Chef Nicole Van Camp: Texas Weather Can Make Bringing the Farm to the Table Hard

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When Nicole Van Camp was 15 years old, she decided to become a vegetarian based on the grounds of animal cruelty. But she lived in highly carnivorous Carrollton. Unless she wanted to starve, she had to learn to cook. She quickly fell in love with her new life-sustaining hobby. And although she learned about humane ways to raise livestock, she still prefers to stay vegetarian, mostly based on texture.

Currently she hosts Chef Nicole's Secret Supper Club in Deep Ellum on Saturday nights, where she uses mostly local, organic ingredients to create a seven-course meal for 18 people. We spoke with her to learn more about the farm-to-table movement and her thoughts on how Dallas is receiving the trend.

What was your first job in a restaurant? When I was in culinary school in San Francisco, I worked at a bar and restaurant that was right next to the Giants' ballpark and I was the prep cook, line cook and the dishwasher. I was the only one there during lunch. Then when I came back to Dallas, I did my externship for three months with Chef Marc Cassel at the Green Room.

You worked at Bolsa for a while, then started doing pop-up dinners. What made you choose that route? Well, it was an idea that I had before, but just didn't know how to go about it. Then, I met Chef DAT and staged with him one night and I loved the way it all worked out. I liked what he did even though his was more like a party, which is good because that's what some people want. But I had a different idea, so that's why I branched off because I really wanted to focus on sourcing local and using organic ingredients.

How did you get involved in the farm-to-table movement? I think the biggest reason I moved on to local and organic was because I was a corporate trainer at BJ's Brewhouse and I helped them open nine restaurants. But it wasn't cooking. Everything was opened from a can or a bag. Then I worked with Graham Dodds at Bolsa and learned a lot about using local sources.

Do you visit many of the farms whose produce you use? I volunteer and work at some. I really have always wanted to learn more about farming just for the pure fact that we should know where our food comes from. When produce comes from a big company, there are usually a lot of chemicals on it, it's not high quality and it doesn't even taste the same. And you don't even know who has touched it. I like knowing all my farmers and everyone who has handled the produce. They show me what they do, so I make sure they're not using any harsh chemicals. How has the Dallas dining scene changed? It's good to see more restaurants open that are interested in supporting local and organic food, like Campo and Bolsa.

Are Dallas diners receptive to the farm-to-table movement? I think there are a lot of people that have jumped on board, whose palates are changing, but there're still a lot of people that have not. With all the Walmarts and Aldi grocery stores, there're some people that just really don't get it.

Some people argue eating healthy is expensive. Do you think that's true? I wish people would take the time to learn to cook; it can be so much healthier and cheaper. If they took the time to experience cooking with fresh produce, then their palates would change and they would understand the movement. But I feel like the masses have not come to that point yet.

What are some of your favorite Dallas restaurants? Now that I don't work at Bolsa, I love eating there. I always just order a veggie plate and ask them to make me whatever they want. I do the same thing at Campo. I just tell them I'm a vegetarian and I'll eat anything they'll put in front me. I met their chef the other day, Josh Black, when I was taking a farmer around to introduce him to new restaurants to potentially sell produce.

Who was the farmer you were taking around? His name is Toby Haggard and he owns Tgh Farms. He used to work for Rocky Tassione, but then got some of land of his own and decided to start a few greenhouses. The other day we basically went around and asked five chefs, "What do you want? We'll plant it for you. We're going to build a greenhouse and it's all yours." Which I think is one of the coolest things a farmer can do. It totally puts a chef on a spot.

Did he get a good response? Yeah, I think all five liked him, including Bolsa, Campo and Central 214. He said he'll need to build two new greenhouses and that will keep him in business. What would you like to see more of in the Dallas dining scene? Obviously more vegetarian options and local produce. I think if restaurants could at least do a daily or weekly special where they're featuring something local, it would be a really great start.

What are the greatest challenges for the farm-to-table movement? Texas weather is one. My favorite farm is called Eden Creek out in Blooming Grove and I used to volunteer out there all the time, but last summer their water well dried up. With the weather and lack of water it's really hard to be consistent.

How do you work with Urban Acres? I volunteer at Urban Acres every Friday then I do my dinners on Saturday. I get to take home 20 to 30 pounds of produce, but it's a mystery basket. I never know what I'm going to get. I create a seven-course dinner from that.

So, you basically use a local bin from the Urban Acres co-op to create your menu for your suppers? Yes, a lot of the food is from the co-op. We sort on Friday, because everybody picks up on Saturday. So, whatever produce is leftover, the volunteers get to take home. Then, I have about 24 hours to write a menu and shop for the remaining ingredients that I need and pull the whole thing together.

Do you host secret suppers every Saturday? Mostly with a few exceptions. All the updates are on my Facebook page and website.

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