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Jason Lundberg and Scott Perschbacher, below, work the fields at Ingraberg Farm in Rockford, one of the first West Michigan farms to establish a relationship with area restaurants.

Farm to fork
Restaurant Week Grand Rapids 2012 will feature many menu items made with locally sourced ingredients.

By Marty Primeau
Photography by Michael Buck

Farmer Dave Lundberg recalls the year he first reached out to restaurants in the Grand Rapids area, asking “What do you need us to grow?”

It was 1984, and Ingraberg Farm was a small Rockford operation producing heirloom tomatoes and lettuce.

“The chefs would say, ‘We’ll take a look,’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t just look — eat ’em,’” Lundberg recalled with a chuckle.

And they did. Chefs sampled his tomatoes and lettuce and placed their orders.

Ingraberg began supplying two local restaurants — “then four, 16, 32. Now we work with more than 65 restaurants in West Michigan.”

Demand for fresh, locally grown produce has increased dramatically in recent years. The farm-to-fork movement started with concerns about food safety but quickly became more about the superior taste of seasonal, farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s amazing how this town has grabbed on to sustainability and the concept of supporting local farmers,” Lundberg said.

Today, most local restaurants are establishing relationships with Michigan farmers and suppliers for everything from apples to wine, including artisan cheese makers, bakers and beekeepers.

“Farmer Dave was one of the first and he’s really promoted the heck out of farm-to-fork,” said Garry Boyd, who manages HopCat, Stella’s and The Viceroy and has been in the restaurant biz for more than 20 years. “As we grow, it’s the direction we’re going more and more.”

This year, Grand Rapids Restaurant Week, Aug. 15-25, is celebrating farm-to-fork and asking participating restaurants to showcase dishes made with Michigan products.

 

San Chez Tapas Bistro relies on local suppliers for a variety of ingredients. Above is a sampling of small plates, including Pesto Herbed Goat Cheese made with cheese from Dancing Goat Creamery, pesto from Heeren Brothers and bread from R.W. Bakery; lamb rib and chorizo from Sobie Meats; asparagus from a Conklin farm; and micro-greens from Mud Lake Farm.

“August is the season for the freshest farm produce, fruits and meats raised and grown locally,” said Doug Small, president of Experience Grand Rapids, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. More than 60 restaurants are participating this year.
One of the first eateries to promote sustainable cuisine in West Michigan was Bistro Bella Vita, one of three restaurants in the Essence Restaurant Group.

“When we started working with Ingraberg 15 years ago, there really weren’t many farms that were as readily available,” said Brad Teachout, general manager. “But it’s really evolved in recent years.”

Bistro Bella Vita, Grove and The Green Well have teamed up with RealTimeFarms.com, a website that maps restaurant menus to show exactly where each ingredient is from. Click on Otto’s Fried Chicken Confit on the Grove starter menu, for example, and discover that the bacon is from Creswick Farm, the greens from Mud Lake Farm, Visser Farm, Vertical Paradise Farms and Earthkeeper Farm, and the poultry is from Otto’s Farm. Click on the suppliers, and learn all about who they are and what they do.

“It’s something our clients love — and they’ve come to expect it,” Teachout said.

San Chez Tapas Bistro has helped small farm operations build their businesses, said Cindy Schneider, general manager. “During Restaurant Week, we’ll be telling their stories.”

One of her favorites is Barbara Jenness of DogWood Farm, who started Dancing Goat Creamery six years ago after retiring from her job as a veterinary technician.

San Chez was her first customer.

“In the beginning, it was quite a challenge for her,” Schneider said. “We needed a lot of goat cheese.”
Jenness went from making 50 pounds a week in 2006 to more than 250 pounds when she sold her business in 2011.

“I’m so grateful that local restaurants were so supportive, especially when I started my venture,” she said. “They didn’t treat me like a crazy old lady who didn’t know what I was getting into.”


Chef Jenna Arcidiacono picks zucchini blossoms at Earthkeeper Farm with farmer Rachelle Bostwick. Arcidiacono fries the blossoms to make her Fiori di Zucca dish
at Amore Trattoria Italiana restaurant in Comstock Park.

The owners of S&S Lamb in McBain also had no idea how their business would grow when they started selling their lamb, chicken, duck and pheasants at the Fulton Street Farmers Market in 2006.

“About three years ago, local chefs started coming up to us at the market asking about our products,” said Sharon Schierbeek, who lives and works on the farm with husband Pierre. “They talked about what they needed, and that’s how it all started.”

They started with 25 ewes, “and now we’re close to 100 and we’re working with a sister farm in Charlevoix.”
The Schierbeeks have been especially pleased that the chefs have made the 100-mile trek up north to visit the farm.

“It’s exciting that they want to talk to the farmer that births the lamb and watches it grow,” Sharon said. She and Pierre have learned to talk to the chefs about what cuts work best for plating, and they encourage them to try different parts of the animal.

“We give them samples and let them experiment,” she said.

Chef Jenna Arcidiacono at Amore Trattoria has a standing order for lamb and rabbit.

She relies on websites of her favorite suppliers to see what’s available.

“Last year I wanted to find zucchini blossoms,” she said. “I was making a traditional Italian recipe in which you stuff the blossoms with cheese, then batter and fry them.”

Earthkeeper Farm in Kent City offered to pick the flowers and deliver them to Amore.

“So Wednesday night is zucchini blossom night,” she said.

Jason Spaulding at Brewery Vivant said his goal is to make sure at least half of the food he uses in his East Hills restaurant comes from within a 250-mile radius.

Every Tuesday and Friday, his kitchen staff shops at Fulton Street Farmers Market to pick out ingredients for a three-course “market” special.

“We serve French and Belgian style food but with our American spin,” he said. “It’s peasant food — no fancy sauces, so we rely on high-quality ingredients.”

 

Jason Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant, and Chef Drew Turnipseed visit the Fulton Street Farmers Market. Every Tuesday and Friday the East Hills restaurant specializing in French and Belgian style food prepares a three-course “market” special.

At HopCat, Stella’s and The Viceroy, the emphasis is also on relationships with local food producers, said Garry Boyd.

“We use thousands of pounds of grain to make beer, and when we’re done, it still has nutrients in it. We give the spent grain to Grassfield Farm because it’s the perfect feed for cows, pigs and goats. In return, we get cheese, milk and meat. Our grain is going full circle.”

HopCat also partners with Nantucket Bakery, where chief baker Brian Lussier said he met the HopCat brewers at a local dinner.

“I told them I wanted to make bread with spent grain, so they gave me a five-gallon bucket,” he said. “It’s waste for them, but it makes a really robust, earthy bread. In return, we sell the bread to them for sandwiches.”

And the stories continue.

San Chez originally sourced chorizo from Spain, Schneider said. “Then we started conversations with local meat farmers.”
The chefs took their Spanish chorizo to Sobie Meats and asked if they could make it the same way — or better.

“They worked on it, and Tim Sobie hit it head on. Now 80 percent of the meat we use is locally raised,” she said. “Sobie went from a tiny store to purchasing a grocery store. They do all our meat balls, ribeye steaks and tenderloins.”

The best part, she said: “It’s about building relationships. That’s great for everybody.”GR

   
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