WITH ALL the concern these days over where our food comes from, relationships between chefs and farmers, long limited to brisk phone calls and backdoor deliveries, have taken on a new air of transparency. It's commonplace to find growers and purveyors name-dropped on Philly restaurant menus, and many city dwellers know their producers by face and name thanks to meet-greet-and-eats, such as weekly farmers markets.
Locally, few places present the chance to see this one-to-one realized better than Honey Brook's Wyebrook Farm, which former bond trader Dean Carlson acquired in 2010. He's stretched the dynamic between restaurant and farm beyond the kitchen to include the farm itself, encouraging some of Philly's top-tier cooks to get their boots on the ground.
Once earmarked for residential development, Carlson's 355-acre Chestouter County spread has slowly transformed into a poster-perfect operation for responsible agriculture, with cows, pigs, chickens and other specialized-breed livestock raised on what he describes as a "closed loop." Self-harvested solar energy and a rainwater-capture system fed into a pond powers facilities; animals feed off and subsequently fertilize land that is rotationally grazed.
"I just became fascinated with the idea, how to grow food in this way," Carlson said of the business, which provides meat to a number of restaurants and markets but does the bulk of its sales via its on-site butcher shop.
The former Wall Streeter, who readily admits that he had no idea how to drive a tractor before his purchase, is new to the job compared with multigenerational farm families in the region, but he's proved to be a fast learner. His enthusiasm is echoed by his small staff, which features someone familiar to anyone who knows the Philly dining scene.
Jonathan Adams, who in January left Pub & Kitchen to focus on his fledgling coffee roaster, Rival Bros., had no plans of taking on another cooking job. Then he got to talking with Carlson, with whom he'd collaborated on a 2012 chef's dinner, and agreed to make the hour-plus city-to-country drive twice a week.
In his consulting role, Adams runs the restaurant-quality kitchen below Wyebrook's butcher shop, helping new resident chef Mike Baver get his bearings and organizing weekly Friday-night dinners, a summerlong series that kicked off May 10. Along with the staff, he draws up directly sourced meals offered to BYOB-ing visitors - the first time around, a green salad with guanciale dressing, gorgeously marbled Ossabaw pork loin with pastrami-cured pork belly and a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie, all for $25.
No set time to sit down; just email that you're coming, drift in between 4 and 8 and pick a picnic-table perch overlooking the pond. Guests order at the swim-club-style walk-up window, and servers run food out to tables - a touch more elaborate than how you might be envisioning dinner on a farm, but altogether relaxed and casual.
Adams also is kicking off a more ambitious, more expensive guest-chef series this Saturday with chef Michael Sultan, of the Street Food Philly truck.
"It felt more like an education for me," Adams said of this opportunity to cook meat raised within shouting distance of his cutting board. "I'd become disconnected to it. Everybody's always talking about farm to table. I don't want to label anything - I just want to know where it comes from."
Adams isn't the only Philly chef contributing to Wyebrook's growth. Josh Lawler, of The Farm and Fisherman, who uses Wyebrook meats on his menu - a duo of coppa steak and fresh garlic/black-pepper pork sausage, recently - wrote the farm's cafe menu, available daily in addition to the Friday dinners. A house-blended beef-and-bacon burger, pulled pork and an Italian sausage sandwich are a few of the straightforward options he developed using Wyebrook meats.
Given that he's the former chef de cuisine of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a renowned restaurant at an educational farm north of New York City, Wyebrook is very familiar to him.
"Besides Dean's commitment to raise [animals] responsibly, he's also interested in coming with the best quality product," said Lawler of Carlson's approach - slower and less fruitful at the outset, but beneficial for animal, farmer and consumer in the long run. "A lot of times, you have one or the other with farmers."
Another chef who's lent his expertise to Wyebrook is Russet's Andrew Wood. Well-known for his abilities with charcuterie, Wood, who's bought quarters of dry-aged beef and whole hogs from Carlson, spent a day at Wyebrook last month "finessing the details" of what, a year from now, will be the farm's own prosciutto. He ran the staff through the painstaking process, beginning by beating hoof-on, bone-in hams with rolling pins so the muscle would properly absorb the applied salt.
"He knows that if you raise good grass, you're a third of the way to raising good steer," Wood said of Carlson's attention to detail. "Being able to express it and understand it puts him a leg above the other guys."
The last pro putting in time at Wyebrook actually hasn't started his Philly job just yet. Bryan Mayer, former head butcher of Fleisher's Meats, in New York, has signed on to run B-Side Social Club, a "butchery and beer" concept in Fishtown.
As he waits for the pieces to fall into place, he's found work at Wyebrook, training resident butcher Alexi Alejandro and handling meat duties that often stretch into 16-hour work days.
"As opposed to a straight-up butcher shop, the difference here is that I can look out a door and see my animals on pasture," said Mayer. "That, for me, is about as close and connected as you can possibly be."
Carlson maintains an open-door policy on the farm - he's comfortable discussing his processes but believes that people need to see it to really get it. "I want people to come here," he said, and the chef-led dinners are a new reason to do so. "If you [come], you can actually see the animals. I don't have to explain it. You can just use your eyeballs.
"With all the chefs - I really want their feedback," he added. "I want it to be a collaboration so that we can improve. And they're the kind of people who really respond to that. They're as into it as I am."