What is Farm to Table?

“Farm to table” is often bandied about, tossed into culinary conversations with the same frequency as “organic” and “locally sourced.” Restaurants around the country emphasize it. Fast food chains lay claim to it. And, having made its way solidly into the vernacular, even sitcoms parody it--with an episode of Portlandia shamelessly lampooning the turns it’s taken. Misused to the chagrin of some, overused to the frustration of others, and generalized to the point of obscurity for many, one can’t help but wonder, what, really, is farm-to-table?

Farm to Table
Farm to Table

Many credit the inimitable Alice Waters for its surge in popularity.

The renowned chef and one of the pioneering minds behind The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California—a one-acre farm flanked by a kitchen-classroom with an eco-gastronomic program—founded Chez Panisse with an ensemble of like-minded friends at the start of the 70s. There, she acquired a reputation for the relationships she cultivated with local farmers and the menus she built based on their harvests. What began as a neighborhood bistro flourished into the face behind the farm-to-table revolution—epitomizing today the start of superior cuisine,slow food, and modern sustainability.

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While many chefs have long been interested in using the freshest food available—and in fostering relationships with their region’s agricultural community—it wasn’t until roughly the last decade that the farm-to-table concept began to take hold.

Where the food grown within one’s region once informed what and how we ate, higher—and broader—demands, coupled with advances in shipping technology and processed food, rendered the notion of eating straight from the source something of an anomaly. Boysenberries in January and mangoes in Minnesota became the norm, while few could say where their food actually came from beyond a specific aisle in the grocery store. Rural areas were abandoned for urban centers, and, by and large, convenience surpassed quality.

Maui farming
Maui farming

But a growing concern for environmental insensitivity—along with a desire to eat fresher, healthier food—led people farther away from vacuum-sealed products on big-box store shelves and closer to the choices presented at their neighborhood farmer’s market.

At the same time, farms were in critical decline—over 100,000, primarily mid-sized farms around the country closed in rapid succession, followed by an acute loss of grasslands—while the rise of GMOs ignited equal parts of apprehension and fury. “Local,” “organic,” and “responsibly grown” began to be seen as less as the exclusive provenance of the privileged and idealists and more as a principle fueled by mindfulness, integrity—and a yen for enhanced nutritional value and flavor. Eateries around the globe took note, and the farm-to-table craze was born.

Critics have been quick to point out its fallacies.

Some restaurants, they assert, have taken the idea almost to the point of caricature, listing where and when their ingredients were sourced in near-condescending detail and spawning that iconic Portlandia episode. Conversely, consumers complained of feeling duped by deceptive marketing. Others still questioned "farm-to-table's" viability, considering that in 2008 Congress deemed anything within a 400-mile radius of its origin "local." While it’s case by case—as are most things in life—one fact holds true: In essence, nearly everything we eat is farm-to-table, whether it’s grilled chicken, potato salad, or chocolate cake. But the proliferation of the term, no matter the nobility at its crux, has blurred its original intent: To streamline the process through reducing the amount of time between when a food is harvested and when it reaches your fork, to nurture relationships with local farmers, and to serve food that’s at its peak in terms of nutrition, quality, and taste. Without maintaining these maxims, farm-to-table has become for some nothing but a fable.

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At The Mill House, “farm-to-table” is neither a buzzword nor a marketing ploy, a proverbial jump on the bandwagon or a passing trend.

Farms—specifically, those on Maui—inform The Mill House's very existence, and inspire (if not dictate) every dish on its acclaimed menu.

Call it unusually fortuitous.

The Mill House is set on the grounds of Maui Tropical Plantation, a working-plantation that’s stood at the helm of island agriculture since its inception. Sharing acreage with Kumu Farms and Ho'aloha, crops range from corn and rainbow chard to eggplant and fennel—and all of it mere yards from the kitchen’s doors.

photo credit Alyssa Dawson
photo credit Alyssa Dawson

The variety, accessibility, and freshness shape executive chef and ‘Aipono Chef of the Year Award Winner Jeff Scheer’s dazzling creations.

Menus are printed twice a day to reflect Scheer’s philosophy, which  defers to nature’s course rather than overriding it. When building his celebrated dishes, he asks not for what he needs from the adjacent and island-wide farms, but what’s in season. Surrendering to the earth has rewarded him and his guests in kind, resulting in dishes that are nothing short of sublime. Fresh-harvested beets are marinated in Mill House-roasted coffee and served with caraway streusel, orange, and fennel cream.Succulent tomatoes are served with kale chips, cultured cream, and savory granola.Hearty greens are topped with root vegetables, carrot puree, cheese curd, and lemon vinaigrette.Handcrafted cocktails are infused with herbs from the garden. Even desserts, long thought to have their genesis in butter and sugar, are conceived by the produce that’s available—with a recent spate of jack fruit serving as the focal point of the restaurant’s Pavlova with white balsamic pâte à bombe and vanilla custard.

Chef Jeff SCheer
Chef Jeff SCheer

Freshness isn’t relegated to produce, all of which Scheer finds in The Mill House’s backyard and through vital relationships he’s nourished with farmers around the island--a fact that ought to come as no surprise, given that the Athens, Ohio native spent two years volunteering at Kupa’a Farm in Kula.

Proteins are also locally sourced, which is no easy task for an island that imports 90% of its food.Texas Longhorns were brought in to clear invasive species and revitalize native grasses, and Scheer has long collaborated with Beef & Blooms,Hawaii’s first certified organic ranch. Employing a nose to tail approach, in which each morsel of a protein is maximized, Scheer butchers in-house, makes his own sausages, and creates every last bit that appears on his much-lauded charcuterie plate. Truly, this is a kitchen that brings new meaning to the idea of fresh and efficient. They mill their own grains. They grow and roast their own coffee. Artisan bread is baked in their behind-the-scenes oven. Nowhere will you find egg whites in a carton, or juice that’s been anything but freshly squeezed or muddled. Everything is made from scratch, including the plantation-made pottery upon which Scheer’s sensational inventions are served. There is no trickery or ambiguity to The Mill House’s version of “farm-to-table” because, well, they are the farm. Bon appetite, indeed. Or, rather, food exactly as it was meant to be.

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farm questions
farm questions

All photography was either taken by Mill House staff, from owners that have given us written permission, and/or purchased for use. We have all the rights necessary to use these images on our website.