features New Year’s Breakfast 2010
Farm and Kitchen: The Strange Bedfellows of American Cuisine
December 2009

Chefs and their farm suppliers are a disparate population linked by a common cause: the restaurant. While farmers toil in the darkness and cold of early morning and chefs thrive in the frenetic nighttime environment of a professional kitchen, these two seemingly discordant personalities have a unifying mandate: to produce excellent food. Despite this link, farmers and chefs are often mutually estranged—professionally intertwined populations that exist with less dialogue than would benefit either industry.

It is the conviction of Jen Small and Mike Yezzi, first generation farmers of Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, New York, and founders of Farm Camp, that a consistent forum—like an elaborated farmers market—can benefit not only the restaurant menu, but both ends of the food industry. So Jen and Mike created Farm Camp, a “camp for chefs,” to provide a much-needed, tactile connection between the chef, the farmer, and the product.

Designed to bridge the yawning gap between metropolitan chefs and their rural suppliers, Farm Camp showcases the process behind the integral products of a working kitchen, from beef to pork to milk, cheese, and eggs. The goal is for the chef to leave Farm Camp with more intimate knowledge of each element—from the sunlight to the grain and pasture to the farmers themselves—that goes into making ingredients taste, feel, and behave the way they do. As we learned on our recent editorial trip, Farm Camp isn’t just a weekend retreat for the working chef; it’s a precursor to culinary revelation.

As it turns out, it’s also a lot of work. In a group that included chefs, writers, and industry professionals from as far away as Boston and Connecticut,  and even an importer based in China, we visited and (gently) worked a handful of farms in the Batten Kill River Valley in New York State and nearby Vermont. After only two days, we developed a wealth of agricultural knowledge and experience to apply to our kitchens, our writing, and our future purchasing. From the euphemistically named chicken “processing” at Garden of Spices farm (we each picked, dispatched, plucked, and cleaned our own chickens) to a revelatory maple tasting at Maple Land Farms to an informal cheese-making seminar at Consider Bardwell in Vermont, we Farm Campers were treated to an unparalleled hands-on experience with the raw material on its native ground.

A quick note for the faint of heart: the Farm Camp experience is intentionally gloss-free. Jen and Mike aren‘t looking to polish the pastoral life for the sake of tourists, but to educate chefs; so Farm Camp is realistically gritty.

After gathering still-warm eggs from the coop, breaking them for a demonstration of a healthy, fresh egg (it’ll have a cloudy white and an orange yolk), and hearing about the intermittent cannibalistic tendencies of hens, we eagerly volunteered to help castrate a piglet. (We didn’t know what we were signing up for.) At Flying Pigs, Mike needs his male pigs castrated at an early age so they mature properly before slaughtering (he maintains a mixed stock of Tamworth and Ossabaw pigs), so we Farm Campers got to witness (and, in StarChefs.com’s case, nervously facilitate) the mercifully brief process. The piglet was surprisingly plucky, going back to play among his snorting siblings after a staggeringly brief recovery period.

Any campers in doubt of the Farm Camp process at that point could look to Flying Pigs resident farmer newbie Erin Fairbanks, the chef-turned-farmer who’s done it all. Erin embodies the ideals of Farm Camp, which makes sense since she’s a driving force behind it. Being a chef herself, Erin has firsthand experience of how the highest quality product can transform a dish. Bringing her culinary experience to the farm and her newly acquired farm savvy to the kitchen, Erin straddles the divide between farm and professional kitchen with surprising grace and agility. She prepared all the meals for us, from a welcome lunch that featured Flying Pigs eggs in a warm, fluffy Spanish tortilla to an amazing dinner made with none other than resident Flying Pigs pork.

With her undeniable culinary skills and her farm and season-savvy approach to the products, Ms. Fairbanks is the prototype “after” of the implicit Farm Camp “before.” She is a chef with knowledge of the farm and a farmer with a chef’s needs in mind.  And so she’s proof that above all nothing beats hands-on, experiential training for the chef in search of seasonal authenticity.

Even in an age of high-speed information and rapid-fire communication, there’s still nothing more revelatory to the chef than a boot-scuffing, feather-plucking, piglet-chasing, mud-splattering visit to the farm. And with their program, heading into its second year next spring, Jen and Mike have made a huge stride toward creating a functional dialogue for chefs and farmers that will enrich both ends of the industry. A New Year’s resolution for the working chef? Book a ticket to Farm Camp. (And buy a good pair of rubber boots.)