Teddy Klopf just wants to cook a French fry.
Sitting in an upstairs nook of his elegant new downtown Raleigh restaurant Provenance during a lull between lunch and dinner services, the thirty-two-year-old chef is visibly agitated by his lack of access to potatoes. A veteran of high-caliber kitchens stretching from New Mexico and New York City to McCrady’s in Charleston, Klopf confesses he spent five years perfecting his recipe for the humble fry, which he’ll only say involves immersion in beef fat. Still, just more than a month after the opening of Provenance, which sits on the ground floor of a twenty-three-story apartment building at the city center, Klopf cannot yet obtain potatoes grown in North Carolina, a central tenet of Provenance. Klopf serves a burger with brunch and makes a red pepper ketchup, but, for now, the fries will have to wait.
“There’s plenty of growers in the state on the northeastern coast,” he says, his mouth twisting into a slight grimace, “but then they just ship ’em out.”
Klopf is working on it: last week, he met with Daniel Dayton, who runs the ten-acre Old Milburnie Farm on land that’s been passed through his family for generations. Dayton’s farm has become an experimental depot of sorts for area chefs, who ask him to try new greens or raise chickens on his pasture so they can know the source firsthand when they send them from the kitchen. Unless the rain suddenly becomes relentless, Klopf confirms, his potatoes should start to arrive from Dayton in less than six weeks.
“I’ll be able to have potatoes on my menu that I can stand behind one hundred percent,” says Klopf, now beaming beneath his camouflage baseball hat, “and be proud to serve.”
This earnest ardor seems to be a systemic condition of the area’s current food scene, where most every area kitchen or farmer, artisan or organizer, consumer or retailer shares a central question: How local can we make our food and still meet the necessary demandsof taste, of economy, of logistics? There’s tacit agreement that the area’s food ecosystem is far from perfect, with prices that can be prohibitive, institutions that can seem off-putting, and access that can feel limited. But those challenges are passable hurdles, not impenetrable walls.
During a weeknight mixer in the meeting room of Raleigh Brewing Company, Courtney Tellefsen tells me she dreams of starting a local counterpart to meal-delivery systems like Blue Apron. In a decade, Tellefsen has turned her company, The Produce Box, from a part-time garage project to an across-the-state empire that puts North Carolina products in nearly eleven thousand kitchens. When she says this, I don’t doubt her for a second.
And during a Saturday afternoon stroll through east Raleigh, Matt Whitley, a cofounder of the local juice magnate Happy + Hale, stops me to talk about the work he’s doing with community agriculture. He wants to source more ingredients, especially arugula, for his restaurants from little farms near his house. That can create jobs, he says, and help change not just the food system but people’s lives.
It’s part of a vision that is, these days, increasingly popular.
That’s especially true back at Provenance, where Klopf is trying to sharpen the cutting edge of local food. Save for olive oil from Georgia, citrus from South Carolina and Florida, and some spices that simply aren’t available here, Klopf intends only to cook food that is grown in North Carolina and, to whatever extent possible, within a sixty-mile radius of his Martin Street front door.
When I ask a waiter at Sunday brunch what farm grew the day’s salad greens, Klopf himself emerges from the kitchen to offer a correctionthree farms, actually, all with a specific purpose. When I stop in for an early evening Saturday cocktail, the rim of one is speckled with bee pollen; a bar snack that arrives is dusted in neon green pine pollen, adding a surprising Day-Glo-psychedelic playfulness to such cuisine’s often self-serious stance.
If given the chance, Klopf will talk at great length and with equal enthusiasm about the environmental and economic impacts of such a mission, or of how it can drive local jobs and pad the coffers of upstart enterprises and all but eliminate the energy costs associated with shipping food across the country. For Klopf, though, his Tar Heel-only axiom originated with flavor.
“Sourcing is incredibly important, but it all started from the perspective of trying to make food taste good,” he says. “When something is just clipped, say the herbs from our garden, and you eat it within hours, it’s infinitely better than something that was picked days ago.”
In talking to Klopf, however, you get the sense that this has grown into a kind of faith. His zeal for produce and products reared nearby has spawned its own aphorisms (“I didn’t know how to cook until I learned how to farm,” he offers guilelessly) and disciples; the waiters and bartenders discuss his zero-waste, proximal-sourcing policies as though they were commandments.
When he speaks about this stuff, his whole body seems to quiver, his hands darting across the table or shooting skyward as he mentions locally sourced yuzu or how a foraging collective could make putting off-the-farm ingredients into area kitchens more feasible and his mission more attainable. When he lists the spices he can’t get in North Carolina, he talks about native options he hopes farmers will help him cultivate so that, one day, he can forgo outside resources almost entirely. He can’t source star anise locally, for instance, so he hopes to use the more obscure but obtainable cicely root.
“If I can replace my spice rack with an exclusively local pantry, that’s incredibly exciting to me,” he says. “That’s the mission here.”
Several days later, just after the sun rises over Old Milburnie Farm, eight miles northeast of Provenance, Daniel Dayton says he’s very familiar with such a quest. For the last three years, Dayton, a thirty-one-year-old Raleigh native, has slowly built a small but audacious local empire. Dayton first fell for farming at a New England boarding school, where he helped make maple syrup.
“It was an amazing way to work with nature to provide something people want,” says Dayton. “You’re not hurting the tree. It’s sustainable, and it lined up with me intellectually.”
Dayton enrolled at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, where he majored in biology, before enlisting in the Peace Corps. After two years, he returned to Raleigh and was just a few credits away from earning his master’s degree in horticulture at N.C. State when the prospect of getting out of the lab and into the field arrived.
