In Chicago, the night before the James Beard Foundation Awards on May 1, celebrity chef Rick Bayless threw a party at an art museum in the Windy City. It was the 30th anniversary of his famous restaurant Frontera Grill. The chef partnered with a farm-to-table delivery service similar to Farm Fresh Rhode Island to throw a party featuring locally sourced food prepared by renowned Chicago chefs. The evening kicked off with a short speech by Bayless. During his talk, Bayless recalled the early days of his restaurant some 30 years ago. The focus of his remarks would be of interest to us who dine out often here in Rhode Island. The chef was recalling the days when he first opened his restaurant when, as he put it, “local food just wasn’t available.”
He should have started out in Providence, Newport or Narragansett. Thirty years ago, our local chefs and restaurateurs were visiting the farm. Even more common, they were being visited by fishermen, lobstermen and quahoggers who beat a path to many restaurant doors, including Al Forno, The Blue Point, or Carriage Inn. Federal Hill eateries such as Camille’s, Vincent’s and the Old Canteen were routinely taking delivery of local produce. Twenty-seven years ago, Bruce Tillinghast was inviting farmers for dinner at New Rivers in appreciation for what they provided him
, but more importantly so guests of the restaurant could meet the people who were the source of the culinary creations that New Rivers was renowned for and still is today under chef-owner Beau Vestal. Perry Raso was digging littlenecks when he was 12 years old. Many of them found their way to local restaurant kitchens. He opened Matunuck Oyster Farm in 2002 and his wildly successful restaurant Matunuck Oyster Bar opened in 2009.
Back in Chicago, the celebrity chef made headlines in the food press praising the local farm-to-table delivery service. Here in Rhode Island, that came after some chefs were making regular trips to the farm. Just about a decade ago, before chef-owner Brian Kingsford arrived at his Italian salumeria and restaurant Bacaro, he would visit Confreda Farm in Cranston. Lou Perella would head out from Perella’s Restaurant in Warren to nearby Noons Farm just over the state line in Swansea each morning at sunup to go into the field and handpick zucchini flowers.
Perella said, “I have been fortunate to have been here for 20 years.” When he first opened, he was buying produce from Tourtellot and Co., longtime Providence fruit and vegetable wholesale dealer then located in the Promenade section near what is now Providence Place mall and now in Warwick and Providence.
One of his early regular customers was a supervisor at the wholesaler who introduced Perella to the local farmers who brought produce to the market. The chef soon got to know who grew what. He recalled, “D’Allesandro Farm [in Warren] grew tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. Noons grew hot peppers and eggplant, [farmer] Tommy Clegg at Four Town Farm [in Seekonk] had radishes and cucumbers. Chase Farms [in Portsmouth] grew cabbage. I got to know them early on and even worked out some interesting business arrangements.” The farmers welcomed the chef to walk their fields and handpick his produce. Then, Perella had a table waiting for the farmers. They had a standing Thursday night reservation for steamed clams.
Nowadays, foodies pay a big-city restaurant tab to dine at a table in a farmer’s field, while an accomplished chef such as Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Bar, or James Mark of North in Providence, prepares a multicourse feast direct from the field.
The farm-to-table/boat-to-table movement shows no signs of abating, much to the delight of chefs, farmers, fishermen and guests alike. It enhances the experience to know how things got started and to salute the ones who were first in their fields.
Bruce Newbury’s Dining Out radio talk show is heard Saturdays at 11 a.m. on 1540 AM WADK and through the TuneIn mobile app. Email Bruce at Bruce@brucenewbury.com.