Made in America: Local chefs value homegrown products

Wednesday - 6/26/2013, 2:41pm EDT

Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery carefully selects the ingredients used at his restaurant from family farms. (Courtesy Scott Suchman)

Dana Gooley, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - George Washington stands atop a pastry case in Arlington's Bayou Bakery, holding a sickle and a sack of grains. The figurine, purchased at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, belongs to restaurant owner David Guas.

Guas figured a tribute to the founding father was in order. After all, Mount Vernon's grist mill -- a tool used to grind grain into flour -- supplies Bayou Bakery with freshly ground corn for its cornmeal and grits. And Guas goes to Mount Vernon to pick up this key ingredient.

"They didn't have any delivery ideas, they didn't have any idea of price, we just made it work, and now I physically go to Mount Vernon to the grist mill and pick up my cornmeal," he says.

Guas takes his commitment to locally-sourced ingredients very seriously.

In a metropolitan area like D.C., finding farm-fresh produce can be difficult. Finding organic, locally grown food is even harder. However, to some chefs, going the extra mile for natural food is worth it -- for reasons more than taste.

"I think it's more of an obligation that we have, rather than something to promote," says Guas. "I can sleep at night knowing that I'm offering a quality, but also a well-sourced, safe product."

With less than 2 percent of the American population working in agriculture, and with family-owned farms struggling to stay in business, partnerships between independent farmers and local restaurants prove mutually beneficial, according to the American Farm Bureau.

Eat Local First, an organization dedicated to putting local farmers first, says buying directly from farmers gives chefs the freshest food possible. The partnership also allows producers to profit more than if they sold exclusively to retailers.

While Guas works with local farmers to get his ground corn and other produce, he also sources from small farms throughout the country. And other area restaurants are doing the same.

At District Commons in Foggy Bottom, the popular "pig board" features ham from Norwalk, Iowa. According to Chef Aaron Daniels, La Quercia Farms' high quality pork is worth the distance.

"The fact that they even source the salt they use to cure the meat from right here in America, it just makes it such an uber local product," Daniels says. "It's something we want to support, and it just wows our customers, so really it's a win-win."

For BBQ Joint Chef Andrew Evans, hormone-free meat is a must. Therefore, he carefully selects his humanely-raised protein product from small farmers.

Hormones used to speed-up the growing process of mass-produced meat often result in tougher, less flavorful meat. To Evans, higher-quality proteins have a finer muscle development, and no other meat compares.

"If you have a whole bunch of strands of rope, they're going to trap more water than a few bigger, fatter strands," Evans explains. "If you dip a mop in a bucket of water, it can hold a lot of moisture. If you dip three strands of rope in the water, it's not going to hold much."

For some chefs and restaurateurs, sourcing food from multiple farms is a hassle. But for Chef Guas, it's a privilege. As someone who considers fresh, organically- grown food a customer's right, knowing when and where his produce comes from is a big deal. Take, for example, his relationship with Pearson Farm, his pecan supplier. The Georgia family farm provides nuts that Guas uses in his desserts.

"What I love about dealing with farmers and vendors like [Pearson Farms] is that there's a date on the box, a harvest date, so you know [the nuts] are not just sitting in some warehouse ... these guys are picking them and shelling them during the harvest, and we're getting them a week or so later. You don't often think about nuts as a fresh crop," Guas says.

At District Commons, Chef Daniels pays attention to the seasons. There are certain things the restaurant can't buy seasonally, like lettuce, but the chefs work to include as much natural, small-batch produce as possible.

"When you pop something in your mouth that's cared for, that's created by a small producer, you're going to taste the difference easily," he says.

Guas shows his appreciation to the vendors who supply him with his food.

On Saturdays he can be found handing out Bayou Bakery Beignets to his frequent vendors. His relationships with the farmers are important. Not only does Guas receive the highest quality produce for his customers, he also supports the independent farmers that care about quality, over quantity.

As Chef Daniels puts it, "The more you support those around you, the better for both the economy and for your palate -- why not benefit both?"

Campfire Cast Iron Cornbread

Chef David Guas - Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, Va.

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

  • 5 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 3 ounces cornmeal
  • 2.5 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt, kosher
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 4.5 ounces sour cream
  • 2 ounces milk
  • 3 ounces peanut oil
  • 4.5 ounces creamed corn
  • 1 ounce butter, melted

Directions

Create a small fire in an open area with gray coals. In a mixing bowl, add all of the dry ingredients. Mix well, and add all wet ingredients with the exception of the butter. With a wooden spoon, mix the wet and dry ingredients together until combined. Add the melted butter and mix again with wooden spoon.

Coat a 10-inch cast iron skillet with a spoonful of butter that has been heated slightly. Pour the combined mixture into the cast iron skillet. Cover the skillet in aluminum foil, ensuring that the foil is tight and well-sealed.

Clear the center of your fire, enough to place the pan in the center directly onto the mud or ground with the gray coals around but not touching the skillet (leave about 3 inches of space between the coals and pan). Sprinkle some of the gray colored coals directly on the top of the foil and cook for about an hour.

Check the cornbread every 30 minutes or so until complete, as cooking times will vary due to the use of a campfire.

After cooking, cut wedges from the pan (should yield about 12 slices) and finish, if desired, by drizzling about a tablespoon of your favorite varietal of honey.

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