurt me. I haven’t done anything different in 10 years now. There are times when I wonder if it will actually work here, but it’s what I do.