5 lessons in extreme locavore dining

Aug 31, 2012

I’ve never eaten so many flowers in my life – Anise-Hyssop, Borage, Nasturtium, Day Lily …

But it turns out flowers are common fare in extreme locavore/organic dining. That’s the first thing I learned at the Herbfarm restaurant and gardens where I went to explore how chefs there make the restaurant’s strict locavore, organic dinners.

The Herbfarm’s current menu – the“100 Mile Menu” – means the ingredients have to come from within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant located in Woodinville. They’re so serious about it that they make their own salt from seawater and replace citrus ingredients with another acid such as verjus.

Lesson two: It takes a network

I arrived at the Herbfarm’s gardens in Woodinville valley at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday for my first lesson with the head gardener and farmer, Bill Vingelen.

Vingelen, along with other Herbfarm gardeners, had already been hard at work cutting and packing squash blossoms for the restaurant, where they would be filled with lamb sausage and served during the week’s dinners.

Vingelen showed me the various fruits, vegetables and herbs grown at the garden, some of which cannot be found in grocery stores. He said items such as Yuzu fruit or Pellegrini beans came from “a network of people” who want to build up a bank of unique seeds.

“We get some (seeds) from friends or just people who say – ‘Hey, try this!’ ”

Lesson three: Go with the flow

A Herbfarm worker picking tomatoes off the vine.
A Herbfarm worker picking tomatoes off the vine.
Credit Mallory Kaniss / KLU

Because the restaurant uses only local and organic food, the Herbfarm’s menus depend on nature and are ever changing.

“The chef and the farmer work closely together determining what to grow and how much to grow and when to grow it. Nature, of course, has its say about that,” explained Carrie Van Dyck, co-owner of the Herbfarm. “We try to tie themes into what we grow and what we grow to the themes, and (the culinary team) sits down for as long as four hours to hammer out our nine course menus.”

Vingelen and I were eventually joined by the Herbfarm’s head chef Chris, sous chef Ben and pastry chef Bree. The three had come to get an idea which produce and herbs would be available to them for the week.

After they got an overview of the garden, the three began throwing out ideas for potential courses for the week’s menu, such as a blackberry soup and a Pellegrini bean puree. 

When they had a few solid menu ideas, the team grabbed seven tubs of fresh produce that Vingelen had gathered earlier from the gardens to transport to the restaurant.

Lesson four: Don’t be squeamish

Lambs from Puyallup are butchered by one of the cooks.
Lambs from Puyallup are butchered by one of the cooks.
Credit Mallory Kaniss / KPLU

The only livestock that is currently being raised on the Herbfarm’s farm is chicken, and those are used only as a source of eggs. The restaurant ensures that any other animal on its menu is locally raised or locally caught.

On a tour of the kitchen, just after the meat supplies for the week had been delivered, I watched two cooks butcher duck from a farm in Puyallup while the kitchen’s sous chef filleted sockeye salmon caught via reef netting on Lummi Island.

After the Puyallup ducks had been butchered, the cooks began the same process on two whole lambs, also raised in Puyallup.

Insisting the cooks do the meat butchering themselves is also part of the restaurant’s farm-to-table dining commitment and to keeping all its food preparation as local as possible.

Lesson five: Prepare your bank account

The Herbfarm’s labor-intensive determination to bring unprocessed food from local farms and its own garden to the dinner table makes the process costly.

So, if you’re interested in enjoying the restaurant’s cuisine, be prepared to spend some money. One dinner can cost between $179 and $205 per person.