Looking for an approach to eating that’s so fresh you can taste it?
Fresh-to-Table restaurants are making waves in the culinary industry, including some on the shores of the NatureCoast. Chefs worth their salt always pick top-shelf ingredients as the first step in creating a truly remarkable meal, and freshness is the most important factor. That’s why chain restaurants always boast about freshness and fresh-to-table fare like it’s easy to do, but providing locally-grown ingredients actually takes a lot of logistical effort by restaurateurs.
Fresh-to-Table dining, also called Farm-to-Table dining, is the ambitious practice of buying items for your menu that are produced on nearby farms or ranches, including low-volume growers who exercise greater quality control over their products. This system is delivering the freshest possible food to some Nature Coast kitchens, including ingredients produced without using pesticides, growth hormones or other chemicals linked to health problems.
Some local restaurants have used fresh-to-table to offer a unique experience often limited to locals “in on the secret” because doing it consistently on a commercial scale has financial challenges. Also, this method requires better inventory management than the common “add it to tomorrow’s shipping order” approach. With 12 to 15 vendors involved and ordering required up to nine days in advance, the complexity of running a fresh-to-table kitchen increases dramatically.
Its akin to a tactic used by Nature Coast seafood chefs who usually offer grouper, rock crabs, red snapper or shrimp brought in by local fishing boats from the Gulf of Mexico or, on occasion, freshwater delicacies. Some dishes even appear on plates the same day they were taken.
In this system restaurateurs contract with fisherman to buy their catch as soon as they return, while others operate their own boats, traps, etc. to ensure consistent quality and quantity of products. Some even maintain crab tanks or other seafood-farm systems on site.
The downside? Truth is, for farm-to-table dining with homegrown ingredients to catch on, customers must realize food coming from local farms doesn’t always cost less. For example, one local owner uses hamburger buns that cost him $1 and grass-fed ground beef running a whopping $9 a pound.
Some fresh ingredients cost significantly more, but restaurateurs insist customers will pay for top-quality items. Still, they often wrestle to charge prices that keep diners coming.
The good news? You will savor delicious fare that’s more than fairly priced. Want more? Fresh-to-Table creates a handshake relationship twixt rancher and restaurateur that ensures you get what you want, not substandard products off a corporate conveyor belt, or cheaper items substituted for “the real thing.” This cuts false sales pitches and sets a standard for honesty in the supply chain.
In the process, the Nature Coast economy gets a shot in the arm because your dining dollars stay here, and local producers get support they sorely need from community-conscious restaurateurs. Proprietors are able to cultivate trust and partnership in their relationships with these suppliers.
Consider Curtis Beebe, co-proprietor of Pearl in the Grove, the Local Public House, and Rebecca’s at City Market. Curtis is a Florida native who is successfully placing fresh, local ingredients in his restaurants. Each is an integral part of their towns.
Take Dade City. Its historic downtown and small shops remind visitors of a time gone by, where many residents have been tied to the land for generations. Last year, Curtis and Rebecca Beebe purchased the City Market restaurant and renamed it Rebecca’s City Market.
Pearl in the Grove is in Saint Joe, a farming community known for its kumquats, a small citrus fruit. Pearl in the Grove is at the quiet crossroads of Lake Iola Road and Saint Joe Road, a few miles west of Dade City.
Follow Lake Iola Road south from the crossroads to San Antonio, a Catholic community founded in the 1800s with a Catholic school, a post office, and a fire station. Nearby is Saint Leo University, the Benedictine Sisters of Florida and the Local Public House, a neighborhood restaurant featuring pub fare and locally crafted beer
Asked to define fresh-to-table, Curtis said “When I purchase things directly from the person who raised them or the person who picks and delivers them, I have achieved fresh-to-table. It is about relationships with local farmers.”
Curtis and Rebecca have toiled to put fresh-to-table in their restaurants, and it shows. Pearl in the Grove’s menu changes often due to availability of ingredients, and diners know some items are in limited quantities. The setting has an intimate, exclusive ambiance; it is a destination restaurant, with patrons from across the Tampa Bay region.
