"Farm to Table," suggests Chef Dan Barber, “is a much abused descriptor."
You bet. Some restaurants invoke the phrase as more a loose slogan than a strict practice.
Not so with Back 40 Kitchen in Greenwich. Its passionate owners, Lesley and Bill King, grow sustainable food for the restaurant (and a burgeoning food empire) on their own family farm near Washington Depot, Connecticut.
Dan Barber would have no beef with their F2T claim. In fact, the organically managed restaurant and farm enjoy strong ties with Stone Barns Food and Educational center in the Hudson Valley, home to Barber’s acclaimed Blue Hills restaurant. Bill sits on the Center’s board and many of the Kings’ farmworkers interned there.
“The collaboration between Stone Barns and Blue Hill,” King told us, “represents a best in class partnership between farmers and restaurants.”
To understand the deeper meaning of Farm to Table, we decided to follow the story of how a seed at the Back 40 Farm became a serving at the Back 40 Kitchen.
Now, full disclosure. I hate squash. Or did, until my first bite of Honey Nut Butternut, presented at its crescendo of flavor by the restaurant’s talented chef, George Demarsico.
Ok, that’s how the story ends. But let’s go to the beginning -- which happened months before, in the mind of Alexis Barbalindaro..
It’s a mind as cultivated as the fields she tends at Back 40 Farm. The daughter of a surgeon and nurse, Alexis holds a double degree in Neuroscience and Italian from Vassar, where she captained the school’s field hockey team. She is a musician, archer, birder, educator, naturalist, accomplished cook, and the head farmer at Back 40. All that and Alexis is under 30 years old.
When we first met her, she was working a vegetable bed, engrossed in conversation with her young farmhands Enya Cunningham, 21, Cara Marsicano also 21, and Jack Lamb, 33. “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” Alexis apologized to us, flashing a sun splashed grin that accentuated her youthful features. “We were just having an existential discussion about weeds.”
I grew up in Iowa. No farmer I knew ever used words like “existential.” And none were women.
Alexis, who got into farming on a homestead in Tuscany and then honed her skills in Northern California and at Stone Barns, observed that much organic growing is done by lady farmers. “Maybe because we like to nurture,” she added. (Guess that’s why Nature is a Mother.)
It was last winter when Alexis decided to grow winter squash. Unlike summer squash, it can be stored for months, keeping Back 40 Kitchen supplied with a farm-grown ingredient at full flavor through winter. She hoped to harvest a bounty in the fall, Butternuts, Acorns, Hubbard’s, Red Kuri, and more. Alexis also wanted to experiment with a seed developed at Cornell and Stone Barns: the Honey Nut Butternut. This adorable, mini-squash packs triple the flavor intensity of a regular Butternut and it’s perfectly sized for one individual serving. (That’s why the cross was originally developed for Stouffer’s.) But with a long growing season, the Honey Nut needed to be planted early.
Alexis had her eye on an empty field that hadn’t been plowed in years, if ever. Once pasture when this land was a dairy farm, the virginal soil was nutrient rich from decades of cow droppings. Percolating with organisms and minerals, the fertile field begged to be tilled and planted.
At the same time, weed and disease pressure would be intense on the unplowed field, so Alexis worried that the embryonic seedlings would be at high risk. And as an organic farmer, she couldn’t spray the problem away.
So the farm manager hedged her bet. Rather than seed the squash directly into the ground, she decided to incubate them in the greenhouse and then transplant. That would also give the Honey Nuts the head start they needed to reach maturity before frost.
However, Alexis didn’t count on other enemies lurking in the nursery.
“They had to be seeded THREE times in the greenhouse because they kept getting eaten by sneaky mice,” she remembers. “We almost gave up and just seeded them in the field.”
Exasperated, Alexis came up with a homespun solution.
“We thought we might be able to germinate some of the seeds in the trunk of my Honda to ensure that the mice wouldn't get to them,” she told us.
The unconventional ploy worked. Last June, Alexis and her crew transplanted 1,800 bed feet of young squash – almost a dozen varieties, including the Honey Nut. Alexis protected the plants with an ocean of row cover to keep the squash bugs, cucumber beetles and other enemies at bay. Not a drop of chemicals needed “And then,” she says. “We prayed.”
