The story of our food isn’t at the forefront of table conversation, usually. What seemed to start as a trend, the farm-to-table movement has plowed through Dallas restaurants with no signs of slowing down. If you need proof, look no further than 30 minutes north of Dallas, where McKinney has become a mecca for sustainability when it comes to locally sourced produce and meat. Long-term idealists like Matt Hamilton of Local Yocal FM and newcomers like Chef Robert Lyford of Patina Green Home and Market are vigilant and passionate about the movement.
The North Texas Farm-to-Table Food Symposium was held in historic downtown McKinney at Rick’s Chophouse. The last crowd one would expect in the ballroom of this hotel/restaurant are bearded hipsters and shiny belt-buckled farmers. The juxtaposition of this scene boils down to one common denominator: They are cut from the same cloth as nurturers and providers. These are the people who work the land and care about sustainability, and as consumers, we should harbor undivided respect for their sweat.
Rick’s Chophouse owner Rick Wells hosted the event, and Edible DFW magazine publisher Nanci Taylor moderated. These educational dinners are intended to encourage local chefs and farmers to meet and collaborate in order to utilize the full horticulture and agricultural cycle from seed to plate. The dinners are open to the public.
Wells started the evening by introducing Cornerstone Ranch, a community where special needs adults and children can learn farming and gardening. He also bragged about farm growth in an area that encompasses Collin, Denton, Fannin, Grayson and Hunt Counties. Between 2007 and 2012, this five-county region grew by approximately 1,400 new farms, and the McKinney Farmer’s Market is one of the top 10 in our nation, he said. That's a staggering number of farms considering that, nationally, farms continue to decline. “If you can tell a story with a vegetable or fruit, you’re going to have buyers,” he said.
The panels of chefs and bartenders included George Brown (Experimental Table), Keisha Cooper (Rick’s Chophouse), Matt Ford (Americano), Robert Lyford (Patina Green Home and Market), James Beard-nominated Misti Norris (Small Brewpub), Jeff Qualls (Rye), Andrea Shackelford and Toby Thomason (Harvest). With a stellar lineup of talent, the Q&A session went down while the rest of the room ate kale salad tastefully decorated with goat feta crumbles, candied pecans and pear balsamic. For the main entrée, an impressive corned brisket with creamed cabbage, broccoli and mustard hollandaise was served. Local craft beer was provided by 903 Brewers out of Sherman, Texas.
When asked what specifically a chef looks for in produce, Patina Green’s Lyford kept it lighthearted but honest with his answer. “What I look for are bugs,” he said as the room chuckled. “I’m looking for something different, organic and delicious. I do enjoy the reaction of my staff when a grasshopper jumps out, though.” As for chef-driven trends on the agricultural side, Lyford said he wants goat — all of it. “I want any kind of goat product: milk, cheese, anything very goaty," he said. "I’ll even make goat yogurt.” He may be onto something. Go find yourself a goat!
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The bar programs at Harvest and Rick’s are overseen by Andrea Shackleford, who reiterated to the room of growers the important effect that horticulture has on the bar and cocktail industry. With the rise of craft cocktails, herbs, spices and fruit have become increasingly common beverage ingredients. “We always want organically grown, with no pesticides that could mess with taste or quality," Shakleford said. "If you have an imperfect fruit, we will make something of it. Just don’t throw it away.”
On the restaurant side, there was talk of more than one kind of sustainability. “We like the challenge of basing our menu off seasonal changes," said Misti Norris at Small Brewpub. "Our identity is being sustainable as a small business. We support people who want to grow their own produce and it’s important to us not to outsource. Why do that when someone down the street grows their own? We buy and support them doing what they love so we can do what we love.”
The next North Texas Farm-to-Table Symposium is slated for October.