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Farm to table: East Texas restaurants use local produce to wow diners

By Jo Lee Ferguson
Feb. 23, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.
Updated Feb. 23, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.


The proof is in the pudding.

Or more accurately, on a November night at High Hill Farm’s Côte restaurant outside of Overton, the proof was in the potato cake with harvest ratatouille and crab, or the acorn squash with blue cheese and parsley vinaigrette and, finally, in the butternut squash bundt cake with gingerbread glaze.

Erin Willis, High Hill Farm’s executive chef and catering director, had designed a four-course meal for the evening featuring produce from the Red Moon Farm in Van, where the restaurant purchases much of its produce. The restaurant, as much as possible, follows the “farm to table” philosophy, using seasonal produce grown locally and other local products. High Hill Farms also grows some of the produce used in its menus.

Sharon and Jason Romano opened High Hill Farm and its restaurant in 2015, after leaving their life in Dallas. They built the farm and restaurant based around things they love – Napa Valley, Italy, the Florida Panhandle. They invited Willis, a friend who had cooked for parties for them professionally, to be the chef. Jason Romano had owned his own business as a high-end home builder, and so it was important to them to “shop local” when it came to their restaurant.

The farm-to-table concept, Willis says, involves using as many local resources as much as possible before turning to the various large food distributors. That means harvesting from the High Hill Farm first, then area farmers, then, if there’s no one close, perhaps Austin, Houston or elsewhere in Texas.

“A lot of people would say it’s really not that big of a deal,” Willis says of eating farm to table. “To some people, it probably isn’t, but as a chef, I could tell you from experience that if you buy a head of cabbage from a grocery store or you cut it out of the garden at High Hill Farm, you’re going to taste a difference.”

That cabbage didn’t sit in a box, travel in a truck or sit on a shelf.

“I can literally walk 100 steps, whack off a piece of cabbage and it literally comes from my farm to my prep table,” Willis says. “Yes. I do think it tastes better.”

Zareen Khan agrees. She owns Chillum Grill & More Indian and Mediterranean Restaurant in Longview with her husband, Sami. Zareen Khan shops at the Historic Longview Farmers Market when it’s open, using her finds at the market to form a special for the menu each Saturday and the Sunday buffet. She and her husband also purchase from a local farmer year-round and travel to a farmers market in Dallas each Monday to try to keep the restaurant in as much farm-fresh produce and other products as possible.

During growing season, Khan also keeps herbs and some vegetables growing on Chillum’s grounds.

“I really do appreciate our farmers, and you can taste a difference in the tomatoes, turnip greens – on anything you can taste a difference,” she says. It’s fresher. “It doesn’t have chemicals used on it. There is a big taste difference.”

The concept has taken hold in bigger cities such as Dallas, Willis says.

“It’s kind of a new and growing thing in East Texas. People want to know where their food came from,” she says.

Proteins are easier to access year-round for the farm-to-table concept, Willis says.

“I can get cow, pork and chicken and all of that any time of year I want it,” she says, adding that the cattle for beef at the restaurant “literally comes from 10 miles from our farm.”

The seasonality of produce, however, means her restaurant’s menu is ever-changing.

In January, squash and citrus were in season.

“I change our menu every three months to follow with the seasons,” Willis says. In January, that meant asparagus, cucumbers and tomatoes were not on the menu – with some exceptions. “If I have tomatoes – we do a lot of canning ourselves, and the same thing with fruits. If I served peaches (out of season), it’s because I canned it from the summer and it came from our garden or another farmer’s garden.”

In addition to purchasing from Red Moon Farm, Willis and others who work at High Hill Farm grow fruits and vegetables that are used at the restaurant and sometimes sold to the public.

“We grow everything from herbs to fruit trees, to right now cabbage, Brussels sprouts and lettuces,” Willis says.

Willis says the farm offers canning classes that have been popular, for instance, and features bungalows for overnight stays, a vineyard and special event dinners.

Diners have been interested in hearing about the farm-to-table concept when they learn how High Hill operates.

“I think it’s a new thing in East Texas, which is surprising, because there’s so many farmers, so much access to fresh product out there,” she says.

The restaurant is about 70 to 75 percent farm to table, with Willis noting East Texas farmers are limited in terms of how much produce they can provide.

“There’s not a demand for it, so that’s what we’re trying to create,” she says.

Khan estimated 80 to 85 percent of her restaurant’s fare is served farm-to-table. It’s a lifestyle that was already ingrained in her family’s Indian and Mediterranean-style cooking, and her customers are learning from her.

“I learned it from my mother and grandmother – the benefits of spices and herbs,” she says, describing how customers will ask her what spice is helpful with tummy aches, for instance.

Eating farm to table can be more expensive, she says, explaining she and her husband drive three hours a week to keep the restaurant stocked with fresh products. Also, local farmers don’t have the economies of scale that drive prices down in grocery stores.

Still, there’s interest in the farm-to-table concept because of people’s growing interest in staying healthy.

“We are getting more and more into health,” Khan says. “There is a market now for people who want to eat healthy.”

She suggests people make slow changes.

Restaurants such as High Hill Farm’s Côte and Chillum Grill aren’t something Sid Greer of The Greer Farm in Daingerfield has found very much of in East Texas. The Greer Farm is a regular participant in the Historic Longview Farmers Market.

“I don’t know of any restaurants that have reached out to any of the farmers at the farmers market, or us locally, for vegetables or even meat,” Greer says. “There just doesn’t seem to be much interest.”

Individuals are different from restaurants, though. Greer Farm produces vegetables – but a variety not found in local grocery stores, grass-fed beef and lamb pastured pork, free-range eggs, pastured chicken, berries, jams and jellies, herbs, flowers and Texas Wildflower Honey.

“We’ve got clientele year-round from the farmers market,” Greer says. “We deliver once a week to Longview.”

Greer Farm works with Comeback Creek Farm in Pittsbug to make seasonal produce deliveries as well.

“They have a number of restaurants in Dallas that buy year-round,” he said of Comeback Creek Farm.

The people Greer Farm sells to are “dedicated” to trying to eat fresh. Like Willis at High Hill they plan their menu around what’s available.

“I think if you’re looking for a balanced healthy lifestyle, you probably want the least amount of artificial ingredients in your body that you can,” Greer says, adding that purchasing from farmers who use sustainable or organic practices means “you’re getting the natural stuff without adding to it.”

In Longview, Rudy Kiapeta at the Tuscan Pig Kitchen and Catering Co. says his restaurant has on occasion served farm-to-table when the farmers market is in session and he can purchase fresh produce there. He and his wife, Miriam, first launched their business at the farmers market selling “their signature pesto,” with the help of a neighbor’s garden. Peggy Nader, a master gardener, has provided them herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and basil.

For Nader, her yard gardening has been a way to live farm-to-table as much as possible She started gardening because she likes organic food, and she grows a little bit of everything. Her gardening recommendations include compost piles of fruits and vegetable scraps from the kitchen to help improve soil quality, egg shells to deter bugs and chicken and rabbit manure fertilizer mixes.

“It’s so much fun to share it with other people,” she says of her garden’s bounty. “Life is a process of sharing yourself in a lot of different ways, but sharing your garden is wonderful.”

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