After Sparking Local Food Revival in Atlanta, a Farm-to-Table Pioneer Takes on Sacramento
April 2010 — Michael Tuohy has been a leading advocate of local, seasonal cuisine for more than 25 years. When he got his start as a chef in the 1980s in his hometown of San Francisco, where he worked at Square One Restaurant with Joyce Goldstein, one of the city’s most renowned chefs, pioneering restaurants had been buying produce directly from nearby farms for more than a decade.
“People would ask, ‘Why Sacramento? What are you thinking?’ But we’re surrounded by farms and meat producers and cheese and olive oil makers and wineries. What’s not to like about that?”
Farmers throughout the region had adapted to meet the growing demand, and there was an abundance of local fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses for Bay Area chefs to choose from.
Bringing ingredients directly from the farm to the restaurant table proved to be a trickier challenge at the next stop in Tuohy’s culinary career: Atlanta in 1986. During the more than two decades that he spent in Atlanta, that would change, in no small part due to his efforts. The restaurants he opened, including Chefs’ Café, Chefs’ Grill, Ocean Club, and Woodfire Grill were rated among the city’s best, and he used those venues to showcase food products from a steadily growing array of local suppliers.
In 2008, Tuohy moved back to California and once again set out to introduce the farm-to-table concept to a city that had little prior exposure to such a thing: Sacramento. His restaurant, Grange, features an ever changing array of seasonal items from farms located just an hour or two away. Tuohy recently spoke with Seasonal Chef’s northern California correspondent, Amanda Thompson, about his experience with local, seasonal cuisine over the years.
Q: When you arrived in Atlanta in the mid-1990s, was there much seasonal produce available from local farms?
A: It was pretty slim. I was able to locate somebody to grow lettuce for me. It was a small farm by the name of Ashland Farm. They were growing lettuce for a really nice restaurant at the time in Atlanta run by a great chef. He had Ashland Farm lettuce on his menu so I reached out to him and got their number and they started selling lettuce to me. That was probably in 1986 or 1987.
Q: Coming from California, where so much is available from local farms, did you feel deprived?
A: Yeah. All of the sudden I thought, uh oh. I was pretty young, in my early 20s, when I arrived there and I was excited to open my own restaurant, which was a goal of mine. I wasn’t thinking too much in terms of where I was going to get products at the time. That was a whole different time, of course — 20 years ago.
Organic Boom in Georgia
Q: How did that compare with what was available in Atlanta 22 years later when you left?
A: It’s now light years ahead of where it was back then, and I’d like to think I had an effect on that. I worked with the Georgia Grown Co-Op, which was a small co-op of organic farmers in the early ’90s. I served on their board early on, and helped with the farmers markets there and supported them throughout the years at my restaurant, buying products from them. There was also Georgia Organics. They are thriving today, doing really great things in terms of education and awareness with the general public and linking farms to restaurants. And farmers markets and have really exploded. By the time I left, there was a whole network of growers in the Atlanta area. There was a hog producer about 40 minutes from the restaurant. There was an all grass-fed beef producer in Georgia, and a couple of cheese makers. The foodway there has dramatically improved, which is great because there are more serious chefs as well as restaurants. There are a lot of places there to get great meals. I’ve always said Atlanta is in the top 10 of major dining cities, maybe number six or seven. It’s pretty powerful, but still small compared with what we have out here in California. The growing seasons are so long here, and the amount of produce and the number of farms and cheese makers and olive oil producers and chicken people and hog people. There are so many resources out here for me.
Q: In Atlanta, did new farmers enter the business to meet growing demand for local foods or did old-timers in the area start producing things to meet growing demand for local produce?
A: New farmers. There was a core group of organic growers and some came and left. Some got fed up because there were too many for what the market would support in those days. I think that has changed now that there’s a push towards local and sustainable. Even the local restaurant association created a green restaurant round table. In the last two or so years, it has really come on and in many ways, they are a lot farther along than let’s say, Sacramento. Atlanta is a much bigger city and there are more restaurants there using more local organic products than in Sacramento by far, which shocks me because you’d think everyone would do it here because we’re surrounded by local agriculture. But that’s not the case.
Q: Why did you move to Sacramento?
A: I kept in touch with California during the years that I was away because I had family out here and I found myself on vacation out here once a year. It’s like coming back to Mecca out here in the San Francisco Bay Area — a place to get my fill of restaurants, markets, cool weather, Napa, Sonoma. I was honestly naive about the Sacramento region in terms of what existed up here. But as I started paying attention to it, I started going, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” People would ask, “Why Sacramento? What are you thinking?” And I was thinking, “Are you kidding me? Why not?” We’re surrounded by farms and meat producers and cheese makers and olive oil and wineries. What’s not to like about that? I never thought I could come back to California and make a difference instead of just fit in. But in Sacramento, I feel like I am actually making a difference. We are helping to create more awareness and support for local farms and growers and the local foodway, and one really cool thing is, I get a lot of people in government that support the restaurant here, and they are becoming more and more interested in local foods, as I think they should. So maybe there’s a chance to be somewhat of a voice for them, and I welcome that opportunity.
Q: What are some of the seasonal items on your menu right now that you are especially excited about?
A: Artichokes and asparagus are busting right now. We’re seeing nice strawberries, and we’re getting sugar snap peas and snow peas. And really nice morel mushrooms. The greens are so beautiful, and the lettuces and citrus. The mandarins were fantastic but are on the wane now. But I am anxiously awaiting fava beans. I do all kinds of different things with them. I serve them as sides. I love to serve them with lamb, in salads, or with some mint and lemon oil. Sometimes I crush them and make almost like a hummus or tapenade. We use them in risotto, pasta, and on and on and on.
Q: What are you looking forward to in the next few months?
A: Besides fava beans, we’ll start seeing berries here very soon, and stone fruit will be coming in early June, when we’ll see peaches and nectarines. And tomato season is right behind that. We always, always, always love tomato season. We have no shortage of organic heirloom tomato producers around here. And melons, of course. The joys of summer! And by then, I’ll be dreaming of brazing and root vegetables! We are extremely seasonal. That’s why I think people come here and what they expect from us. That’s what we said we’re about, and that’s what we need to do. We keep it fresh and exciting for everybody, including for myself and the cooks.