Most of us are at least subconsciously aware that food does not actually come from a grocery store; that there are these mythical things called farms where nature and mankind work together to make biological magic. Tiny dead-looking seeds germinate into a trinity of root, stem, and leaves following an unseen set of complicated DNA directions.
Consuming a really great meal in a restaurant prepared by a trained culinary master who knows how to coax flavor from hundreds of ingredients is perhaps the highest level of appreciation one can give to the fruits of the earth. But the restaurant is usually only an isolated end of the road for food, generally having little or no connection to the people and environments that grow it.
Chef Brian Scheehser of Kirkland's wants to do things differently. In addition to running a highly praised restaurant, Scheehser is also successfully farming 10 acres of herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and berries at the South 47 Farm in the Sammamish Valley between Redmond and Woodinville.
“We want to offer our guests something special,” says Scheehser referring to the ultra-local, fresh produce served at Trellis.
Terms like family-farm, sustainable, locavore, and organic are serious clout-gathering buzzwords in the food industry right now. They connote higher environmental ethics and a sense of clean living.
Edible Seattle published an article in the March/April 2011 issue all about the new face of farming called “Youth in Revolt: New farmers turn the old ag business model on its head.” Accompanying photos are of young indie-styled individuals roasting a pig, drinking beer and playing guitar at a party. The article does a great job detailing how a younger generation is embracing farm life in a business progressive manner. It also makes farming seem cool.
But is being a farmer really the status-elevator that environmental foodies imagine? We tend to think that farm is synonymous with harvest, lush fields, sunshine and a beautiful spread of food. People forget about the muck of early spring or how Mother Nature dictates the growing season.
“Last year we had our fields tilled and planted at the very beginning of March,” says Chef Scheehser. “This year, with all the cold, wet weather, it will probably be May.”
Chef Scheehser hasn’t always been a farmer. And even though he has decades of chef experience under his belt, his career choice was set in motion at the insistence of his mother.
“I was working in a restaurant for a couple of summers before the end of high school. When I graduated, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. My mother was one of those mothers that was very involved in the school system. One day she said, ‘You’re going to go to culinary school.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really. Where am I going?’ She said, ‘To upper New York at the Culinary Institute of America.’ ‘Well, when am I going?’ I asked. ‘Next week,’ she said.”
Brian’s parents delivered him to CIA the next week, at which time he had no idea of its caliber, long considered a premiere culinary training school in the U.S. He chose to specialize in garde manger, the cook responsible for salads, vegetable prep, cold dishes, and charcuterie items, including cheeses and smoked meats.
If you’ve ever eaten at Trellis, which is on the ground floor of the , these particular items should ring a bell. Some of the best items on the menu are the salads and cheese plates with the accompanying jams, relishes and cured meats. Trellis’ Two Hour Salad features a whole range of ingredients from locations within two hours of the restaurant; many from the Trellis farm a mere 15 minutes away.
“Produce is definitely the center of the plate,” says Brian. “Proteins are secondary [at Trellis].”
Carefully following Chef Scheehser’s rubber boot footprints through the mud at the farm to avoid sinking knee deep, he points out the natural streams snaking through the valley. As the very chilly rain spits onto my hood, he explains that the underground aquifers rise to the surface during periods of extremely wet weather like we’ve had this winter and spring. And the water in these impromptu streams is indeed flowing.
We tour through greenhouses coddling germinated seedlings. Some have been tilled and planted with the seedlings only to be flooded again with recent rains.
Six varieties of apple trees are so close to bursting open with pink and white blossoms that you can feel yourself straining a bit, trying to coax the petals forth. Hopes for a return of the giant blueberries produced last summer vibrate with the loaded blossom heads on the bushes.
Sometimes the farmers’ hopes for high yields are dashed by the whims of nature. Last summer’s low temperatures kept 2,500 tomato plants at the Trellis farm from producing any ripe tomatoes, a major disappointment for a restaurant relying on its own local produce.
Chef Scheehser, who claims he is 75 percent chef and 75 percent farmer, spends most mornings at the farm, transplanting seedlings, checking on the tomato and pepper plants under the warming lights, digging up and relocating runners shot up by the raspberry vines and generally drinking in the peace of nature.
Pointing out an untidy looking rectangle of land sprouting grass, weeds and other cover crops, Scheehser says, “Farm photos always show the lush fields full of produce. They never show the reality.” Many fields lie fallow over winter and even in spring, as farmers are experiencing this year.
All the farmers leasing land on the South 47 must adhere to organic growing practices, particularly those banning the use of pesticides and herbicides. Crops are rotated from row to row and year to year allowing the soil to recover necessary nutrients between rotations.
Trellis diners have had a very positive response to Trellis’ farm-to-table commitment. Scheehser calls them “very savvy,” and appreciative of quality ingredients. Often, excited customers beg to know when the asparagus is coming or the peas or whatever is slated next for harvest.
Though amazing product is one of Scheesher’s greatest joys, he also loves working with the Trellis crew, particularly the externship program that Trellis supports training culinary students about the inner workings of a real kitchen. He claims the students “bring a freshness” because of their youthful zeal and frequent rotation.
When he isn’t farming his ten acres in the valley or cooking at Trellis, he’s most likely to be grilling in his backyard over in Ballard. He loves being outside and even installed a wood-fired pizza oven in his backyard. Barbecued chicken and grilled potato salad make up his favorite meal.
“I could eat chicken every night of the week,” says Scheehser.
From his menu at Trellis, Chef Scheehser recommends trying the salmon and apples -- and definitely one of the salads, the mixture of tender young greens exemplifying his labor of love from the farm. Trellis is an ambitious restaurant attempting to embrace the full life cycle of food, with a literal hand in every step of the process from seed to tastebud.