Farm to Table Restaurants in Tallahassee
By Kati Schardl
“We grow the food, we eat the food, it becomes us.”
That’s the holistic philosophy on which Ruben Fields founded his Tallahassee farm-to-fork restaurant, Miccosukee Root Cellar.
“Eating is such an intimate thing,” Fields said on an early August evening before dinner service commenced. “What we eat becomes our body and our emotional disposition. We want our guests to feel good about what they’re eating and know where it comes from.”
At the Root Cellar, “feel good” translates on the plate to “taste good.”
Chef de Cuisine Owen Hardin and Sous Chef Codee Cook thrive on the challenge of creating sumptuous dishes from the ever-changing bounty supplied by area growers. Even on the cusp of seasonal change, when local farms and gardens are in transition between summer and fall, there is much on the menu to delight the palate. A lineup of little plates includes dishes laden with late-summer bounty, incorporating squash, eggplant, Malabar spinach and chanterelle mushrooms.
An August stand-out featured heirloom cow peas, green pole beans, tomatoes, blue corn hominy, cornbread croutons, duck spec and a jalapeno-honey vinaigrette, artistically arranged on the plate with attention to color and composition as well as to flavor.
A perennial favorite is the big bowl of steamed clams from nearby Alligator Harbor, with sauces – which vary nightly, according to Chef Hardin’s inspiration – so savory that diners request extra portions of toasted house-made bread to sop them up.
Root Cellar regulars often choose to make a meal of the popular Picnic Basket, a chef’s choice of four cheeses and two charcuteries, pickled vegetables, accompaniments, nuts and crostini.
Fields looks to area suppliers like Orchard Pond Organics, White Oak Pastures and Moore Pigs for grass-fed beef, duck, chicken and pork. Desserts vary daily and most are baked by Fields’ wife, SarahKeith Valentine.
Fields is as passionate about the food that comes into his kitchen as he is proud of the dishes that come out of it. The farms that supply the Root Cellar are listed on a big chalkboard prominently featured in the dining area. He encourages his kitchen crew and wait staff to volunteer at area farms, and he regularly visits farmers to find out what’s good and how it’s grown.
The farm he visits most often is Turkey Hill Farm between Tallahassee and Monticello, where Fields’ mother, Louise Divine, and her husband, Herman Holley, have been practicing sustainable agriculture and supplying the fruits of their labor to local restaurants for 15 years.
The couple has mentored a new generation of farmers and imbued them with the same holistic philosophy that provided the Root Cellar’s foundation.
“I know this may sound hokey, but I feel that feeding people is a sacred trust,” Divine said. “Growing this food is a privilege. It is important to us that we do this mindful of the end result, so we strive to maintain an attitude of love and gratitude from seed to harvest to delivery.
“By providing raw materials to Chef Owen at the Root Cellar, more people get to taste and experience this delicious and really fresh food that we grow. Often we are able to deliver the same day we harvest.”
It takes extra effort to maintain a farm-to-table restaurant menu, Divine said, but the end result is worth it.
“When a chef commits to going all in on a local and seasonal menu, it takes patience and the ability to shift quickly, a willingness to learn and experiment, along with a sense of seasonal changes,” she said. “They have to manage working with a string of small producers rather than one big supplier. This willingness is a boon to our local small farms.”
The bonds that have formed between restaurateurs and farmers extend beyond the kitchen and the field.
“It’s not just a business decision, it’s a human personal connection,” said Terry White, owner and executive chef of upscale dining establishment Sage Restaurant. “I’ve developed relationships with a lot of the farmers. They become your friends, and you want to support your friends however you can.
“And there’s an obvious quality aspect (in using locally supplied ingredients). It’s much better than something that comes in a refrigerated truck from California – it’s more healthful and more beautiful.”
“Farm-to-table is simply putting a face to the place – the relationship between cultivator and cook, the connection of soil and stove,” said David Gwynn, executive chef and owner, with wife Elizabeth, of Cypress Restaurant and Vertigo Burgers and Fries. “The idea is so basic and rudimentary but the effects are tremendous.
“For a college project, one of our customers took a salad on our menu and traced the ingredients back to their respective sources – lettuces to the Tallahassee urban plot, cheese to the Georgia dairy farmer/cheesemaker, pecans and peaches to the Georgia harvester and duck to the Tennessee duck farmer. She shed light on the direct impact one menu item had on so many.”
Other farm-to-table restaurants in Tallahassee featuring locally sourced food include: Kool Beanz Café, where chef/owner Keith Baxter was one of the first Tallahassee restaurateurs to buy from local farmers: Sweet Pea Café, a vegan eatery committed to local and organically grown ingredients: and Tupelo’s Bakery & Café in nearby Monticello. Caterer and culinary educator Chef Shac is dedicated to using locally sourced ingredients and to teaching people why it’s important to know where your food comes from.
Many small farms in the Tallahassee area have an open-gate policy and welcome visitors, but most ask that you call first. The New Leaf Market, a local organic grocery story and food cooperative, hosts an annual farm tour that allows visitors the chance to check out farms, wineries, cattle and goat ranches, dairies and other operations.
Some of the farms providing food to local restaurateurs and chefs include:
- Turkey Hill Farm
- Full Earth Farm
- Orchard Pond Organics
- Mt. Beasor Farm
- The Best Little Greens
- Bumpy Road Farm
- Sycamore Gardens
- Sopchoppy Farms
- iGrow Farms
- Moore Pigs
Visit FreshFromFlorida.com and localharvest.org to find more local farm-to-table restaurants in Tallahassee, farmers’ markets, u-pick farms, co-ops, and events. Visit redhillsfarmalliance.com to find out more about sustainable agriculture operations in the Tallahassee area.
Photos by Colin Hackley for VISIT FLORIDA