Diners have grown increasingly savvy in recent years about where their meals originate, with many prizing ingredients that boast an extremely local provenance.
After all, food grown, raised, and fished close to home often appears at the table mere days or even hours from when it was plucked from its natural surroundings — and it usually has the farm-fresh taste to prove it.
Restaurants in Greater Boston that are committed to serving locally harvested foods face certain obstacles,ranging from sourcing sought-after ingredients during frosty New England winters to educating diners who may still give a suspicious side-eye to that unfamiliar vegetable poking out of their salad.
Yet more are taking on the challenge in order to showcase local bounties, support their friendly neighborhood purveyors, and provide their customers with creative, delicious meals reflecting their farm-to-table philosophies.
“I find you get better quality and better-tasting ingredients. That means, as a chef, you don’t have to do much to make them taste good,” said Bill Fogarty, chef-owner at Scratch Kitchen in Salem, a lunchtime spot serving soups, salads, and sandwiches. “The farmers out there are doing all the hard work. It’s my job not to screw it up.”
Fogarty said he can often be found procuring produce at farmers markets in Salem and Beverly and from farms in Danvers and Haverhill, among other towns.
“People see me buying [produce] for the restaurant there, come in and see what I’m doing with it, and then try it at home,” Fogarty said. “By supporting the local farmers and small purveyors out there, everybody develops a better sense of community.”
Scarlet Oak Tavern in Hingham sources primarily from Gibbet Hill Farm in Groton and runs special “farm-to-fork” menus every weekend from mid-June to late October. Each Tuesday, executive chef Stephen Sherman receives up to a dozen cases of produce at the steakhouse and designs menus to accommodate sizable quantities of Swiss chard, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other items.
“I always say, ‘Whatever makes sense to justify the one-and-a-half-hour drive [from Groton], I’ll find a way to use it up,” he said.
And if he can’t possibly serve it all right away?
“When we’ve had a bumper crop, I’ve gotten more involved in pickling and fermenting. Preserving gives us the option to incorporate [these ingredients] down the road,” Sherman said. He is currently dill-pickling cherry tomatoes, pickling cabbage into kimchi, and fermenting six gallons of sauerkraut.
Like his food, Ben Elliott, chef-owner at Saltbox Kitchen in Concord, travels from farm to table almost every day — from Saltbox Farm, owned by his grandparents for decades and where he and his family now live, to the globally inspired cafe seven minutes away, where his team elevates the many seasonal spoils of his homestead.
In addition to the restaurant, there are cooking classes, a catering business, and a small brewery at Saltbox Kitchen that serves beers brewed from hops grown at the farm, including a farmhouse ale, an IPA, and two rotating taps that might feature, for instance, a brew infused with farm-harvested raspberries.
“We’ve got a different clientele interested in the different services we offer, [but] everything starts at the farm and grows from there,” Elliott said.
His team recently harvested 200 pounds of honey from its beehives and incorporated it into a honey-and-chili-glazed chicken special at the restaurant. “Sometimes, our cooks will spend the day at the farm and just be inspired by all the different projects going on,” Elliott said.
Yet while most of the restaurant’s vegetables hail from the farm during the growing season, he doesn’t hold any illusions of being an entirely self-sustaining farming operation. Sourcing is definitely a barrier to farm-to-table dining, especially in New England, the chefs all acknowledge.
Weather certainly plays a role: Elliott pointed to this year’s slow tomato harvest, which he attributed to cooler temperatures and wetter conditions. He regularly turns to Verrill Farm, also in Concord, and wholesale produce distributors to obtain what he needs for Saltbox’s various operations.
“I’m sure there are some hyperlocal restaurants that only serve what they can find within 200 miles — and that’s awesome — but we’re not there yet,” Elliott said.
During the winter months, Fogarty primarily obtains Scratch Kitchen’s ingredients from purveyors along the East Coast, and his menu veers more toward roasts and heartier root vegetables.
“We’re not spoiled like California chefs, with their long growing season, but I try to adapt and stay as seasonal and local as we can,” he said.
Sherman said it’s difficult for Scarlet Oak Tavern to source steak locally, given the quantities it uses, but he does sometimes turn to purveyors in Maine for pork and lamb and makes every effort to procure seafood from nearby waters, particularly oysters and clams from Duxbury’s Island Creek Oysters and Chatham Shellfish Co.
And what about those diners still wary of unrecognizable if farm-fresh ingredients? Educating their guests about regional bounties is among the chefs’ greatest joys.
Sherman said he often obliges patrons who e-mail requesting recipes. “I’m passionate about people cooking at home and trying new [foods],” he said. Although not particularly exotic, “Somebody might say, ‘I hate beets, but these are really good.’ I always encourage them to try and see what they think.”
Visitors to Scratch Kitchen might also encounter some unfamiliar ingredients — for example, cusk, a North Atlantic fish similar to cod. That is by design: “We bring in what used to be considered trash fish and show [diners] it can be as delicious as the cod they’re used to,” Fogarty said.
This summer, the lemon cucumber, which resembles the yellow citrus fruit on the outside but tastes like a cucumber, has made its way into his kitchen’s relishes and other dishes.
“People are like, ‘What is this?’ ” Fogarty said. “Then they’re out there at the next farmers market looking for it.”