Taking root in restaurants – The farm-to-table movement guides menu development at local eateries

For Chef Elton Hyndman, Thursday mornings are all about foraging.

Before arriving at his two Baton Rouge restaurants, Nino’s and Oscar’s Pizza & Ice Cream Joint, Hyndman stops at the Red Stick Farmers Market weekly gathering on the grounds of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. He speaks with farmers and fishers and examines what they’ve brought from local fields and waters. Hyndman is looking for bright, fresh raw materials for both recurring menu items and whimsical weekly specials. The market fare works especially well in the modern Italian cuisine he presents at Nino’s, the restaurant on Bluebonnet Boulevard he and his wife Randee bought in 2009, shortly after they relocated to Baton Rouge. It’s known for handmade pasta, gnocchi and dishes prepared with a light hand.

“I have to be one of the luckiest chefs in town,” Hyndman says of his quick commute from his home to the farmers market and then on to work. “When I’m at the market, I’m visiting a lot of the same farmers, seeing what they have and getting new ideas.”

Hyndman is chummy with Ponchatoula farmer Eric Morrow, a former commodities trader and fourth-generation farmer, who has been growing specialty crops for about 15 years. Like his forebearers, Morrow still grows some wholesale crops—his strawberries are featured at Walmart—but he is also a committed farmers market participant, attending the three weekly Red Stick Farmers markets. The other two are held on Tuesdays on the grounds of the Unitarian Church on Goodwood Boulevard, and Saturdays at Fifth and Main streets. Morrow is known for bringing a wide range of produce year-round to the market. This time of year, it’s everything from leafy greens to winter squash.

Hyndman recently transformed Morrow’s potatoes into a Nino’s side dish with pan-roasted pancetta and green onion, and his purple hull peas and sweet corn into an earthy succotash. For the ice cream at Oscar’s, made simply with eggs, Louisiana cane sugar, milk and cream, Hyndman will create flavors from frozen local summer berries, fall pecans and winter citrus.

Hyndman is one of several local chefs who are embracing the well-established farm-to-table movement. Restaurants such as Juban’s, Beausoleil, the City Club, Ruffino’s, Latte e Miele and newcomer Magpie Café have gotten the message from an enthusiastic public and have created strong tethers to local farmers and producers. Meanwhile, entities like Slow Food Baton Rouge are also promoting the relationship. The nonprofit hosted its second Dinner in the Field event in March, showcasing what local chefs could do with ingredients that were largely sourced from the region.

With the locavore movement showing no sign of slowing down (it was named in numerous top trend lists for this year, including the James Beard Foundation’s 2012 Food Trends to Watch), more Capital City chefs are figuring out how to integrate it into their everyday operations. Some have retooled traditional ordering practices in order to develop relationships with farmers, establish a steady supply of local ingredients and create menu items that mirror Louisiana’s rich bounty. For many, the Red Stick Farmers Market has been a logical starting point.

“Just in the last three to five years, we’re seeing a big change in public attitude and interest,” says Copper Alvarez, executive director of Big River Economic and Agricultural Developmental Alliance, which runs the Red Stick Farmers Market and the Main Street Market. “We believe most of our growth is in front of us,” she says of the 17-year-old market.

And one of the biggest changes, adds Alvarez, has been the rise in interest from chefs. Ruffino’s Executive Chef Peter Sclafani, a farm-to-table enthusiast who routinely incorporates local produce into his menu, was recently named to the BREADA board of directors. He is the first chef to serve on it.

“His perspective is really important to us as we try to grow this part of the market,” Alvarez says.

To some degree, chefs are pushed in the locavore direction by a zealous public, but it’s not an easy shift to make. Chefs understandably prefer an ordering model that is steady and reliable, so that ingredients show up on time and on budget, and customers know what menu items to expect. When they buy from small family farmers, they lose that predictability.

Moreover, chefs are notoriously busy, and most simply don’t have time to personally forage at the markets, especially on Saturday mornings when they’re preparing for an evening rush. Sclafani says he’s helping the organization develop better ways of accommodating the average chef, including a possible delivery system that would eliminate the need to shop during the market’s limited hours.

Meanwhile, he and others, including Juban’s Executive Chef Jaime Hernandez, Beausoleil co-owner and Chef Nathan Gresham, buy what they can from market vendors and integrate fresh produce, local meats and other goods into their dishes. For Juban’s sit-down restaurant, Hernandez has been able to feature as much as 50% local produce on the menu.

“Farm-to-table is kind of a hard journey for chefs, but it takes staying in touch with farmers and watching what’s coming up and just being aware,” Hernandez says. “We’ve been able to do it successfully, and we want to keep at it. The farmers around here are great.”