By Carlos Harrison
We’ve met at Essensia, in The Palms Hotel on Miami Beach, eating on a veranda that looks straight out of a Graham Greene novel, full of rattan and paddle fans. We’re here at my invitation, because it’s one of the area eateries that serves up farm-fresh product from local suppliers, and even has its own on-site greens and herbs garden, with fresh kale and peppers.
Here, farm-to-table in Florida is more than just leafy greens and vegetables. The lamb sliders I bite into are locally produced, too, one of a variety of “artisan” meaty offerings from Miami-based Proper Sausages.
Essensia Executive Chef Vinoy Rogers moved here from San Diego recently. It’s a cross-country and cross-cultural change, calling for items such mango and papaya instead of chipotle in his recipes.
“I’m letting my instincts guide me,” he said.
He’s one of a growing number of chefs letting local product inform their menus. But the “founder” of farm-to-table in South Florida, Gretchen said as she jabbed a fork into an Asian salad, is Michael Schwartz, founder of Michael’s Genuine in Miami’s chic Design District.
“I guess common sense for me was the driving factor,” Schwartz said. “Getting produce that was closer to home meant for me that it was probably better.”
Common sense, maybe, but hardly common.
“Back, eight, nine, 10 years ago, there weren’t that many farms doing it. We would go to pick up products.”
He met with farmers, learned what they grew, and worked his recipes to match the harvest, instead of the other way around.
“You’ve got to learn how to use some local product that you may not be that familiar with,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of butternut squash, but we have these beautiful calabaza – a really unusual shape, but a great, dense flavor not too different from what we would know as butternut squash or sweet potato, or pumpkin.”
Chef Michael Schwartz at his Cypress Room restaurant
His efforts have sparked a number of imitators/competitors, and a supply chain business for Chris Padin, a full time “forager” for Schwartz and other restaurants.
It’s as much awareness, Padin said – knowing what the chefs want and what the farmers have – as it is education.
“When a chef will come to me and say, “I’m looking for cherries.’ I tell them, ‘A regular cherry doesn’t grow here, but I can get you a Barbados cherry.’”
Now he has chefs looking forward to the harvests of Seminole pumpkin and Okinawa spinach, and farmers pulling their Little Gem lettuce at precisely the size the chefs want – for flavor and “presentation.”
And, he said, they were able to persuade some farmers to experiment with variants of their customary crops, to raise mojito, orange and chocolate varieties of mint, for example.
Being the bridge from “Farm to Kitchen,” as his company name says, also means supplying some 60 dozen organic eggs a week from PNS Farms to local restaurants. At Michael’s Genuine they become part of the kimchi benedict in the weekly brunch menu and part of an ever-changing set of offerings born of whatever the farmers and the foragers have in supply.
“We print a new menu every day,” said Executive Chef Niven Patel.
Patel has gone into growing, as well. He built 16 raised planter beds, 32 feet by 4 feet each, on his two-acre Homestead farm. It took five dump trucks of horse manure compost, foliage from his and his neighbor’s trees to fill them, and regular supplies of ash from the wood-burning pizza ovens at the restaurant, for nitrogen.
Now he grows lemon-drop peppers, ghost chilis, purple sweet potatoes, ginger, and taro, which he calls by its Indian nickname, “elephant ears.”
Devising daily recipes based on what’s available is a challenge, he said, and a pleasure.
“That is what keeps me waking up every morning at 5 in the morning,” he said. “You keep on pushing.”
Many farm-to-table restaurants in Southeast Florida work in close alliance with these local farms and growers:
- Harpke Family Farm, Dania Beach
This urban farm produces microgreens, microgreens, microherbs, heirloom tomatoes and leafy greens, as well as tropical fruit – everything from Purple Kohlrabi, Broccoli Calabrese and Red Streak Mizuna Mustard to Baby Bok Choy, Molokheia and Purple Shiso, among others – using sustainable, organic farming practices.
