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VOL. 40 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 17, 2016

Chef Barlow taking fresh look at farm-to-table movement

By Hollie Deese

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Nashville chef and restaurant owner Jeremy Barlow has always been a bit ahead of his time, particularly when it comes to the sustainable food movement. His Hillsboro Village flagship restaurant Tayst earned Certified Green status a decade ago in 2006.

When he closed Tayst, Barlow opened sandwich shop, Sloco, and an adjoining bar, The Meeting Place, in the restaurant-packed 12South area.

Business is hopping in the popular area, but that doesn’t make his mission of serving sandwiches made with 95 percent locally procured and 100 percent sustainable ingredients any easier.

“We make a hard business three times as hard as it should be,” Barlow jokes.

The work is important to Barlow, who knows how much environmental strain and damage the restaurant industry creates, both directly from its patronage of the industrial food system and the amount of energy and water it consumes and wastes.

His 2012 self-published the book, “Chefs Can Save the World,’’ is a literary call to action for chefs, who invariably hold significant sway and could affect change through action.

Barlow has been quiet for the last couple years as he has taken a step back to see what direction he and others in the food industry need to go if they are really going to make a difference.

“Initially, the farm-to-table movement was great because it brought awareness to the importance of eating sustainably,” Barlow says. “Then we’ve gotten at this point where every restaurant that opens claims they’re farm-to-table regardless of whether they’re doing it or not.”

Keeping up the magic of what he calls “farm-to-marketing” is a daily effort, especially if you are actually doing it.

“That’s what people want, so you have to market that,” Barlow points out. “The reality of doing it is so much more difficult and more costly that you’re starting to see people getting busted for doing the wrong thing, or saying they’re doing one thing and not really doing it.

“Buying from one farmer is not farm-to-table. It’s really just truth in the menu.”

Consumer responsibility

Barlow wonders if he’s simply spinning his wheels, whether his extreme way of doing things is hindering not only his own business expansion but the entire movement as it struggles to find its way forward.

Maybe, he says, there needs to be room for compromise to achieve the ultimate goal of sustainability.

“We need to open a concept where there’s a blend of local, and let the regional growing and the sustainable growing kind of catch up,” he says. “The price level kind of comes together and all the little factors that go into what holds sustainability back … kind of catch up a little bit.

“Then we can take two steps forward down the road where it’s much easier for us to produce and expand and kind of take over the food system via business.”

Because of the incredible growth of farm-based menus across the state, a true demand for farm-fresh ingredients does exist. But Barlow says that demand inevitably outweighs supply.

And consumers should be aware of what is in season so when they can make informed choices about where to eat.

“At some point there’s a responsibility on both sides of the table,” Barlow says. “One, to be asking the right questions to make sure that the restaurant is being held up to standard, and morally, from the restaurant’s side, really do what you’re saying you do.

“I mean, if you’re only buying from one or two farmers because that’s what you can do, that’s awesome.”

Barlow says he has come to a bit of a sad conclusion: While there is a contingency of people who patronize Sloco because of their commitment to sustainability, there is a larger number of people who just want a good sandwich, no matter where it comes from.

“I don’t know if it’s real or not, but when it comes to dining out there is less of an actual concern for where it’s coming from,” he adds. “People are going out to eat. They want to have a good time. They’re going out to get a break.

“And I think Nashville is a representation of the rest of the country. I don’t think you’re seeing anything different. There are probably a few cities in the country that overall take the idea of sustainability forward better.”

Ultimately, it needs to be on the consumer to push for more than words on a menu to assure them that what they are spending their money on is really where their beliefs systems fall.

If they see Sysco boxes being rolled through the dining room, they should dig deeper.

“Consumers need to put restaurants on their heels and start questioning them,” Barlow says. “There needs to be some pressure from the consumer to make people hold up to what they’re saying or doing.”

It started in a hotel room

Omni Nashville Hotel recently opened a rooftop garden in the heart of downtown to create a true farm-to-fork experience at one of its on-site restaurants, Kitchen Notes. But in a space as big as Omni, the garden can only do so much.

“You know, we’re a busy hotel,” says Chef David Harker. “I don’t think there’s enough room up there to do all the stuff that we need, but it’s an outlet for the chefs and for my team to have a little fun and get creative. Again, hopefully we can make an impact.”

The garden is focusing on two types of plants to start, tomatoes and peppers, for a greater yield. Planted in organic top soil and dirt, the seeds were started on the fourth floor of the hotel in a makeshift greenhouse.

Another two beds will soon be installed for other types of plants. Right now, heirloom striped German and heirloom Cherokee purple tomatoes are used in salads, while Serrano Del Sol hot peppers and Numex Suave Orange hot peppers will be mashed and fermented for three to six months in old whiskey barrels to make a hot sauce.

A water source was recently added so the staff no longer had to haul buckets of water to the roof, and herbs are growing in one of the unused hotel rooms. There has been talk with some of the local schools to get students involved in a co-op situation with their schools’ gardens.

“We’ve got a couple of farmers who have asked us about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how to make it more sustainable,” Harker explains. “We’ve tried to partner with every local vendor. We’ve tried to work with the farmers. I just think it’s the respectable thing to do. It’s part of our duty to do that. Whatever we can do to help that cause, I think it’s just something you have to continually build on.

“I think any chef that doesn’t try to practice that, or people that are in the food industry that don’t try to practice that now, are really doing themselves a disservice.”

Harker says a decade ago a hotel the scale of Omni with its thousands of food covers a day couldn’t even try to achieve sustainability in food. Today, he looks at it as a fun challenge to see how much he can do on such a large scale.

“There’s so many things out there that enable chefs to do this, or help responsible restaurant owners, or hotel owners do this to make it easier,” Harker says.

Mushrooms on the Mountain

Drake Schutt first became interested in mushrooms as a biology major at Sewanee: The University of the South. He was drawn to the fungi’s ability to remove toxins from the environment after events like oil spills, and his interest evolved as he began playing around with growing mushrooms at his home.

After he sold his first mushroom a little over three years ago at the Sewanee Farmers Market, he did some market research and realized no one anywhere in the state was growing and selling mushrooms the way he was. After he graduated from college in 2013, he and his now-wife, Katelin, rented some warehouse space in Tracy City and built their company Fiery Fungi.

Mushrooms growing at Fiery Fungi

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“When we were starting out, we were trying to do direct marketing to restaurants and farmers markets in Nashville and Chattanooga,” Schutt says. “We were growing a lot of different kinds – up to 20, maybe more varieties. But where we are [located] is a little bit harder to find enough restaurants to get to a place where we weren’t just spinning our wheels all the time. So I decided to try wholesale distributions.”

That shift forced them to pare down their offerings to just two varieties, shitakes and oyster. They have also since bought a farm in Pelham where operations are now based. They are producing 600-700 pounds of mushrooms a week that are sold through a distributor, Creation Gardens, that serves locally-sourced ingredients to more than 600 restaurants in Middle Tennessee and even more around Louisville.

“There’s definitely not more than 20 to 30 restaurants that are actually buying them,” Schutt adds. “And it all seems to come from word of mouth among the chefs who care to buy local and sustainable.

“That was the only way I would really find new customers,” Schutt says. “Not many chain restaurants or people are willing to pay premium.”

In nature shitake and oyster mushrooms grow on fallen trees, while the Schutts grow them in a barn in cubes of substrate made from wheat bran, soybean hulls and sawdust.

“Mushrooms won’t save the world probably, but they can do a lot of good for sure,” Schutt says. “We take a product that is considered agricultural waste, and we turned it into a pretty high-value nutritious food product.”

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