The farm-to-table movement has become so pervasive, it's moved beyond trend status to the expected norm for any serious modern kitchen.
The table-to-farm movement, however, is only just taking root. And as local farmers dedicated to sustainable agriculture strive to share their mission with consumers by bringing them to the source, they are finding that one feature is just as essential as the picturesque landscape and grass-fed meats: a restaurant.
"The whole purpose of this farm for me was to raise the food this way and sell directly to people," said Dean Carlson, who recently added an alfresco dinner service to his Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook, Chester County. "If the chef's product is what people want most, then that's what we'll do."
"You absolutely do need a restaurant," agrees Sloane Six, who in October will reopen the Mainland Inn, which she purchased and renovated as a showcase for the organic produce and grass-fed meats she raises at her Quarry Hill Farm in nearby Harleysville. Her chef, Ezra Duker, is a Philly native who's worked stints at the French Laundry, Morimoto Napa and Block 16 in Vail, Colo. "It's about health, and showing people this kind of food simply prepared . . . and translating it for their taste buds," she said.
It doesn't hurt to have a spectacular vista like the one Carlson offers from the terrace at Wyebrook, a gravel plateau dotted with picnic tables behind the farm's converted butcher-shop market barn that surveys a green valley rolling through farmland down to the Brandywine Creek.
The terrace has primarily been used as a casual snack bar-cafe for grass-fed burgers and weekend afternoon bluegrass parties since Carlson, a former bond trader, opened his renovated 360-acre farm to the public in 2012.
But the dinner hour offers an inspiring view of the farm that visitors have rarely seen. The bucolic landscape takes on an almost magical glow as dusk cues a swirling squadron of purple martins to take majestic flight, the candlelit lanterns emerge onto the patio, and the setting sun gilds the grassy pastures below where Carlson raises heritage Berkshire and Old Spot pigs, a herd of Devon steer, 100 chickens and a pond of ducks.
Of course, turning out a serious à la carte menu at an outdoor facility designed for more limited purposes has its challenges, not the least of which is the weather.
The food is ambitious, from a platter of house-cured charcuterie (beet-crusted pork guanciale, coppa, pastrami tongue) to beef tartare with purple mustard, and a giant arancini risotto ball stuffed with slow-braised beef and deep-fried in lard rendered from the farm's pigs. But consistency is still a challenge, especially with the night air rapidly cooling lean meats like the chicken breast with pea puree, or the black-trumpet-crusted pork steak, to less than hot.
"It's literally an experiment," says chef Eric Yost, a former chef at the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia who has added Wyebrook to his primary duties as private chef for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. "But we've already got 150 in the books for a Saturday night dinner in Honey Brook in the middle of nowhere. It's nuts. We didn't expect it to get like this so fast."
The early reception is promising for career-change farmers like Carlson, as well as Six, a management consultant entrepreneur, who have both invested personal fortunes in renovating farms to raise meat without the chemicals, growth hormones, and grain feed of industrial farming.
For Carlson, reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan was the spark that lit his passion. For Six, who bought Quarry Hill's 110 acres for $4.5 million in 2007 with husband Scott Clemens, the motivation was twofold. Their purchase preserved the farmland from a developer poised to sell 220 shovel-ready homes. And then, four months after buying the farm, Six learned she had Stage IIIC breast cancer.
"It was a big wake-up call," Six said. "I said: 'What if we were to raise all our own food, and made it as healthy and as fresh as possible?' "
Six, whose cancer is now in remission and says she is as healthy as ever, raises sheep, goats, rabbits, and poultry. And she is a strong believer in the health benefits of animals raised naturally on pasture.
"The Katahdins lamb raised on my farm is a leaner heritage breed and its omega-3s are superior to fish," she said. "Yeah, this red meat is good for you; put it back in our diet."
That message is still novel for a public that has so far more enthusiastically embraced the vegetable end of the farm-to-table equation. In part, that's because grass-fed meat can have both a gaminess and firmer (read: tougher) texture.
For that reason, ground burger meat is an easy introduction. With the addition of some house-smoked pork into the blend, Wyebrook's bacon-infused burgers are even more outstanding.
But whole primal cuts are often so different from what consumers know - Wyebrook's pork is considerably darker than the industrialized "other white meat," ranging from maroon to gray - that a professional demonstration can be convincing.
"This food is really different," Six said. "But people can go to a restaurant, a kind of venue they're used to, as a way for them to wake up and enjoy this meat."
Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York's Pocantico Hills is the most renowned practitioner of the movement. Opened on a Rockefeller estate in 2004, it set the early national standard for a fine-dining restaurant sustained by its own farm, with tasting menus that currently cost $198.
Carlson, meanwhile, hopes to stick with the more casual picnic-table aesthetic, and a BYO with entrées topping out in the mid-$20s: "I think this should be more approachable. Just really good local food where we can tell you how that animal spent every day of its life."
While these are clearly personal passion projects for investors with means, Carlson says success nonetheless "is not sustainable if you don't make money."
And that has meant being flexible with the business model. A stronger focus on the restaurant, which now accounts for 70 percent of his sales versus the retail market, came from an acknowledgment of his audience's preferences.
"People are interested in this type of product," he said. "They just don't want to cook it as much as I thought they would. But they will come here and have dinner."
If you go
Wyebrook Farm, 150 Wyebrook Rd, Honey Brook, 610-942-7481; wyebrookfarm.com
Quarry Hill Farm, 620 Quarry Rd, Harleysville, 215-513-1514; quarryhillfarm.net
The Mainland Inn (opening this fall), 17 Mainland Rd., Harleysville; mainlandinn.com