New Chef Keeps Local Focus at Landmark Philadelphia Restaurant
March 2009 — Food blogs in Philadelphia were abuzz in January with the news that Ralph Fernandez was taking over as executive chef at the White Dog Café. Much of the commentary ranged from wary to aghast. Some critics took issue with the fact that much of the old kitchen staff was sacked, which was a tad hypocritical, they maintained, for a restaurant that has always worn its social conscience on its sleeve.
“I can’t just go to [the farmer] and say I’m putting arugula on the menu and I need 20 pounds. That’s not the way it works….You have to build your menu around what the farmer has instead of vice versa..”
A deeper concern among fans of the restaurant – a fixture in Philadelphia’s University City section for a quarter century – was that under the new management, the White Dog Café might abandon a mission that has been at the core of its being since it was founded in 1983 by Judy Wicks. A national leader in the “local living economy” movement, Wicks had a policy of buying as much as possible from small farms within a few hours drive of Philadelphia, and did so long before talking about doing that became de rigueur for trendy restaurants. Some were now calling Wicks an apostate for selling a majority interest in her restaurant to Martin Grims, a restaurateur with a decidedly more commercial bent, epitomized by his flagship local restaurant, Mosholu. Situated on a century old, four-masted sailing boat moored on Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront, and serving fusion cuisine “with a South Seas flare,” Mosholu is where Fernandez worked most recently before taking charge of the White Dog’s kitchen in January.
Would he now try to pass off pineapple as locally grown, some wondered. Several disgruntled former employees certainly thought so. “Goodbye farmers, goodbye local produce,” proclaimed one. Another claimed that the farmers who the restaurant had long supported had been notified to cease further deliveries.
Rumors of the demise of the White Dog’s support for local agriculture, it turns out, were unfounded. Wicks has said she wouldn’t have done the deal with Grims and Fernandez if they weren’t committed to the restaurant’s founding concept. Wicks herself hasn’t cut all ties to the restaurant, though she will now devote most of her time to the White Dog Café Foundation, a nonprofit organization which has a mission to “cultivate a Philadelphia regional economy that is inclusive, just, environmentally healthy, and based on local business ownership.”
For his part, Fernandez insists he is no newcomer to the concept of buying directly from local farmers. He credits his wife for introducing him to the pleasures of locally produced food eight years ago. At her behest, they acquired an interest in a cooperative farm in Glenmoore and started participating in growing their own food. “You could taste the difference right away,” Fernandez says.
His connection with that farm in Glenmoore opened the door to an ever widening web of relationships with other farmers in Pennsylvania, a state with an especially old and deep tradition of small scale agriculture. One of his first connections was with North Star Orchard, where he buys a bushel of Asian pears every week when they are in season, says Fernandez. The proprietors of that orchard, in turn, introduced him to a local cheesemaker, who introduced him to a mushroom grower. He met Mark Dornstreich from Branch Creek Farms, and Karen Brendle of Green Meadow Farm, and then started buying cage-free chickens and eggs from Meadow Run Farm. “Slowly but surely, I started to get to know the farmers. I’ve stayed close to that ever since. But coming to the White Dog has really opened that up,” he says.
Fernandez recently spoke with Seasonal Chef about how his connections with local farmers have paid off this winter.
Q: What are some of the locally produced foods that you are getting this time of year, with spring still weeks away?
A: Right now, we are getting a lot of Swiss chard, beets, celery root. We get carrots. We get baby arugula and other baby greens from Branch Creek. From Blue Moon Acres, we get micro celery, bull’s blood beet greens and some baby greens. We also get local cheeses. We get goat cheese from Shellbark Hollow Farm in West Chester . We actually go and pick it up every Tuesday. We get to pet the goats. We just started with Sue Miller at Birchrun Hills Farm. She will actually be dropping her first delivery of blue cheese this week. We get Pennsylvania cheddar, maple syrup and cider vinegar that is made at Green Meadow Farm out in Lancaster County . We have a co-op that we deal with for some of the Lancaster farmers. We get bacon and smoked turkey and chickens that are raised by the Amish. We get quite a bit of local product this time of year.
Q: How does buying directly from farmers affect your work as a chef?
A: What I’ve seen over the years is that more and more chefs are starting to move towards having a rapport with the farmers and knowing where their food comes from. But it’s very different for the chef. For example, Mark [Dornstreich], at Branch Creek, has this amazing baby arugula. But I can’t just go to him and say I’m putting arugula on the menu and I need 20 pounds. That’s not the way it works. He says I will call you every Tuesday and tell you what’s available. So you have to build your menu around what the farmer has instead of vice versa. He plants the arugula only for a certain number of chefs. I’m high on the list because I have been working with him for a while. But I get like two pounds of the stuff. That’s how rare it is. It’s the most amazing baby arugula. For the goat cheese, I know the lady who actually milks the goats, and I see her every Tuesday. Going out there and seeing the goats is a little different than just calling up a purveyor and saying I need 20 pounds of goat cheese. It puts you a little bit more in touch with how the food chain works.
Q: You mentioned celery root as one of the seasonal ingredients that you serve this time of year. That’s a rather unconventional crop. What do you do with it?
A: We take the celery root and peel the outside because it is a little bit knobby, and we take parsnips and peel them and cut them into little pieces, and we simmer the parsnips and celery root in organic milk so that it doesn’t oxidize. Then we take the parsnips and celery root and put it through a ricer. We add a little bit of milk and a little bit of butter to that purée until it gets to the consistency we want. Sometimes, if we used the celery root purée for a lamb dish, we might steep a little rosemary in the milk. We don’t want too much rosemary because it is kind of pronounced, but a little bit of rosemary goes well with lamb. We also use root vegetables right now – baby carrots, parsnips and turnips – roasted with browned butter and served with brussels sprouts.
Q: How strictly will you adhere to a policy of buying local produce?
A: Everything can’t come from local farms. Our mission is to buy as much as possible in season, and we try to do that. But we have farms all over the United States. We have to outsource some things. There’s a lot that the farmers around here do in the winter. But spring, summer and fall are definitely our main seasons for buying locally. Year round, we are a green restaurant in other ways. We recycle. The vegetable oil that we use gets recycled for biodiesel for tractors. We compost. The stuff that we compost gets sent down to the farmers in Lancaster, so that they can put in the gardens where they grow the vegetables that end up back on our menu. That’s kind of neat. It’s like a big circle. I think if more restaurants did that, we would all be better off.