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Local chefs sound off on true meaning of ʽfarm-to-table’

By Rod Lee

As a veteran chef who is highly principled when it comes to his craft, Michael Winslett has strong opinions about where the ingredients he uses to build the menu at Samuel Slater’s Restaurant at Indian Ranch in Webster come from.

For that reason, when asked if Samuel Slater’s is a “farm-to-table” operation, and if he works with local growers to obtain the products he needs in his emphasis on freshness, he makes clear that the phrase is something of a misnomer.

“I’ve been very careful not to ever use the term farm-to-table,” Mr. Winslett said. “We source local ingredients when available. In New England, this is a small window of two to three months towards the end of summer. It is simply not true to say you’re 100% farm-to-table in New England, unless you’re only open from the end of July to September.

“Instead, we source the best available ingredients from around the country. We use small farms as much as possible. We source ingredients that have been raised humanely without the use of hormones or antibiotics. We use non GMO foods. We source local shellfish from Island Creek in Duxbury, Massachusetts. We buy beef that is Certified Angus Beef from upstate New York. You can taste the difference in the ingredients we use. We are careful to respect the ingredients and they speak for themselves. The salmon we use is from the Faroe Island, which is the only organic hatchery in the world.

“We believe in sustainability. It is true that you are what you eat. There is a direct correlation between the processed modified foods that are on the market today and the health problems that plague this country. Chefs are finally speaking up about it and taking a stand on not using these ingredients. After all, it starts with us. I personally would lose what little sleep I get knowing I am serving inferior ingredients. It is not okay and it is time chefs take a stand against it.”

Elaborating on these comments a bit later, on site, as the Indian Princess tour boat pulled in and he readied Samuel Slater’s for the Wednesday-evening dinner hour, Mr. Winslett said “local to a chef means from within thirty miles. But to a purveyor it can mean within a hundred miles or more. Imported (from Canada, for instance) does not mean local. It’s very difficult in New England to say you are farm-to-table. I know of a restaurant, the Still River Café in Connecticut, that obtained local ingredients but it was only open three months of the year. My focus is more on high quality ingredients that are not genetically modified, that are purchased from organic farms.”

Nevertheless, some restaurateurs in Central Massachusetts and the Blackstone Valley consider themselves decidedly farm-to-table. They tout their reliance on providers like Foppema’s Farm in Northbridge for produce.

UXLocale in Uxbridge, The Green Plate in Whitinsville and the National Grill at Blackstone National Golf Club in Sutton all tap Ken and Lisa Foppema’s farm on Hill St. in Northbridge regularly for ingredients.

Ken and Lisa Foppema hold a tray of strawberries, now in season at Foppema’s Farm in Northbridge. Several area restaurateurs consider Foppema’s a go-to source for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Chef/Owner Elaine Cowan at UXLocale buys “anything in season and adapts her menu to what we have,” Lisa Foppema said on June 26th. “Rhubarb, Swiss chard, strawberries, peas, broccoli, lettuce. She makes a great appetizer with an heirloom tomato and mozzarella cheese.

“The Green Plate uses lots of our zucchini for noodles. Paulette Ruth from the Valley Café (in Whitinsville) comes by for tomatoes.”

“I’m there at least two to three times a week,” Danielle Desrosiers of The Green Plate said, of her dependence on Foppema’s. “Peppers, eggplant, whatever I’m doing at the moment.”

“Woody” Peel, chef at the National Grill, obtains “fresh berries and fresh herbs” from Foppema’s “and fresh corn for outings, fresh tomatoes, 6x6’s and cherry tomatoes. We buy as much as we can from Foppema’s because their products are so good. It works well for us because we’re seasonal too! For me, it’s convenient, it’s right on the way to the golf course from my house!”

Tom Little, director of food and beverage operations at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon and GM and executive chef at Galliford’s Restaurant and Tavern there, is also a proponent of buying local to that extent that it is possible.

“We try to utilize as many local ingredients as we can with our volume,” Mr. Little said. “We utilize cheeses from Massachusetts farms like Smith’s Farm in Winchendon, Grey Barn & Farm in Chilmark, Shy Brothers Farm in Dartmouth and Westfield Farm in Hubbardston.

“We also will be utilizing the vegetables shortly from our own farm, The Daniels Farm. We recently utilized some fresh rhubarb on a couple of specials from Daniels. I expect that pipeline to begin in the next couple of weeks.”

Farm-to-table can be interpreted in different ways. What matters is that successful area restaurateurs like Mr. Winslett, Ms. Cowan, Ms. Desrosiers, Mr. Peel and Mr. Little insist on the best ingredients they can find.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.