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Farm to Table to Grave

Rebecca Flint Marx | May 2, 2014 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

The other week I was talking to a restaurateur who was trying to describe the food he’ll be serving at his new restaurant in Oakland. “We want to keep it simple,” he said. “Very clean, very farm to table.” He paused. “I hate that fucking term.”

I kind of do too.

Like “organic,” “natural,” “artisanal,” and “handmade,” it’s become empty and often meaningless. The vegetables you serve were grown in the dirt, on a farm, by a farmer? You don’t say. By that yardstick, any restaurant that “sources” its food from Aramark could claim to be farm to table. You've actually met the guy who grows these apples? So have I—he shows up Sunday mornings at the farmers market.

That's not to say the term didn't originally have a purpose. It’s useful for describing a philosophy as much as a style of cooking, an easy way to reassure customers that they’re eating the food of a chef who cares, who appreciates good, honest dirt-under-the-fingernails manual labor, local economies, and the holy sanctity of ingredients—and who can perhaps can enlighten you on soil irrigation and heirloom seeds when he or she isn’t dazzling you with a 17-course tasting menu replete with infant greens and bespoke rhizomes.

But easy is often also synonymous with lazy, and that is where we find farm to table in its current state—tired, sapped, reduced to a buzzword. It’s time to replace it.

But with what?

“Locavore,” “seasonal,” and “sustainable” are all used more or less interchangeably, though the latter is even more wishy-washy vague than farm to table. And “organic” wallows in its own soupy, convoluted morass, so no help there. Ditto “natural” or any other feel-good buzzword that restaurants like to harness to what comes out of their kitchens. (“Handmade” may be my absolute favorite, as it implies that anything not labeled as such is being spit out by a machine on the floor of the Foxconn factory.) And perhaps that’s the bigger problem: they’re all pretty empty at this point. I blame restaurants, chefs, publicists, marketers, Domino’s Pizza, and, last but certainly not least, the media.

So I put out the call to some local cooks and restaurant owners to nominate a phrase to replace farm to table.

Bill Corbett, the executive pastry chef at Absinthe, shares my pain. “[Farm to table] serves no purpose other than being a buzz term for writers who don’t know how to categorize a restaurant that focuses on using seasonal ingredients. It doesn’t define a cuisine so much as a shopping aesthetic. Instead of trying to pigeonhole restaurants, we should be talking about how a chef cooks. Isn't that more interesting than trying to slap a label on a restaurant?”

Sure. But even if that's the right answer, it doesn't help satisfy our insatiable lust for categories. How else can we generate pageviews? We love to attach words like “sexy” and “game-changing” to chefs who grow gardens on their urban rooftops and prefer to be photographed shouldering a pig carcass. So honest! So redolent of the authenticity lacking in this cold modern age! But media has its accomplices.

Restaurants often like to label themselves to a fault. “We feel that many restaurants strive so much to say how 'local' they are, or how many miles away their farmers are, or what their chickens names are,” Fred and Elizabeth Sassen, the husband-wife team behind Homestead, emailed me. “It becomes more about egos than supporting each other and sourcing.” What really matters, they added, is that “we buy good food from good people trying to do the right thing for their community.”

Maybe the most revolutionary act of all is to borrow a page from Naomi Klein. Who needs logos anyway? Matt Gandin, Comal’s executive chef, echoes the sentiment. “We’ve [decided] to eschew labeling ingredients on the menu by farm,” he says. “In this ‘post-Chez Panisse’ era, the assumption should be that any restaurant worth its salt is using farm fresh local produce. The quality of ingredients used should be evident in the final product on the plate.”

But if we can’t just smite it from the lexicon, then we need a more accurate replacement. Marc Zimmerman, the executive chef at Alexander’s Steakhouse, suggests “farm direct,” which was once used, he says, “when a restaurant or chef had an actual relationship with the farmer.” But whatever replaces it, he adds, should have the word “farm” in it, “to remind Americans where their food comes from.”

Fair point; it’s something that bears reminding. It’s easy for those of us in the food world to get complacent and assume that just because we’re bored and jaded by a term that should by this point be a no-brainer priority for restaurants, everyone else is, too.

Perhaps what’s more to the point is just losing the self-righteous cloud that surrounds “farm-to-table” and replacing it with an emphasis on running a place that treats both the planet and people fairly. Sort of a “don’t be a dick” philosophy, or DBAD. It may not be quite as wholesome as “farm to table,” but pretty much sums up what’s at the root (sorry) of the matter.

Ultimately, though, farm to table's critics, myself included, probably shouldn't worry too much. Like the food it describes, it's ephemeral. "Another term will come and go," the Sassens write. "And so on and so forth."

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