This thought-provoking piece will displease some, but Corby Kummer (@CKummer) makes some legitimate points about the phrase “farm-to-table.” He laments its over-use by chefs, saying:
Those good intentions went amok when chefs around the country started to outdo one another with menus that took on the name-clotted length of petitions: “Treviso grown by Warren Weber in Bolinas in the third row of the radicchio plot at Star Route Farms.”
But Kummer also expresses concern about “how the language and iconography have been co-opted by the very companies to which the movement was supposed to be an alternative—“farmwashing,” as the practice is called.“
He offers this commentary in Vanity Fair:
“It Begins with a Farmer,” a series of ads featuring pictures of wholesome-looking tillers of the soil, carries messages such as “A Mother’s Love Begins with a Farmer.” The sponsor? Monsanto, the global purveyor of genetically modified seeds (and scourge of farmers who resist them). McDonald’s, under siege as the public looks askance at the processed foods it blames for obesity, has been fighting back against its increasingly strong rival Chipotle, which built its market share on claims of ethical suppliers (claims under frequent dispute, but that’s what you get when you try to seize the moral high ground and make a lot of money). Four years ago McDonald’s started a “What We’re Made Of” campaign to make customers “feel good about the high-quality ingredients that go into our menu.” Two years later, it ran a “farm-to-fork” campaign featuring potato, beef, and lettuce farmers displaying products that actually grew in (or on) the ground.
He also shares a bit about the history, for those who don’t know the story:
When “Alice Waters started listing the names of farms on the menu of Chez Panisse, it was to remind people that food really did grow on farms.” Waters – and chefs inspired by her work – “wanted to re-establish the link between the seasons of the year and the food she served, and she wanted to credit everyone who produced every part of the meal.”
It’s time, then, to retire “farm-to-table.” The term has been drained of any real meaning it may have once had. Chefs themselves are getting sick of it. Sean Brock, who at his Husk restaurants, in Charleston and Nashville, has helped revive an entire region’s historic cuisine through assiduous research in old cookbooks and newspapers, told me that he commanded his P.R. staff right from the start not to use “farm-to-table” in any piece of publicity. When I asked Michael Scelfo, chef of a popular new Cambridge restaurant called Alden & Harlow, about what looked to be deliberate farm-to-table branding—the menu features whimsical line drawings of mushrooms and onions—he said, in essence, Don’t you ever call it that again. “We make it a point not to advertise that we source our food as thoughtfully as we can,” he said. “You owe that to your customers. You don’t need to browbeat them by listing farms.” And in fact what he was serving was brawny, meaty food meant to put the focus on the chef, not the farm.