Fresh Food Destination
You may have heard of the “farm-to-table” movement. The idea is simple: restaurants maximize their fresh, healthy offerings by partnering with local farms to source ingredients directly. The goal, in essence, is to shorten the steps between grower and diner.
Now, to reduce those steps even more, some eateries in Maine are becoming farm and restaurant all in one.
“We’ve been doing this for 17 years,” said Melissa Kelly, chef at Primo in Rockland. “We do it for health reasons, for environmental reasons, and [a desire] to take care of the planet by being more sustainable.”
Kelly’s Mediterranean-based menu is the ultimate farm to table experience, what she calls “a full circle kitchen” using produce, meat and other products from Primo’s two greenhouses and gardens.
“Farm to table is not a trend or a fad or a concept,” Kelly said. “It is a lifestyle and the way I grew up.”
Operating a successful restaurant in Maine—in addition to restaurants in Orlando and Tuscon—on top of running a working farm can be a challenge, Kelly said.
“It’s a lot more labor and requires a lot of planning,” she said. “Mother Nature can add more curve balls into the mix, especially in Maine where weather can be inconsistent.”
Kelly starts selecting her seeds in December for the following year’s season—Primo closes down January to May—and her menu grows and changes with what’s coming up on the farm.
“Our menu really tells the story of what we do,” she said. “In the spring we have the tender greens and shoots, and by fall we are using the more frost-hardy crops.”
At North Creek Farms in Phippsburg, open for lunch and Sunday brunch year round, Suzy Verrier is using organically grown produce and eggs from her saltwater farm to create a line of sweet and savory pies.
“My husband is the baker and he does the sweets and makes the pie pastry [and] I do the savory fillings,” Verrier said. “People come in and can have a choice of so many things from traditional fruit pies to Thai green curry chicken pie with fabulous organic meat.”
A lot of Verrier’s customers are in her area to hike or walk on the beach and she said they like coming in for food that is grown and prepared onsite.
“We make ‘pocket pies’ that they can eat here to take with them to eat on the go,” she said.
Verrier’s homemade deep dish chicken pot pies are also very popular. For a $5 deposit, customers can take them away in a heavy duty glass pie dish.
“People can take these pies home, put them on the table and tell their guests they made it themselves,” Verrier said with a laugh. “If they can get away with it, I am cool with it.”
Like Kelly, Verrier said dividing her time between farm and cafe is like having two full time jobs in one, but she would not have it any other way.
“When it comes down to it, the whole farm to table idea is just great,” she said. “We don’t have to drive anywhere for what we need, we have a beautiful place here and people adore coming and visiting it.”
According to Steve Hewins, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, the tradition of farm to table in Maine goes back more than a century. Growing and preparing food from a farm runs deep in the state’s culinary heritage.
“Maine has been a leader in that movement for generations,” Hewins said. “We were marketing Maine as a fresh food destination as far back as the 1860s when people came up from Boston and New York City and part of the draw was eating dairy products and foods fresh from the farms [so] this is nothing new for us.”
Diners in Maine today are just as motivated to look for that kind of experience, Hewins said.
“People care where their food comes from,” he said. “They like getting educated on how their food is grown or raised and I believe that desire will remain strong and even continue to grow.”
To keep farm to table alive, farming chefs like Kelly are working with the next generation.
“I am teaching a lot of cooks in their twenties how to use what we grow,” she said. “I see it as a way to protect the longevity of this planet.”
For her part, Verrier hopes to pass along her own farming knowledge, and maybe some land to go with it.
“As we get older—even though we don’t feel old—we are looking to rent out the farming property and would love to see some kids come in to take it on,” she said. “For a young couple to continue what we are doing would be great for them and phenomenal for the earth [and] something I would love to see.”