Farm-to-table restaurant gives 'transparent' view of food production

Here’s something to think about the next time you sit down at a restaurant.  Do you know where the food came from?

It’s a question a lot more people are asking these days in light of reports about animal viruses, contamination and other food safety scares.

These concerns have helped boost the popularity of farm-to-table restaurants, where the ingredients served are often from nearby farms, so there’s no mystery about where it was derived.

And while, the farm-to-table movement have been around since the 60s and 70s, some restaurants are incorporating nearly every stage of the farm-to-table process into the dining experience.

Owners of The Farmhouse Restaurant, at the Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, Indiana, touts itself as the largest farm-to-table dining room in the country. They call it the “Our Farm to Your Plate in Our House” concept, where patrons can get right up close and personal with the “American Farm Cuisine” listed on the menu.  And we mean close.

Walking around the Fair Oaks farm grounds is encouraged.  People can see animals, such as pigs and cows being born, view their habitat and then sit down at the restaurant and watch how the meat is prepared through the clear glass enclosed kitchen.

“It’s complete transparency,” said restaurant general manager Brent Brashier.

The only thing you don’t see is the animal being slaughtered.

Because Fair Oaks is primarily a dairy farm, right now only about 55 percent of the food comes directly from here.  The rest comes from nearby farms.  “Our goal, within three years is to have 85 percent come from this farm,” Brashier said.

“Whether it’s the beef on your plate, the milk in your glass or the bread, it’ll be here,” he said.

There’s even a large vegetable garden and an apple orchard on the premises, which supply the produce for the meals.

“Long before it was as vogue, as it seems now, we had a plan to have a large restaurant with fresh food that came directly from here,” said Fair Oaks Farm CEO Gary Corbett.  “We wanted to go back to that Norman Rockwell image of the farm and bring a page from history into the 21st century.”

The idea is to feed their curiosity as they’re filling their bellies as American demand more local produce.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, farmers are producing and selling more crops, livestock and other products directly to individual consumers than ever before.

The idea at Fair Oaks seems to be working, with an estimated 1,000 customers a day coming through the doors.

“It makes me feel more secure to know more about what I’m eating” said one customer who didn’t want to give her name, as she chomped on her pork tenderloin sandwich.

“I wanted to come here and try this restaurant because its real food,  not made in some lab.” said Sarah Peter, who dined with her four children. “I want my kids to have a health conscious idea of where their food is from.”

For those connoisseurs who are sold on the farm-to-table experience, there are now guides available that list locations and ratings for those types of restaurants across the country. There are also newsletters, clubs to join and, of course, and several Facebook pages.

But not everyone is comfortable with so much clarity about what's in their cuisine--or how it's prepared.

“I’d rather not know. I’d rather not think about it.  If I did, I probably couldn’t eat it,” laughed Ed Compry, as he took a big bite out of his bacon cheeseburger.

“It kinda looks cool,”  said 9-year-old Alyssa Peter about the farm and see-through kitchen.  Although the girl declared herself a vegetarian after seeing the animals in their dwellings, according to her mom.

While transparency is not necessarily tasty to everyone, many are increasingly uncomfortable with the knowledge that, in this globalized world, food often travels great distances to get to our plates.

“It scares me not knowing what the food has gone through on the way to me!” agreed Suzanne Rudin, who admits she’s never heard of the farm-to-table idea and only came to The Farmhouse restaurant because, “I had a coupon for a free appetizer."

Several of the Farmhouse customers were more matter-of-fact about it.

“People should see this because they need to face up to where their food comes from,” said one man.

And while there are many farm-to-table restaurants that showcase the local produce and meats, it's rare to find eateries like Fair Oaks that also show live births and the butchering process.

“If they don’t want to know, they shouldn’t be eating it!” added another.