The concept of Farm-to-Table dining, or bringing garden-fresh ingredients as quickly and freshly as possible from a local farm to your plate seems like a no brainer, and is, in fact an ancient concept. Yet for a long time, the mass produced American corporate culinary machine supplanted that idea in lieu of giving the American restaurant diner consistent, safe and affordable cuisine, even if the quality of the food suffered. A culinary revolutionary was needed and that’s exactly what Alice Waters provided in 1971 when she created Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “In college, I lived for a time in France, and there I experienced for the first time the pleasures of the French table and market-fresh cooking. It wasn't that the food that I ate there was fancy, but rather that it was so alive,” said Waters. “There was beauty in eating and enjoying that kind of seasonal, local, simple food. That French country feeling is how I cook in my own kitchen and what I had in mind when I opened Chez Panisse.”
Many well known chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers, authors, media and other nascent “foodies” were deeply influenced by the ideas that Chez Panisse espoused and the effect can be found throughout Bay Area kitchens. Judy Rodgers, chef-owner at San Francisco's renowned Zuni Café cooked with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, taking the farm-to-table concept to heart. Prior to her role at Zuni Café in 1987, Rodgers opened the Union Hotel Restaurant in Benicia.
Michael Dellar and Chef Bradley Ogden, co-owners of The Lark Creek Inn were important early proponents of the Bay Area’s Farm-to-Table movement when in 1989 they opened their groundbreaking restaurant in Marin’s Larkspur Landing. Today the restaurant is known as The Tavern at Lark Creek and part of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group. “Farm-to-Table is not new but something that became important in the late 60’s. Alice Waters was a major leader in the movement and today it’s mainstream,” said co-owner Dellar. He prefers the term “Seasonal-Farm-Fresh-American-Fare” but the idea is the same: Providing customers with high quality, fresh as can be, seasonal, locally grown (when possible), sustainable products. “Things went from technique driven to ingredient driven,” said Dellar. Places such as the excellent Marin Farmers Market in San Rafael became an important conduit for discovering superb local produce. “It’s about finding your farmers and having them grow high quality ingredients for you.” Locally grown produce can also be found at the Benicia Farmer’s Market April through October.
Another high end proponent of the Farm-to-Table idea can be found at La Toque, a wonderful restaurant in Napa. Ken Frank, Executive Chef and Owner of La Toque said, “Farm-to-Table means that we have a direct connection with the farm. The Bay Area is long known for an extensive network of small artisan producers of top quality foods, and local chefs of course have taken advantage of this." La Toque’s menu provides ample evidence. “We have things on the menu every single night that are directly sourced from a farm, whether it’s Wolfe Farm Quail or Liberty Duck, Long Meadow Ranch Beef, Produce and Eggs,” said Chef Frank. In fact La Toque grows a significant amount of local produce in the old Copia gardens in Napa, right up the street. “It’s partly our climate that allows for this abundance but it’s also due in part to the strong local food culture that demands this kind of excellence." Alice Waters’ farm-to-table legacy can be found on Bay Area establishments far and wide and customers can reap the delicious benefits. Michel Dellar summed up the concept by stating, “This is not a fad or a trend, but a way of life.”