Farm-to-Table Dining in Southwest Florida
By Chelle Koster Walton
The Smoked, Cured + Pickled Plate at The Local Naples restaurant in Naples, Florida perhaps best illustrates chef-owner Jeff Mitchell’s commitment to the farm-to-table movement. In case the restaurant’s name wasn’t a tip-off.
The pork rillettes originated at Palmetto Creek Farm in Avon, Fla., which raises “probably the best pigs in the U.S. today,” Mitchell said. And because he wastes nothing in his kitchen, head cheese appears on the dish as well. That’s right: meat from the hog’s head, made into a sort of rustic Old-World pâté.
Jackman Wagyu Beef ranch in Clewiston provides the eye of round for the bresaola. The pickled veggies come from a variety of farms in the Naples area.
“I take the veggies when there’s plenty and then pickle them,” Mitchell said. Produce suppliers include Worden Farm in Punta Gorda, for whom The Local serves as a Community Supported Agriculture drop site; Herban Gardens in North Fort Myers; distributor Oakes Farm in Naples; and the gardens and backyards of the Mitchells, staff, and other small gardeners. Mitchell works most closely with Inyoni Farm, an organic operation in Naples.
The pineapple in moutarda sauce atop the sampler plate’s chicken liver pâté came from Nick Batty at Inyoni. “Nick texts me at the beginning of each week and tells me what he’s got for me,” said Mitchell.
When Mitchell began working with Batty, the chef scouted out seeds for the farmer to grow for him.
Now Batty and Mitchell have established a rhythm where the farmer knows what the chef wants, and the chef is willing to find uses for what the farmer has in surplus.
“We tried an eggplant dish that was wonderful,” said Gina Birch, a local writer and radio personality whose The Birch Beat blog covers the food & wine scene at farm-to-table restaurants in Naples and Southwest Florida. “It had a nice smoky flavor with basil and goat cheese to add dimension.” The Turkish eggplant came from a private local gardener.
“I couldn’t stop eating the bresaola!” said Birch, who also recommends the Butcher’s Cut of Palmetto Creek Farms Pork, a lovely French-boned presentation. Mitchell or another chef drives to Sarasota each week to meet the pork purveyor and bring home a whole hog. What doesn’t get served as chops, shoulder, or an addictive ragu with house-made gnocchi becomes charcuterie at the hands of Mitchell, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who opened The Local in 2013.
When Mitchell first bought the restaurant, he tore out the walk-in freezer, replaced it with a refrigerator and a small chest freezer. The only product the freezer holds is the ice cream, sorbet, and granita Mitchell makes to preserve fruit purchases. A shipment of Florida peaches and his server’s backyard mangoes showed up on Birch’s dinner table as granita and sorbet respectively.
“I loved both of them,” Birch said. “The icy granita had whole chunks of peaches in it – not overly sweet. Delicious! Chef Mitchell is so smart in the ways he finds to prolong the shelf life of what he buys locally.”
Chefs, farmers, and consumers see the farm-to-table movement taking off in Southwest Florida.
“Over the last few years I've seen a tremendous growth in the farm-to-table movement by local restaurants,” said Birch, a member of the board of directors for Slow Food Southwest Florida. “Even the ones who can't sustain this practice on a large scale make an effort with farm-to-table specials on their menus.”
The Bay House, Naples
Chef Andy Hunter says he “buys as much as they’ll sell me” from local farms. The multi-roomed waterside restaurant supplements local offerings to complement its seafood menu. The Farmer’s Salad changes daily to feature what’s freshest from local farms.
Chez Boet, Naples
“When we opened our restaurant in 2003, we enthusiastically embraced our farm-to-table philosophy, which mirrors the philosophy of true French bistro cuisine,” said Lisa Boet, co-owner of the intimate cafe. Don’t miss the canard roti made with fresh local oranges and juice.
Cru, Fort Myers
“We work only with Rosy Tomorrows,” said Bob Boye, chef-owner of Cru, a wine and foodie haven that has set a new standard for Fort Myers in past decades. He loves the farm’s springtime wild arugula – with so much more flavor and bite than the hydroponic version. Try the Wild Spicy Arugula Salad with tarragon-blue cheese dressing and roasted beets.