- Teena’s Pride, Homestead
Teena Borek is an icon in South Florida agriculture – agriculturalist of the year twice; the ag commissioner’s “woman of the year” once; she’s even got a “Teena Borek Day” in her honor. Her heirloom tomatoes are just as highly regarded. She’s got black krims, Cherokee chocolates and purples, purple princes and tigerellas, just to name a few. Email to find out what variety is currently available.
- Sublicious Farms, Oakland Park
Sublicious is about delicious mushrooms – red oyster, yellow oyster, blue, pink, and shitakes, too. Set in Oakland Park, near Fort Lauderdale, this producer not only provides product for restaurants, it also provides mushroom-growing kits, spawn, and supplies.
- Bee Heaven Farm, Redland
Celebrating its 20th year in the historic Redland area just outside Homestead, and nearly wiped out by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 1995, Bee Heaven supplies lychees, as well as Donnie and Hardee avocados that usually weigh upward of a pound-and-a-half when mature, and can top three pounds. They also worked out a happy collaboration with their chickens, moving them around to new grass and bug-eating grounds in “chicken tractors” every few days, and getting a hearty supply of multicolored organic eggs to boot. They come in several shades of brown, white, green or blue; tinted, too.
- Paradise Farms, Homestead
The feng shui must be working. Now in its 16th year, Paradise Farms started with an abandoned five-acre avocado grove. Then, based on the principles of the ancient Chinese art, the farm incorporated lettuce in a circle of beds. Nowadays, owner Gabriele Marewski grows micro greens, baby greens, basil tops and mint tops, baby root vegetables, oyster mushrooms, and tropical fruits including carambola, jackfruit, monstera, mango, avocado, cotton candy fruit and bananas. She also provides local chefs with over 52 varieties of edible flowers, which, she says, make her fields “look like a Chihuly” when they’re in bloom.
- Swank Specialty Produce, Loxahatchee
Swank Farm puts produce on the table at restaurants from Orlando to Miami – with Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Manalapan, Wellington and Jupiter in between. At it for more than a dozen years, it delivers over 350 varieties of leafy greens, micro greens and herbs, vegetables, fruit, and edible flowers. And it’s all organic, grown in full sun or in nutrient-rich hydroponic solutions in one of its two shade houses.
- Verde Gardens, Homestead
Verde Gardens is a relative newcomer, and a heartwarming story. Located at the former Homestead Air Force Base, it provides a home, and a vocation, for formerly homeless families with disabilities. Inspired by the Miami Dade Homeless Trust, it includes 145 homes and a 22-acre organic farm – complete with produce nursery and an on-site public farmer’s market. Residents get hands-on training, along with seeds and tools for growing produce.
- Proper Sausages, Miami
It started with a question, back in 2011, when Danielle Kaufmann viewed the offerings at local stores and posed the particularly British plea, “Where are the proper sausages?” She and her husband began making their own – handcrafted blends of organically grown heritage meats, fresh herbs, dried fruits and exotic spices – and offering freshly made artisan creations, with names as crafty as their recipes. “The Romanga” includes Berkshire port, fresh garlic, white wine and black pepper; “The Dub” contains cherry wood smoked Berkshire pork, fresh thyme, habanero, allspice, fresh garlic. The namesake “The Proper” puts the pork with fresh sage, mace, black pepper. There’s lamb and bacon, too, among other things.
- Rancho Patel, Homestead
It began as an experiment, when Michael’s Genuine Executive Chef Niven Patel decided to try his hand at growing. His goals: to fill in the gaps of some produce he felt was missing locally, to gain some firsthand experience about what it really takes to take a tomato from seed to plate, and to give the restaurant chefs a chance to “feel food in a different way.” A year later, his carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, and more have made a series of debuts on the restaurant’s menu, and Patel’s project is yielding truckloads of traditional and exotic additions for its recipes.
Photos by Patrick Farrell for VISIT FLORIDA