Begin at the beginning: the farm. Northeast Indiana plays host to at least a dozen farms that are feeding families, small businesses and area restaurants. Harlan’s Graber Farms supplies fresh fruit and produce to more than half a dozen area restaurants and groceries. Richert Ranch in New Haven provides the lamb in JK O’Donnell’s delectable lamb pasty. The warm, hearty corn chowder served at Honey on the Table? That corn was plucked and shucked the day before at Schmucker Produce Farm in New Haven. Even Avilla’s Maple Acres provides succulent, newly tapped syrup to Ivy Tech’s Culinary School for cooking. Fresh, local and delicious food is permeating Fort Wayne’s foodie culture, and the movement is growing steadily as down-home farms learn how to respond to business demands for large quantities of high-quality produce.
While the idea of eating from a neighborhood homestead is romantic, it may seem ultimately impractical or unimportant. Here are a few pointers from some local experts on why the transition is worthy.
TASTE (AND SEE) THE DIFFERENCE
First and foremost, supporters tout a short journey of food from farm to front door as a major (and necessary) indulgence for your taste buds.
Caleb France, owner and chef at Winona Lake’s Cerulean, says his meals taste better because of how little travel time is involved transporting the ingredients from Cerulean’s on-site garden.
“When you cut down on that travel time, you cut down on the wax and preservatives sprayed on your cucumber,” he says. “Your food’s going to taste fresher, better.” France notes that at Cerulean, everything is as fresh and natural as possible. “We’re actually butchering here, in-house,” he says. “It’s the first time [the beef] has been touched by a knife. That freshness is extremely apparent.”
Joseph Decuis’ Executive Chef Aaron Butts agrees. “If you grew up on grocery store chicken your whole life,” he says, “you don’t even know what chicken tastes like.”
Even the downtown eateries are on board. JK O’Donnell’s General Manager Fritz Hoffman says that, “everybody knows the difference between a tomato out of their garden and one at the grocery store.” He adds, “When your farmer’s coming in with a bag of stuff they just pulled from the field, it just tastes better.”
Taste isn’t the only sense that understands when your food is fresh, according to Lisa Williams, chef and co-owner of Honey on the Table.
“Strawberries in the spring are just blood-red all the way through,” she says, noting the berry’s pleasing weight in your hand and ripe form. But once the season is over and consumers purchase their strawberries shipped from across the country, both appearance and flavor suffer. “In the winter,” she says, “they’re white and hard— they hardly have any strawberry flavor.”
GOOD FOR BODY AND SOUL
Going slow is also popular because of its long list of benefits for both producers and consumers, beginning with health perks.
Butts is emphatic that his customers sit down to a wholesome, delicious meal from beginning to end. “My main deal is quality of my ingredients,” he says, adding that honesty with the customer is paramount. “We put our values out there. We stand by them, and we practice them.”
Hoffman agrees about the fare at O’Donnell’s. “I serve the best,” he says. “I put my name on everything here. Food was always about how much you can get for how little —and often it’s just garbage. We didn’t do that. We held to it. We offer a quality meal for a fair price.”
Graber Farms’ MickieAnn Suder believes eating slow helps her keep her diet on track and her body in balance.
“When you put pesticides and extra hormones into your body,” she says, “it has to stop fighting for your life and start fighting foreign matter.” Suder also believes eating fresh promotes fuller flavor, which equals a fuller stomach.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Finally, supporters value the slow food movement for its natural ability to educate about smart food choices.
Williams says that it’s not always about food coming from a local source. It’s about knowing where food is coming from and how it got onto the table.
“Who knew there were 150 types of tomatoes and pumpkins?” she says. “It’s not only about local. The slow food movement has brought about a much higher awareness about where our food comes from, what it should taste like, and when it should be eaten.”
As head chef at Cerulean, France takes pride in knowing the soil or tree each beet, potato and apple is pulled from. He adds that customers genuinely appreciate learning more about where their food was grown or plucked. Cerulean’s servers often use words like house-made or inform customers their jam was created to feature the on-site farm’s freshest rhubarb.
“We train our serves to talk in a very approachable way about what we do,” he says, “without having it be really overwhelming.“
Server knowledge is a tool in Joseph Decuis’ arsenal, too. Butts requires servers to understand the restaurant’s dedication to quality appearance, taste and texture.
“The servers are our best teachers for our customers,” he says, adding that diners can take the experience one step further on a farm tour to see the process from farm to fork.
Williams adds that part of the fun of a slow food education stems from spontaneity and surprise.
“Someone brought in this boatload of dill one day. So we made fresh ginger and dill butter, and we smothered it all over chicken. We weren’t going to do that that day, but you change your menu so you can serve what is optimum.”
THE CUSTOMER KNOWS BEST
It’s tempting to sit on the sidelines and let others lead a movement. But in this case, every chef, farmer and restaurant owner seems to agree on one thing: the crucial role of the customer.
“The way people are spending their dollar is different than 30 years ago,” France says. “It’s really encouraging to see people valuing their food.”
He says the best path is simply asking questions that create demand. “You sit down at the restaurant and you ask, ‘Hey, what do you source local? Where do you get this asparagus from?’ Whatever the question might be, if enough people start asking, even a fast food chain might have to respond to that.”
Scott Kammerer agrees, because he’s acted on the voice of the masses. As Parkview Field’s executive chef and culinary director, Kammerer sets the menu that serves Tincaps fans all season long. He heard from fans looking for gluten-free food, in addition to local, and opted to cast around the area for a way to make it happen.
“I was born and raised in Fort Wayne,” he says. “It’s nice to choose those companies that are close to us. I feel that the level of appreciation from fans — there’s a lot more value to that than something that’s a nickel or quarter less.”
“It’s so wonderful that we touch people through the farm and local markets,” says Graber Farm’s Suder. “The customer is part of our family. We are sweating bullets to make sure your produce is the best produce in the market.”
Butts encourages others to take the plunge. It's not a move for the culinary elite alone. “I’m not from the country, and we’re not hippies or anything,” he says. “It’s really simple. We just eat real, good food.”
No time for the farmer’s market? Join a CSA
CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” and it is the busy person’s best friend. For a monthly fee, have fresh, locally grown produce delivered to your front door or pick it up from a nearby drop location. Try these CSA partners on for size:
• Graber Farms Delivery drop-offs all over Fort Wayne and New Haven. www.graberorganicfarms.com
• Green B.E.A.N. Delivery Home delivery in the greater Fort Wayne area. www.greenbeandelivery.com
• Honored Prairie Delivery drop-offs in Fort Wayne, Roanoke, Middlebury, Warsaw. www.honoredprairie.com
• Goldwood Gardens Pick up from the farm or delivery drop-off in Columbia City. (260) 229-1421
Where to shop for your kitchen
Farmer’s markets don’t have all of the fun! Here are some direct sources for the freshest meats and more in and around Fort Wayne:
Richert Ranch, New Haven , www.richertranch.com
Seven Sons, Roanoke, www.sevensons.net
Orchard Hill Farms, Kendallville , www.orchardhillfarms.com
Cedar Creek Produce, Leo, (260) 627-5239
Schmucker Produce Farm, New Haven www.schmuckerproducefarminc.com
Satek Winery, Fremont, www.satekwinery.com
Country Heritage Winery, Laotto, www.countryheritagewinery.com
Maple Acres (syrup), Avilla, (260) 636-2073