July 10, 2007
As Fresh As It Gets: A Farm to Table Program Highlights the Bounty of Local Farms
by Richard Roth
LOCAL 111, THE RESTAURANT that opened last August in a converted garage on Philmont's Main Street, has customers who deliver produce early in the day and come back later for an elegant evening meal.
"It's nice for us to have a restaurant where the suppliers eat here," says co-owner Linda Gatter. "We don't want to just cater to the wealthy." Gatter says she and her husband, Max Dannis, weren't sure they'd be going into the restaurant business when they bought the vacant Schermerhorn Garage building in 2004, but they knew they wanted to do something that would support local farmers. And chef David Wurth, whom they met by putting an ad on craigslist.org, says access to a supply of fresh local food was the whole point of his leaving Manhattan to settle in Columbia County.
"A lot of good things happen to you when you're working in a restaurant," says Wurth, 45. "But over the years, my favorite part is getting to know the farmers." Several area farmers provide the restaurant with farm-fresh dairy products, grass-fed beef, pastured chickens and organic vegetables. But Hugh Williams and Hanna Bail of Threshold Farm have developed an especially close relationship with Local 111, their 45-acre farmstead almost within walking distance of the restaurant.
"Dave is such a great chef, and he'll take whatever we have because he knows we will only bring high-quality stuff," says Williams, 60, who has been growing organic produce in New York ever since he emigrated from Australia in the early 1970s.
Wurth demands that Local 111 live up to its name, and with the exception of staples that can't survive in a northern climate, almost nothing comes from farther away than central New York. And nothing goes on the menu until it's actually available fresh from local farms. "People are already asking for corn and tomatoes," he said last week. "But we won't serve them until we can get them locally."
Everything on the menu is made on the premises. Last Friday morning, one employee was unexpectedly absent, and Wurth was busier than usual. He went from slicing potatoes for chips to be served to customers waiting at the bar to pouring the liquid for chocolate/chocolate chip ice cream into a two-quart freezer. Then he chopped spinach and fennel for a soup and checked the progress of dinner rolls waiting to go into the oven.
Meanwhile, sous chef Brian Williams (not related to Hugh) was equally busy braising lamb for a stew, dumping three kinds of wine into a giant frying pan to start a sauce, and washing and chopping Kinderhook rhubarb for a special dessert.
Hugh Williams started farming in Bridgehampton, when he first arrived in this country. He and Bail have farmed together in Philmont since 1995. Bail, 38, grew up on a farm in Bavaria. She was touring the world to expand her knowledge of organic and biodynamic farming methods when she met Williams at her very first stop. They have two children, Christopher, 6, and Emma, 4.
Historical records show that their land has been worked since the late 1700s, but the name Threshold Farm reflects Williams' commitment to a new kind of farming. "Agriculture is really at a threshold," he says, "and the old ways have to die out."
Williams says he faced a lot of skepticism when he first announced his intention to grow fruit as well as vegetables entirely without pesticides, but he has managed to develop a method that works. "We practice 100 % orchard hygiene," he says. "We don't drop so much as an apple core. And that eliminates two major pests." He controls other pests by spraying the trees with kaolin clay. The crop is also thinned 20 to 30 days after blossoming, and any weak or damaged fruits are turned into compost.
The Philmont orchards-apples, peaches and pears-were planted in 1994. Williams and Bail run their operation with the help of one full-time and one part-time employee. Williams says locally produced food is something he and Bail have taken for granted ever since they were children, because they both grew up on farms. "Local food is something that's on everybody's lips now," he says. "We hope it continues to develop and that it's not just a fad."
Restaurant owners Gatter and Dannis give their chef a free rein, but they share Wurth's-and Williams'-philosophy. "I think local food is something a lot more people are interested in now," says Gatter.
She believes more than one factor contributes to that. People are trying to be more conscientious about energy use, she says, and it makes more sense to buy local produce than to encourage long-distance shipping.
Local residents feel good about supporting Columbia County farmers, because farms preserve the area's open space, she adds. And eating foods only while they're in season "makes them more special," and gives people a sense of connection to the natural world. Besides that, she says: "Local food tastes better."