How to Create a Farm-to-Table Program for 1,200 Guests
By Chris Ferrier Executive Chef, The National Conference Center | August 2017
Many hotels are overwhelmed by the thought of putting together a 'buy local' or 'farm-to-table' culinary program when they also have to serve many guests. Where do you start? Should chefs contact all the local farms, breweries, wineries, fish mongers, meat and poultry farms in their area? Should they visit each farm? Many years ago, this was what we did; but with 1,200 meals to prepare, often we would clear out the farmers' goods and still not have enough for what we needed.
Today, Loudoun County boasts more than 40 wineries, cideries, distilleries and even a meadery. In addition, it has 20-plus breweries and over 40 meat and poultry farms. Visiting each farm would be time consuming and inefficient. But how can a chef be confident of the quality and quantity otherwise? There is a huge amount of planning that goes into this process, but the first step, for us, is to contact our Local Food Hub.
The Local Food Hub forges close relationships with local Virginia farmers, and provides the infrastructure for distribution of fresh, high-quality produce. It is a regional leader in ensuring that small farms gain an economic foothold in the marketplace, and that the knowledge and choice of local food becomes the norm, not the exception, for all segments of the community. Local Food Hub's 60 partner farms represent the bounty and diversity of the Virginia food shed. They offer fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, eggs, honey, grains, and more, to hospitals, retailers, restaurants, schools, and food banks, and partner with distributors like Sysco, a major food and beverage hotel provider.
Besides the Local Food Hub, Visit Loudoun sponsored a Restaurant & Producer Market Place in the spring. Loudoun food and beverage establishments were invited to meet Loudoun County agricultural farms, breweries and wineries. This year, 30 establishments and approximately 20 producers attended. The purpose was for chefs and producers to meet and greet and discuss how they can help each other sell products, learn what will be available throughout the growing season. This cut down on visits to farms throughout the county and enabled chefs to sample products.
Two years ago, we started our own garden, right off the kitchen. It excited the staff about developing the farm-to-table program. We grew the basics – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, green beans and herbs – but nowhere near what we needed to feed 1,200 guests. Mary Watson-DeLauder is the keeper of the garden and our CWO (Chief Wine Officer). She uses the herbs in a wine tasting workshop where she pairs wines with herbs to see how herbs change the palette. This is a big hit with our groups and a great team building event.
We often create large events with a local flavor by practicing this purchasing process. Here's how we at The National Conference Center purchase and cook for 1,200 with a farm-to-table mission. Experience, learning by error, experimenting and basic math calculating are all involved. This is the process we teach all of our staff as they price out menus.