The partnership of farmer and chef
Thad Simerly and Kimberly Hart with their son tending to their greens
BY KATE FARRAR
PHOTOGRAPHS BY PHIL MANSFIELD
Our food holds memory. Its recent memories contain how it was sliced, cooked, seasoned, paired; its older memories of how it was slaughtered, harvested, fed and grown.
The farmer and chef, the two responsible for the final dish, are often seen as two distinct entities, when the dish is really their collaborative creation. The final flavor starts before a seed is planted, before an animal is born, in the health of the soil, the beneficial grasses and the diverse ecosystem of a sustainable farm. “Our job isn’t just to support the farmer,” explains Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in his most recent book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (2014, Penguin), “it’s really to support the land that supports the farmer.”
The Art of the Deal
Husband and wife team Kimberly Hart and Thad Simerly, owners of Starling Yards Farm in Red Hook hold strong convictions about both farms and restaurants. They had careers in the visual arts in New York City before being drawn to farming. The art world had begun to feel “cutthroat” to Hart and Simerly, and they sought something collaborative. When their passion for food evolved into a passion for food access, the couple first considered farming. Hart pursued training at the Queens County Farm Museum and the Farm Beginnings Course at Hawthorne Valley in Ghent. She also attended many conferences, including the Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns. Then, with new connections in the Hudson Valley, the couple began to look for land. The couple was connected in 2012 with the owner of Echo Valley Farm in Red Hook, Christopher Klose. They quickly began to negotiate a lease.
Starling Yards is based on six acres of leased land from the Kloses. The couple provides more than 100 varieties of sustainably grown vegetables to their CSA (about 50 families served last year) as well as restaurants in the Hudson Valley and New York City, including Meadowsweeet in Brooklyn and the Corner in Tivoli. The farm is “small and tight” by design. Much of the farm’s activity is nestled around the historical white farmhouses and red barns on the property that hold their coolers, washroom and storage spaces.
The propagation house (which they affectionately refer to as “the muffin”), two small tunnels and one main field are set along the farm road. Across the road there is another large vegetable field containing their CSA’s “pick your own” garden, along with the farm’s enormous compost piles. All fenced in (they call their property a “deer highway”), their beds range from 50 to 100 feet long and now extend out into a new 2.5-acre plot of land that was tilled up last fall.
In their first year as a farm, Starling Yards supplied food solely to restaurants. By making connections with chefs in New York City and the Hudson Valley, they were able to get their farm off the ground. “I was so nervous at first to call chefs to sell our food,” Simerly chuckles. As their business has evolved over the years, it has grown locally; now less than 10 percent of their sales is sold to chefs in the city. Hart and Simerly are dedicated to supporting their local economy; their intention is to grow food for their neighbors. The couple has done so by expanding the number of local restaurants they work with, maintaining a CSA and selling produce at the Milan farmers’ market a few miles away. Though the farm has expanded beyond doing business with just restaurants, those relationships with local restaurants reflect 70 percent of Starling Yards’ business.
“When we delivered our first order of
Belgian endive to Blue Hill the other
day,” Hart says grinning, “they wrote
to tell us that they were so proud of us.
The mutual admiration society is fun.”
Getting on the Menu
The farm currently grows for more than 15 different restaurants in addition to being listed on Farms 2 Table’s network, an app for regional wholesale distributors (see Whisk in this issue). Though each relationship between farmer and chef is extraordinarily important to Hart and Simerly, there is one relationship in particular that has changed the trajectory of the farm. Near the end of Starling Yards’ first season in 2013, the couple found themselves in a panic with a surplus on their hands of 400 beautiful cardoons, a thistle-like plant popular in regional Italian cuisine. Hart thought to herself, “Holy shit. What am I going to do?” when she desperately reached out, via e-mail, to an acquaintance she’d met many times at the Young Farmers Conference, Dan Barber. Barber, along with being a celebrated author, is co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and founder of the Young Farmers Conference; he is an important leader in the farm-to-table movement. “I’ll take all of them,” he replied. And thus began a long-term collaboration between Starling Yards and the restaurant Blue Hill (both the Manhattan outpost as well as the Stone Barns location in Westchester County). Blue Hill is set on the grounds of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and the restaurant sources from its own farm on-site in addition to featuring food grown throughout the Hudson Valley. “If I hadn’t e-mailed Dan,” Hart considers, pausing, “we would have been a totally different farm.”
Although Hart had originally intended to structure the farm business as a CSA with some wholesale clients, it has evolved into quite the opposite. “I never would have thought this is what our farm would look like,” Hart says, almost surprised, but it’s working for them: The revenue from the restaurants generates enough income to keep their CSA affordable. Starling Yards has made a long-term commitment to Blue Hill by planting a large section of perennial vegetables, entirely for the restaurant, to be delivered from November to February. The crops grown for Blue Hill include: Belgian endive, crosnes (pronounced “crones,” nutty tubers that resemble larvae), cardoons, skirret (a sweet root vegetable) and sea kale (a coastalgrowing brassica). The consistency of perennial vegetables gives them the illusion of being easier to grow, but in fact they require quite a bit of planning as there are very brief windows to thin them and add fertility, and some varieties take up to three years to establish before the first harvest. “We’re growing things that no one else is growing,” Hart says, then clarifies, “things that no one else wants to grow because they’re complicated.”
