Cover Story » Vol. 47

Central Mass restaurants are getting fresh

There’s a food revolution happening in Worcester. You’ve heard the terms “farm to table” and “farm to fork” and may have even seen them popping up on local restaurant menus. This movement, which involves sourcing fresh ingredients from local farms, has been gaining traction across the country. In fact, according to a recent USDA report, the organization estimated that local food sales have increased from $5 billion in 2008 to a staggering $11.7 billion in 2014.

Farm to table movementIn Central Massachusetts, it doesn’t get any fresher than at Gibbet Hill Grill, which is one of the only restaurants in New England that has a produce farm on site. In summer, the majority of its produce is grown on the 4-acre farm in Groton – more than 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, squashes and zucchini, heirloom beets, radishes, micro and specialty greens, peppers, beans, potatoes, specialty onions, garlic, herbs and berries are all farmed and then harvested straight to your fork. In the winter, greenhouses and coop houses allow the restaurant to access fresh ingredients year-round.

“I feel like we were on the forefront of the movement,” said Amy Severino, marketing manager for Webber Restaurant Group, which includes Gibbet Hill Grill, Scarlet Oak Tavern, Fireside Catering and The Bancroft. “We started producing food for the restaurant six or seven years ago, and two years ago, we hired a full-time farmer. It’s a passion of the company to be sustainable.”

Severino said the company sources as much produce as it can on its own farm, and what can’t be produced on site – it could never produce enough corn, potatoes or beef to sustain some items on the menu – is sourced locally and from around New England as much as possible. “The food is fresher and coming in a more sustainable way,” Severino said.

Gibbet’s fresh produce is incorporated throughout its menu, which changes based on the harvest, and there is a weekly “Farm to Fork” special that showcases the farm’s fresh ingredients. “Fresh food just tastes better,” Severino said. “In addition to sustainability, it’s the other very important part of why you want to have the best and freshest food. It’s more nutritional the less time it takes to get to the plate.”

GibbetESuch is the crusade of Lynn and Lee Stromberg, who founded Lettuce Be Local in Sterling in 2012. The organization is committed to connecting local farmers with restaurants that want to utilize fresh, local ingredients. Lynn, whose background is in planning and catering, could see the challenges chefs were having getting local food. “Also, it was selfish,” she said, of starting Lettuce Be Local. “I want real food if I am going to spend the time and the money going out to dinner. Why isn’t it the same quality that we get from our own garden?”

One of the only places the Strombergs would go out to eat is Armsby Abbey, which has been sourcing all of its ingredients locally since it opened seven years ago. Sherri Sadowski and her husband, Alec Lopez, created Armsby for the same reason. “We were tired of spending money on lackluster food,” said Sadowski, who grew up on a farm in Rhode Island, while Lopez was raised on a vineyard in Argentina.

“Farm to table is not a concept, it is how we choose to live our lives,” Sadowski said. “We were the first in Worcester to do it, now it’s a phenomenon in Worcester because of what Lynn is doing in making local food accessible.”

GibbetHLettuce Be Local works with 75 farms and dozens of local restaurants every week. “I send out an availability list each week, they respond with their order, and I bring it,” said Lynn. It may sound simple, but serving as the middle man solves the issue both farms and restaurants have with finding time to deliver or pick up goods.

Sadowski and Lopez spent years driving to farms to get the freshest ingredients. “The challenge of having interesting and local produce, being a small business, is that you only have so much time to drive and pick it up,” Sadowski said. “With Lynn’s help, we’re as local as we have ever been. It’s nice to be able to support local farms. We don’t even really need distributors anymore.”

In addition to sourcing locally, everything at Armsby, and its sister shop Crust, is “all in-house, all seasonal.” Sadowski said that she and Lopez are always working with different farms, close to 50 on average. Armsby’s cheese menu alone showcases 12-14 different farms. “There’s very little that you’d find on here that isn’t local,” she said.

Rail Trail Flatbread Co., based in Hudson, is also dedicated to fresh food made in-house. “The only processed items in the restaurant are ketchup and soy sauce,” said Karim El-Gamal, who owns Rail Trail with partner Michael Kasseris, adding that if kids weren’t part of their clientele, they would have already ditched the bottles of Heinz. “If something is processed, we go out of our way to make sure we take it out and figure out how to make it without it.”