Every Friday, Alexis does a "field walk" by herself, what she describes as “an intimate check-in with all of my plants,” as well as the farm’s flower beds, fruit trees, bee hives, chickens, and goats. As she assesses the health of her crops, all Alexis’ senses are alive. Throughout the summer, she continually nibbles, knowing the deeper the flavor of a vegetable, the better its health. She closes her eyes and inhales the fragrance of a field in flower, as her face feels the cooling breeze that promises a much needed rain. Just listen to Alexis wax poetic on the secret language between her hands and her plants.
“Touch is so important to the farm. Whether it is connecting with the earth when transplanting baby lettuces, determining the ripeness of an heirloom tomato, or carefully washing each beautiful beet, the touch of the farmer is what gives life and love to every bite of food that comes out of this ground.”
In July, she savored the distinctive bouquet of delicate squash blossoms and smiled as she heard the low hum of pollinating bees sipping the flower’s nectar before streaking away to make honey. Because of their delicacy, the blossoms would wilt by the time they reached the Greenwich restaurant, so Back 40 Farm sold some to local eateries.
In the second week of August, Alexis and her crew spent two long, hot, but very happy days, harvesting nearly half a ton of winter squashes, including the cherished Honey Nuts. Like tomatoes, squash is a fruit, not a vegetable, its bulging body, as she phrased it, “a swollen ovary.” That’s why some of the Honey Nuts would be kept in Washington Depot for their treasured seeds.
A few days ago, after three weeks of curing on the farm, the honey nuts were finally shipped to Chef Demarsico in Greenwich. (George and Alexis had been in close contact over the summer so he could plan his menus. At Back 40 Kitchen “what’s in season” ultimately drives “what’s to eat.” That’s the essence of Farm to Table.)
We wondered what magic George had up his sleeves for the Honey Nut Squash. The Chef confessed he mostly just got out of the way.
“They were so perfect the way they are that we really haven't done much to manipulate them,” he explained. “We are serving them simply cut in half and roasted. I'm glazing them with some Back 40 honey and finishing with a little smoked sea salt. I know this isn't very exciting but I find it best to leave things as close to perfect as possible.”
As his dish came to the table, I was apprehensive. If I didn’t like the taste of Butternuts, how I would I enjoy this Super Squash?
The halved sides came to the table like a work of art, burnished deep amber, gold and brown, juices oozing, the honey glaze glistening. An impressionistic image of a New England harvest.
“Too pretty to eat,” would have been a tempting excuse to avoid a bite. But with only the briefest of hesitations I courageously scooped out a small forkful, not even bothering to dress it with the creamy yogurt that would probably offset the intensity of the squash.
“And?” my wife asked.
“Perfection,” I replied. It was the perfect word.
“You can eat the skin,” urged Jen Demarsico, George’s wife, General Manager, Magical Mixologist, Toxin Vigilante, and Keeper of the gluten free, the recyclable and the sustainable at Back 40 Kitchen.
She was right. The Honey Nut skin, so tender it cut with a fork, only deepened the sweet, roasted flavor of a fruit personally planted, fed, harvested, and cooked with gentle hands, from seed to serving.
It struck me that even the Back 40 bees (females all) that enabled the fruit’s conception made the honey that enhanced its consumption. Honey Nuts indeed.
The Back 40 Kitchen is supplied by many local purveyors. The Farm, itself, provides food not only to the Kitchen, but Back 40 Mercantile in Old Greenwich, the Old Greenwich Farmers’ Market, and the newly opened Mill Street Table and Bar in Byram, a joint venture between Chef Geoff Lazlo and Bill and Lesley King.
As for the name, the Kings told us “Back 40” is not just a nod to the 40 farming acres out back, but references U2’s song “40” which celebrates the 40th Psalm: “He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm.”
They also admit it’s a tongue-in-cheek allusion to their “Back 40 years”
107 Greenwich Ave. (parking and entrance in rear) 203-992-1800 www.back40kitchen.comLunch Mon-Fri 12-3 Dinner Tues-Fri 5-9 Sat 5-10.