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How to Be a Restaurant Forager

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If you enjoy all things food you’ll envy Avia Hawksworth. She develops relationships with the best vendors and farmers in Napa, creates humane systems for “fabricating” (i.e. butchering) livestock, and even sourced the ingredients for an episode of “Top Chef.” Avia Hawksworth is a forager.

Foraging used to mean scrounging for edibles in the natural world. Professionally, it means sourcing vendors in the restaurant world. At Long Meadow Ranch (LMR) Hawksworth is part procurer, part culinary researcher, part grim reaper.

“It was a challenge when Adam and Eve, our suckling pigs, had to go,” she says. Never destined for the table, they were supposed to be bred but “Adam had a bad back and Eve just couldn’t conceive.” So Hawksworth sourced a butcher, “One-Shot John,” who rolled up in his kill-truck and dispatched the pigs “in a humane, swift, clean way that had no stress for the animal. It was the names that made it tough.”

Nestled in the Mayacamas Mountains above Rutherford, California, LMR organically farms sixty acres of vineyards, fifteen acres of olive trees, six acres of organic fruits and vegetables (“Top Chef” shot at their “Rutherford Gardens”), runs1500 head of grass-fed Scottish Highland and English Shorthorn cattle, raises honey-bees, egg-laying chickens and pigs, runs a winery and a wine and olive oil tasting room. Everything they grow and raise will be on the menu of their new restaurant, “Farmstead” slated to open in February.

Their diversified farming goes way beyond the traditional monoculture crops (grapes, olives) that put Napa on the map. LMR is green, organic and, above all, profitable. Founder Ted Hall, a former operating manager of McKinsey and Co., the global consulting firm is the former chairman of the board of the Robert Mondavi Corporation. He’s as far from a hippie in a tie-dyed t-shirt as you can get, and is living proof that green farming and greenbacks can go hand-in-hand.

“Organic and sustainable is important,” says LMR’s Chris Hall, Ted’s son, not because “we’re evangelizing the gospel of organic” but “because it produces higher quality food at a lower cost. We believe in what we do but this is a business. Hall has lived on the ranch since 1989 when his parents bought it and began working the land. It’s taken the Hall family twenty years to create the infrastructure that now allows them to grow and sell their wines, olive oil, heirloom produce, meat and eggs.

“We’re solar-powered, create more energy than we need and run on bio-fuel. We walk the walk,” says Hall. And their methods produce extraordinary ingredients. That’s where Hawksworth comes is. She forages for the restaurant, finding products that LMR doesn’t grow and ensuring that they meet their exacting standards.

The idea came from Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant whose foragers made food sourcing art form. Chefs and sous chefs usually source food but because they’re so busy they go for convenience and price. “Fundamentally we’re the opposite of that. We want the best, not the cheapest,” says Hall. And they want history and details on all the food they buy. A chef doesn’t have time for all that but a forager does.

Hawksworth’s skill set is singular. She is a Culinary Institute of America grad who is herself a farmer, raises chickens, has beehives and a small vineyard, has managed and cooked in restaurants, started a cooking school and been a butcher. She understands intuitively and practically the different needs of a chef, a farmer and a restaurant customer.

She learns a food’s provenance, informs the chef and educates the kitchen staff so they can educate customers. Everyone has to have confidence in the product. Knowing a food’s history is integral to Farmstead and essential to its chef, Seamus Feeley. “I’m there for Seamus,” says Avia, “to support his needs, his menu and his vision for his cuisine. I source anything from ingredients to glassware. I do what he doesn’t have time to do.”

“Avia gives me and our restaurant a direct connection to our food sources,” says Feeley. Long Meadow has a database of 150 potential suppliers that’s still growing. “She manages them from me so I can manage the restaurant and cook the food. She’s my eyes and ears.” And often, his taste buds.

“We live in the epicenter for food and wine in the US,” says Feeley. “We grow food four seasons a year. This is an agricultural area and the people here are the salt of earth and grow the finest ingredients in the country and we’re part of that.” Farmstead will serve American farmhouse cooking. “It’s the food I grew up eating at my grandparent’s farmhouse in Arkansas,” he says.

For Hawksworth, foraging Farmstead’s food has changed the way she relates to the world. Severe storms on the Pacific coast “mean that our fishermen will be docked which means no fish for a week which means creating alternatives.” Olive oil with a pungent, grassy, chlorophyll taste means that the olives were picked during a frost and weren’t ripe when pressed. Seeing if “Poulet Rouge” chicken actually has a “natural umami profile.” “I love that I learn something new every day. I love my job. I love my life. My job is my life on steroids.”

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