The systems to grow and store such unusual vegetables are highly involved and require great talent, patience and precision. For example, the cardoon, a vegetable that tastes similar to an artichoke, spends 100 days growing in the field and is blanched before it is harvested. To blanch (which improves flavor and texture), the stalks of each plant are gathered together with twine, wrapped with paper and a polyester fabric that farmers use to insulate their crops, secured again with twine, staked to the ground and left for three weeks in the field until they are finally harvested and stored.
Storing vegetables is just the beginning of yet another complicated process dictated by temperature, light and humidity, so that crops don’t freeze, rot or sprout. The longer the stretch of time between a plant’s first growth and its delivery, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. Every season Hart “fine-tunes or completely changes how [they] handle each crop to maximize their quality and streamline the process.” The trial and error of growing these more unusual crops lends itself to a certain level of humility and creativity in problem solving.
It is sometimes “risky growing the things that chefs want,” Hart insists. “Each vegetable wants a different thing. As you experiment, you could lose everything. But we’re used to failure” she adds laughing, “we even like it.” The most popular wholesale items for Starling Yards this past season were miniature lettuces, bush beans, winter squashes, sprouting broccoli and, of course, tomatoes. Some of their popular but more unusual vegetables were red-veined sorrel (a tart, spinach-like green), agretti (a salty green that is similar in flavor to asparagus), glacier lettuce (a lemony, salty edible succulent) and Alpine strawberries. Starling Yards is regarded highly among its restaurant clients for their dedication to growing the more challenging and interesting vegetable varieties. “When we delivered our first order of Belgian endive to Blue Hill the other day,” Hart says grinning, “they wrote to tell us that they were so proud of us. The mutual admiration society is fun,” she adds, laughing.
Farm to Restaurant Reciprocity
Hart attests that it is their background in art that makes them wellsuited to be vegetable growers, as they both possess an attention to detail and a creative approach to challenges. Hart reminisced on their prior career as artists. There are many strange parallels between art and farming, and most come down to a similar meditative process.
To Simerly, this process is made of “peaks and valleys.” He explains, “I might screw up a painting with one layer, then I go back and paint over it and it’s better, then maybe I’ll screw it up a second time, then fix it again. Farming is very similar. The big difference between farming and art though,” he says with a smirk on his face, his eyebrows raised, “you can’t turn around a farm as quickly. Each mistake you have to wait a year to fix.” Hart and Simerly are forces to be reckoned with; they seem entirely unintimidated and determined. The two complement each other: Simerly preferring the quick, tedious tasks such as building, pasture development and making compost while Hart is in for the long haul, farm planning, the vegetable growing and harvests. “Even as artists we’ve never done anything alike,” Hart explains, “but we have a shared sensibility.”
When a chef gathers the materials to create a meal, their vegetables, legumes, grains and meats, they look for a flavor that exemplifies the quality of such items. Within a farming operation, flavor is directly related to the diversity of the farm. When Barber chooses which farms to work with, he looks for diversity, “not just in the specific varieties that are grown, but in the rotations of vegetables, legumes, grains and livestock. That kind of mixed farming is usually a good indicator of the health of the land, and of how delicious the food will be.” Some of Blue Hill’s closest farming relationships meet each winter to agree on what is being grown, how much and when. Barber follows closely the logic laid out in his manifesto The Third Plate, where he writes of the need to have cuisine that is more responsive to the farmer. This is a rare trait among chefs. Instead of “sketching out ideas for dishes first and figuring out what farmers could supply us with later,” he wants to arrange his meals with the logic, planning and seasonality that farming requires.
“Sharing and receiving feedback on what’s successful—both in the kitchen, and in the field,” Barber writes, is the “reciprocity that allows both systems to evolve.” Excellent food is not only grown with integrity but is infused with a narrative from and about its producers. “We don’t just drop the box and leave,” Hart says. It is the conversations that arise when farmers “hang around with chefs” that create a connection between how food is produced and how it is prepared. The feedback Hart gets from her chefs allow her to deliver exactly what they want; whether that’s a halfbushel of completely uniform carrots or 10 pounds of small, medium and large bush beans. “We’re known [with our restaurant clients] for our perfect produce,” Hart tells me. “There’s never crappy leaves; everything is washed and ready for the prep cooks to use.” The attention to detail that Starling Yards gives to their produce, from planting to harvest, endears chefs to them.
As restaurants become more in tune with the farms they work with, we will see a shift in how food is created and handled. “Chefs are going to continue to become more involved with the kind of recipe that begins outside the kitchen, in fields and pastures,” Barber says, and “farmers and plant breeders will participate more in the culinary end” of things as well. Chefs will start to think like farmers about food. They’ll be more sensitive to food waste, appreciative of the whole animal, open to subjectively “imperfect” produce. And farmers, feeling supported by the people they feed, will continue to nourish the land, through success and trial and error. “Like in art, success is rare,” Hart smiles, “but it doesn’t diminish the process of experimentation.”