“I was having a tough time engaging with the research projects I was taking part intesting seed varieties, how well they can take herbicide applications, stuff like that,” he explains, sitting in the little concrete-floored cabin that serves as his living quarters and a farm office. “I didn’t like academia, the rat race of it. But then this opportunity came up, and we went for it.”
As we stroll across the property, Dayton’s background in research becomes clear. During the last three years, he and a small team have slowly and steadily expanded Old Milburnie’s operations, supplementing 1.25 acres of vegetable gardens with a climate-controlled shipping container full of oyster mushrooms, three separate zones of chicks, and, most recently, a fledgling hog pen. Dayton treats each new phase as a trial run, noting what has worked and what hasn’t and trying to tease out why.
Many of the greens he grows started as tests. For instance, he began growing mizuna, or Japanese mustard, at the request of Garland’s Cheetie Kumar, frisée and escarole on behalf of other area kitchens. As Dayton offers a tour of the property, he talks constantly about next phases and new ideas, only adding as an afterthought that this property may be sold one day. There’s too much work to be done for that sort of worry.
“There’s a resurgence of the culture of communities,” says Dayton. “When I was growing up in the nineties, I just saw this homogenization, the convenience of how everything could be the same. People got bored with that. Not everyone wants to eat at Applebee’s all the time or eat the same vegetables that are available at every grocery store.”
Of course, growing the unexpected does engender some vulnerability. Days before I meet Dayton at Old Milburnie, the award-winning chef Scott Crawford announced he would be leaving Standard Foods, the North Carolina-centric restaurant he helped launch in Raleigh. Dayton shifted chicken production from four hundred birds last year to two thousand this year, in large part because of Standard’s needs. If the food program changes much there, Dayton says, he’s worried he may need to find a new home for his poultry.
In Durham, at Fullsteam Brewery, where the slogan is “plow-to-pint beer from the beautiful South,” Sean Lilly Wilson understands these concerns well. In an area where it can suddenly seem hard to go for a bike ride without passing another craft brewery, Fullsteam is distinct in its commitment to local agriculture. In 2015, Fullsteam purchased forty percent of its raw materials within a three-hundred-mile radius of Durham, a remarkable figure considering its distance from the Midwest’s locus of corn and grains.
“We believe that beer can be an economic opportunity in a post-tobacco North Carolina. If we, through the act of commerce, pay money for these ingredients and express our value through cash, we encourage entrepreneurslike the pawpaw farmer or Riverbend Malt Houseto go deeper into their business,” he says. “We’ll pay for it. And we hope our consumer base believes in this mission, too.”
But it can be a challenge, Wilson admits. In recent years, Fullsteam’s First Frost Winter Persimmon Ale has become one of its hallmark beers. Brewed with persimmons sourced from eighty local farmers and foragers and frozen until it’s the right time of the year, First Frost has netted awards and turned what many see as a throwaway crop into an unlikely star. Wilson knows, however, that not everyone cares about how a beer is sourced or what it incorporates. They just want a drink. As Fullsteam expands beyond the borders of North Carolina, its challenge is to maintain wider accessibility and local involvement at once.
“Some people just want a really tasty IPA, so with our Rocket Science, we don’t bother. There’s no local ingredients, no local story. We just make a solid IPA,” he explains as his taproom begins to fill shortly before five p.m. on a Tuesday. “That allows us to take chances with higher costs of goods on other beers. You have an IPA, because that’s what people want, but then you say, ‘Hey, do you want to go down the rabbit hole with us?’”
For forty years, Arthur and Anya Gordon have asked local diners that very same question. Since 1975, the Gordons and their Irregardless Cafe have seemed perpetually ahead of each wave of food innovation. They were early adopters of a farm-to-table philosophy and a stable vegetarian outpost in a state better known for its traditional barbecue. (To wit, when I ask Arthur about the other chefs he saw milling about the State Farmers Market in the seventies and eighties, he only laughs.) Irregardless banned smoking a quarter-century before North Carolina did.
And now, well, the Gordons, both in their sixties, are at it again.
On a Wednesday afternoon, we mill about Well Fed Community Garden, a 1.5-acre parcel of land and a house the pair bought, with some subsequent investment from friends, in 2012. It was a foreclosure, so it was cheap, but the act of turning it into a working farm wasn’t. Four years later, it is beginning to offer a return on the investment. Located just outside of downtown Raleigh, it’s a wonderland, a vision of complete cooperation between farm and table.
Managed by Jenn Sanford-Johnson, another Raleigh native who now lives with her small family on the property’s remodeled brick ranch, Well Fed is in the throes of an early spring bloom. Rows of all kinds of greens are just starting to peek from the soil. Herb bushes are billowing, and mushroom cultivation is beginning near the lot’s rear. There are potatoes and edible flowers, and inside a greenhouse, heads of butter lettuce push out of hydroponic containers like butterflies from a cocoon. Lately at Irregardless, they serve a salad that uses the whole head. It’s a hit.
“The chef always asks me if I will have more,” says Sanford-Johnson, laughing at the distance between farmer and chef, even if he’s only four miles away. “Yes, I will always have more.”
We walk toward the front yard, past a fence wrapped in apple trees that will soon start to bear fruit for Irregardless and for those people who get on or off the 11L Raleigh bus near the driveway. As Arthur begins to talk about the impetus for his brainchild, his mind seems to work in spirals, pushing ever outward, from earth and into the cosmos. One minute, he’s talking about the bacteria in your gut; the next, how God must certainly live among these crops. He wants to show me his apple trees, but, really, he wants to talk to me about why all thisfrom his butter lettuce to Teddy Klopf’s potatoes matters.
“I don’t give a damn about doing business,” Arthur admits. “I care about my customers and my grandchildren. There has to be a real shift in the hierarchy of our priorities. If you’re not interested in your own health, then no one will be. That’s what this is here for.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Up in Rows”