This year Pearl in the Grove added a garden for growing ingredients, along with a pig to raise. The garden includes corn, beans, beets, cabbage, and collard greens grown organically without chemicals, and employees are committed to the restaurant’s freshness philosophy.
“Suppliers are the key to fresh-to-table success. We have to weed out hobbyists versus commercial farmers for delivery and production. After reaching out to local farmers, the relationships must be maintained,” said Curtis. “For example, we have been using the same cattle rancher for five of the six years we have been open. He taught me about the grass being important for grass-fed beef to taste its best. If we need to partner to get the right land for his cattle to graze on for my beef to be delicious, we will.”
The next stop on the Fresh Express is an unassuming restaurant in Crystal River called Oysters, a popular local dining establishment on U.S. 19. Oysters has been owned and operated by William and Pamela Bunch since they first opened the doors in 1997; they will celebrate their 20-year anniversary next April.
William began his culinary career working for the renowned Plantation Inn in Crystal River as a teenager. He worked his way up the ranks to kitchen manager, a post he held for many years until he left in 1997 to buy Oysters. “I was ready for a new adventure after 33 years,” William said when asked why he opened Oysters.
“Making people happy is my favorite part of the restaurant business. We take a personal interest in each guest, and each menu item,” William said.
Asked what his idea of fresh-to-table was, he explained he didn’t put a lot of stock in terminology, but sought to provide the freshest food he could to his guests.
For example, he shucks your oysters by hand as they are ordered. “If you order an oyster burger, we shuck the oysters, dredge them and then fry them for each order. It just tastes better,” William said. William also hand-breads his fried chicken, shrimp or fish.
His menu reads “Because each meal is cooked to order, it takes a little longer to prepare – your patience is appreciated. Enjoy your meal.”
But what exactly does that mean?
“We make our pancakes and biscuits from scratch, and all of our desserts. When collards are in season, we source them locally. We mix all our breading in-house because it tastes better and is more cost-efficient,” William says. “I get the mullet fresh from the seafood market and clean it. And the Banoffee pie is from my personal recipe.” Banoffee pie is a rich, sweet English dessert.
In Brooksville, the Florida Cracker Kitchen and Tap Room have a great reputation for fresh, delicious food, craft beer and a fun, southern vibe. Blair Hensley, co-owner of the place, took some time to explain that fresh-to-table meant that he is supporting the local economy and keeping his business here.
When asked how Florida Cracker Kitchen integrates farm-to-table into its everyday operations, Hensley said “We like to use locally-grown ingredients in our menu, and each ingredient is handled differently, depending on the time of year and how the supply of that ingredient will be available. For locally-sourced items to be on our menu (as opposed to specials), they need to be available year-round and in the quantities that our restaurant can use.”
On the walls of the Florida Cracker Kitchen are local signs from past area businesses. You may get locally-made sugar cane syrup (until it’s gone), Green Swamp honey, kumquat jam and Florida Cracker Barbecue Sauce.
Although it can be difficult to manage the gathering of locally-grown, fresh ingredients, Blair explained why it is worth it: “The locally-sourced ingredients can bring a fresher taste to our product, and it ties into the community knowing exactly where the food was sourced from.”
“Additionally, it can bring out the flavor that you are trying to get in a dish, and separate you from most of your competition.”
Still, the business-savvy Hensley walks a financial tightrope to bring fresh-to-table to a priced-conscious market.
In previous discussions about farm-to-table fare, Blair explained some ingredients are too costly to use in his restaurant. His customers are only willing to pay so much for a meal, no matter how it was sourced, so he must provide the best food available at the price the customer is willing to pay.
Of course, after all the number-crunching is over, there’s still time for fun and games in this cracker capital.
In the Tap Room, shirts, hats, stickers, and a myriad of knick-knacks brandishing the Florida Cracker logo are available. However, the atmosphere is still restful right down to a beautiful cypress bar that sports no less than 10 taps of craft beers, and every one is brewed here in the Sunshine State.
What is your favorite Nature Coast restaurant for fresh food?