GibbetJWhen El-Gamal and Kasseris met in business school, they both wanted to open a restaurant dedicated to the fresh food concept. “We follow the motto of ‘We feed your family,’” El-Gamal said. “We would not feed anything to your family that we wouldn’t feed ours. We don’t have processed food and cheeses or preservatives in our own fridges. I knew if we wouldn’t eat our own food, it wouldn’t make sense to open a place like that.”

El-Gamal said that Rail Trail’s menu changes four times a year, in accordance with the seasons, to ensure the ingredients are fresh. But that doesn’t mean the restaurant doesn’t experiment with specials. “Last year, we got bored with the menu and went farmstand hopping in search of new ingredients,” Kasseris said.

When accessible, Rail Trail locally sources its protein items. If not, it sources from reputable farms within 100 miles. And when the chefs get that protein, every piece is used. “We do breakdowns of large fish, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and for some large events, lamb,” he said. “We don’t waste anything. We try to use everything, including the bones when making stocks and broth.”

Over at Niche Hospitality Group, Executive Chef de Cuisine Neil Rogers recently broke down and used every part of a pig, which was shared among the group’s network of restaurants. Between chops, sausage, chorizo, cracklings and even pork pate (or head cheese), the restaurants – which include Bocado, Mezcal, Rye & Thyme, People’s Kitchen, Citizen, Still & Stir and The Fix – were stocked with local food.

GibbetI“Fresh stuff is just so dynamite and so good, you’d be crazy not to want to put it on your menu,” said Stephen Champagne, executive chef/partner of Niche. Since opening its first restaurant 10 years ago, Niche has been incorporating local ingredients, albeit sporadically, as it’s tough to do when working on such a large scale. “About 50 percent of the time, what we use is local, or we use a really great product in its place. Though we would much rather get everything local,” he added.

One of the reasons why Rogers was brought on board by Niche is because of his local connections. “We owe it to the customers to give them the best product we can,” Rogers said. “People eat in our restaurants a few times a week – we can’t give them something that isn’t healthy.”

Champagne and Rogers change all restaurant menus many times, sometimes even monthly, to reflect the local produce available. However, where Niche truly excels in “going local” is at its monthly restaurant events, particularly those at the new Niche Test Kitchen, where everything that is used – from the food to the drinks – is strictly local.

“We have to teach people about sustainability and eating well, so if [the farm to table movement] stops being ‘cool’ or drops off, it can still work,” Rogers said. Part of the plan to educate people happens in the Test Kitchen, where he and Champagne cook everything live and event attendees can ask questions. “Everything is made from scratch, so it’s our chance to educate the community.”

One thing all restaurant owners can agree on is that this sudden shift toward local that is starting to take place throughout all culinary destinations is a long time coming. “As a society, we have been blind to it for the last 30 years,” Sadowski said. “There is more awareness as a country of wanting to know where our food comes from, how it was raised, treated and grown.”

“People are more and more aware of eating these days,” Kasseris added. “And that is something that won’t change.”

Experience the farm to table movement:
Armsby Abbey
144 Main St., Worcester | armsbyabbey.com
Armsby Abbey is celebrating its seventh anniversary Aug. 9 with a dinner in the Tougas Farm fields. Sadowski and Lopez have long used Tougas ingredients in their restaurant, and the event will be a celebration of the restaurant’s relationships with local farmers, fisheries, craft brewers, winemakers and more. Check the website for availability as space is limited.

Gibbet Hill Grill
61 Lowell Road, Groton | gibbethillgrill.com
Celebrate the summer harvest by attending one of Gibbet’s 2015 Farm to Fork dinners. Attendees can enjoy tours of the farm, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the deck, and a delicious four-course meal featuring ingredients selected from Gibbet Hill’s farm and farms throughout New England. Scheduled dinners are Aug. 12 and Sept. 16.

Niche Hospitality Group
30 Major Taylor Blvd., Worcester | nichehospitality.com
Champagne and Rogers will showcase their skills, as well as local ingredients, in the upcoming Farm Dinner Series events, taking place in August, September and October. According to Rogers, this is the peak time when “a plethora of everything” is available locally. Check the website for details.

Rail Trail Flatbread Co.
33 Main St., Hudson | railtrailflatbread.com
Check out the rotating seasonal menu, which includes Rail Trail’s signature homemade flatbreads, cooked in a wood-fired oven and topped with the freshest ingredients. Save room for dessert and head across the street to El-Gamal and Kasseris’s newest venture, New City Microcreamy, where all the ice cream is made with local milk and cream and frozen using liquid nitrogen.

By Kimberly Dunbar

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