Food & Thought, Naples
A by-product of long-time Florida growers Oakes Farms, Food & Thought makes creative use of the farm’s organically grown products in its juice bar, café, and market. Its ambitious selection of breakfast dishes, sandwiches and wraps, soup, and lunch and dinner entrees changes daily. Get the Hot Caprese sandwich with pesto, goat cheese, tomato.
Oakes Market, Naples
Oakes Market has deli, prepared food, and bakery components fueled by the farm’s fresh product. Order at the counter for takeout or to eat at one of the provided tables. Do try: Grass-Fed Gourmet Burger with avocado.
Sea Salt, Naples
Chef Fabrizio Aielli grew up in Venice, where ingredients for meals came locally. Today he works with local farms for fresh products that end up in such dishes as sweet corn agnolotti, but also in blueberry and rosemary bourbon and other infused spirits. Try this: Jackman Ranch Akaushi Tenderloin crusted with cocoa. nibs.
Twisted Vine, Fort Myers
Co-owner Denise Hollister sources honeycomb from Queen Bee in Estero and works with Rosy Tomorrows and Buckingham Farms to get more local produce, chicken, and meat. Beef comes from Seminole Pride on the Seminole reservation. What to try: Roasted beet salad with greens, tomatoes, goat cheese.
Get Down on the Farms
Farms small and large have been surfacing in Southwest Florida to supply a growing number of farmers markets and restaurants in Naples, Florida and the surrounding areas. Here are some you can visit:
- Inyoni Organic Farm, Naples
Nick Batty traces his farming pedigree back to his grandfather, who fled Poland ahead of Hitler and resumed farming in – of all places – Swaziland, Africa. Batty’s father became a pineapple farmer there, then got transferred to Naples to oversee pineapple-growing operations in Immokalee. He later started his own ornamental pineapple farm.
“I was in fifth grade when I moved here,” said Batty, who later studied horticulture at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Today he transitions the family pineapple farm into a certified organic operation and has expanded landholdings to grow some 30 varieties of organic fruits, greens, herbs and vegetables on 15 acres.
Batty sells his harvests at local farmers markets and to select restaurants. He gives out his backwoods location to a restricted number of private buyers, who order by email and come out to pick up.
In October 2015, Batty began partnering with Kristina San Filippo, chef at Naples’ The Good Life cooks’ store in Naples. She will be preparing monthly meals made with Inyoni products and serving them at the farm.
As he walked through fields recently mowed of its cover crop to make “green manure,” Batty talked passionately about natural pest control, plans to plant edible flowers and more bananas, the name of his farm (Zulu for “bird”), and his twin two-year-olds. Pulling weeds and picking pineapples along the way, the farmer is as much an organic part of this pastoral scene as what he grows.
- Worden Farm, Punta Gorda
This certified organic family farm was one of the region’s first, in 2003. Chris and Eva Worden conduct farm tours and workshops on gardening and food preparation from November through April. Outstanding: French breakfast radishes and broccoli rabe.
- Buckingham Farms, Fort Myers
At this organic hydroponic farm they’ll pick your groceries while you wait. Besides seasonal field crops, the stand sells farm eggs, its own honey, homemade soups, daily entrees, desserts, weekend breakfast, and Friday night dinners for pick up. During high season, the farm hosts farm-to-table dining events. Our favorite: Spicy chicken salad sandwich.
- Lee Queen Bee, Estero
Operations here buzz in the warmer months, and owner and “queen bee” Claudia Silveria invites interested beekeepers to her apiary to participate in harvests and private educational seminars by appointment. You should try the avocado honey, available in the late spring.
- Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm, North Fort Myers
Rose O’Dell King, founder of Slow Food Southwest Florida, grows organic produce and humanely raises heirloom breeds of chicken, pigs, and cattle. She supplies select local restaurants, but much of her harvest ends up on the table at The Barn at Rosy Tomorrows. A specialty: Slow-Roasted Red Wattle Pulled Pork with Cuban Oregano Chimichurri.