December 16, 2008

The Beginning's End

After I consumed one of my last carnival squashes of the season, I finished writing for last farm newsletter for the 2008 Community Supported Agriculture season. As I am now an intern at Heartland Restaurant, I wrote a story about how my farm and kitchen experiences have brought me on a food journey I'll never be able to turn back from. Here's a heavily-reduced, blog-sized version:

Walking down to the basement of Heartland Restaurant (where I am now a kitchen intern) I see a Summit keg and a Harmony Valley produce box, which to me are as good of a pair as peanut butter (chunky, of course) and jelly. Walking down to the warehouse at Featherstone Farm, I was more likely to see a tomato box and a large Igloo water container, filled with the Gasca’s beloved Gatorade. On the spectrum of dishing out $50 3-course meals to picking weeds in the squash-patch, these two polar environments have become one experience for me. That is- an experience of learning about nourishment, sustainability, and the earth’s flavors.

As I walk upstairs to the restaurant kitchen, the dishwasher, Salvador, says ‘hola’ and I’m challenged to scrape from the bottom of the barrel any ounce of Spanish skill I can muster. Salvador’s quiet, yet strong, character reminds me much of the restaurant itself. Heartland Restaurant is run by chef Lenny Russo in St. Paul, and is the type of restaurant that any small farmer in Minnesota loves. They buy as local as often as possible and not just produce. My duties have included cleaning mixed salad greens, peeling sunchokes, creating caviar butter, cleaning brussell sprouts, making liver mousse, peeling 50 cloves of garlic for coq au vin, making roux for chowder, chopping piles of herbs, and of course taste testing. I’m able to ask a lot of questions, as chefs are an obsessed bunch that love talking food, whose answers are payment in themselves.

My biggest fear was that my summer farm experience would eventually fade in my memory and remain like faint visions of a good dream as I had returned to the hustle-and-bustle of the Cities. Heartland saved me from this as it has made me see the importance of the farm and the final connection in the local food movement – to the plate. Some nights I see the produce go from the farm’s box, to the chef’s knife, into the waitress’s swift arms, and eventually to the guests’ bodies. Seeing this unfold before me has been one of the top 5 most gratifying experiences in my life, right behind tasting the pulp of a sweet hallow heirloom tomato this summer. While working at the farm, this restaurant diner/grocery shopper was an imaginary figure – the one who someday, would be eating and enjoying our produce, the fruits of our labor. To see this person in flesh and blood in front of me, who had no idea who I was, but was connected most intimately by food, justified and validated the difficulties of farm-work, seeing that it’s really going to people, real people, whose bodies live off your labor. As my restaurant experience grows, my farm experience deepens, because I see its relevance, importance, and physical/tangible results.

The relationship between a chef and a farmer can be seen in terms of an artist and his mediums. Who knew that the tops of leeks would be infused and blended with oil, forced through a chinois, to create Kelly-green Leek Oil for garnishes. The farmer grows a palette of flavors, colors, and textures to be used like art by the chef in the creation of dishes. The similarities between chefs and farmers are amazing. Versatility is what makes chefs and farmers so unique as they are very detail oriented (both Jack and Lenny know exactly what temperature their coolers must be so produce quality is upheld) but they are willing to roll-with-the-punches at the same time. Besides the necessity of meeting the bottom line, nothing is more important to the farmer or chef than quality. I’ve also found that chefs and farmers are usually spiritually motivated. (I do not use religiously and spiritually synonymously here.) I say spiritual and not religious because the ‘life-force’ it seems they believe exists with and in the food, and has nothing to do with the church. (Oddly enough, I had someone tell me that eating at Heartland is a near-religious experience!) It’s this magical element, a higher energy force, that they strive hard to pass for others to experience. To have ones livelihood depend on the earth’s bounty is one of extreme faith and risk that shows true trust and connectedness to the land.

I am so thankful to have immediate access to knowledgeable, influential, and soul-full people. Jack, Mary, Lenny, and Stephanie have given me more answers than a young foodie can handle, and I wish I were able to soak in all the information. From the flour / butter ratio for a roux to the ideal soil types for tomatoes, I’ve learned important information because these people are passionate about food and see the importance of educating the next generation of farmers and chefs.

Two women, one from Featherstone and one from Heartland, hold significance importance in leading me through this journey of learning. Mary (the farm’s CSA manager) and Stephanie (the restaurant sous-chef) have been monumental in supplying me with information, sharing kindness, and spreading enthusiasm. Mary and Stephanie are both quality fighters and do not settle for just anything. They both keep the businesses running by managing the day-to-day operations that make each place functional. These women have challenged my thinking on quality.

Heartland and Featherstone - a center of support for a belief or movement and a Minnesota township where Jack’s great-grandfather used sustainable practices to grow real food for people. The meanings of these names hold significant value for me as Featherstone Farm has become my heartland, the center of support for living well - a place where I grew-up in 3 months, redefined for myself what it means to be nourished and satisfied, appreciated simpler things, rediscovered the joy of community living, and interacted with life-affirming individuals.

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