Fresh and local have a long, sustainable history in the kitchen

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2010 - 4:09 PM

Local food fans may think they've discovered the newest thing, but cooks have leaned on fresh regional foods for a long time.

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Lee Dean Fresh Catch Cafe in Homer, Alaska.

Alice Waters wasn't the first to be enamored of local foods. Nor are the verdant fields in California the only lush spots to grow such foods. (No surprise to our own local chefs who have sourced foods carefully throughout our region.)

Truth is, cooks have been intrigued by the food in their own back yards for a long time, despite how difficult it may be to grow in their locale. Here's a look at three cooks and their insistence on local.

Georgia O'Keeffe's art of the kitchen

Food isn't the first thing we think of when we consider artist Georgia O'Keeffe, whose paintings came to define the Southwest. Yet food -- and its presentation -- were very much on the mind of O'Keeffe, who moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949 after the death of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Though her original home and studio were at Ghost Ranch in the hilly desert, O'Keeffe refurbished an adobe building in Abiquiu, which she bought for its garden potential. The new property came with water rights -- a significant feature in an arid region. O'Keeffe's goal was specific: She wanted the space to grow her own fruits, vegetables and herbs, said Margaret Wood, one of the last companion/cooks to work with O'Keeffe.

Wood was 24 and O'Keeffe 90 when she became the elder's caregiver. For five years, Wood cooked two meals a day for O'Keeffe, who occasionally entertained a succession of friends and followers, including such guests as Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg.

O'Keeffe was a follower of Adele Davis and Lelord Kordel, health food proponents in the 1950s (she lived to be 98, not so incidentally). O'Keeffe preferred organic grains, ground her own flour, bought eggs and honey from her neighbors. There was homemade yogurt from local goat's milk and granola for snacks.

"I remember how she [O'Keeffe] guided me through the large Abiquiu garden, telling me where all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs could be found. She spoke with pride about her organic produce: the two-pound tomato that was grown the previous summer, the tree that bore the best applesauce apples, and the hardy raspberries that survived one spring when all the other fruit froze," wrote Wood in "A Painter's Kitchen, Recipes From the Kitchen of Georgia O'Keeffe" (Museum of New Mexico Press, 119 pages, $16.95), first published in 1997 and recently reissued. The cookbook includes black-and-white photos of O'Keeffe in her home.

An ancient ditch system of irrigation channels called acequias provided water on certain days that allowed fruit trees (apple, peach, apricot) to prosper and meant watercress grew year-round. Prevention magazine and the Rodale herb book were O'Keeffe's go-to sources as she kept track of her diet and the lovage, tarragon, summer savory, basil, rosemary, sage, marjoram and oregano in her garden.

What she didn't use immediately, O'Keeffe dried, froze or canned for the winter, activities she had learned as a child on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wis. "She really believed in local foods," said Wood in an interview.

The aesthetics of art wove their way into O'Keeffe's meals, where she wanted the food and presentation to be simple and fresh. She was particular: Lettuce was picked leaf by leaf to create what we would now call "mesclun," or a mix of lettuce. Her table was kept simple, as was the food: plain white porcelain china, colorful straw mats, soft white napkins, with meals that were equally unfussy.

"Do you think other people eat as well as we do?" O'Keeffe asked Wood on more than one occasion.

How far north can you grow?

If you think the garden days are numbered in Minnesota, think of those in Alaska.

Ditto for restaurant days. For chefs aiming for tourists, it's business as usual only in June, July and August.

That's the challenge faced by Harrison McHenry, chef/owner of the Fresh Catch Cafe in Homer, Alaska, who has made "fresh," "local" and "sustainable" his guidelines since he opened the restaurant five years ago.

"Just about everything but citrus can grow in Alaska," said McHenry. That means normal vegetables -- well, if you call a 95-pound head of cabbage normal -- but bigger. Lots bigger, given that there are 18 hours of light daily.

As for the local emphasis, well, you can't get much fresher than the fish outside his window on the Homer spit. "If a fisherman comes in with a load of rockfish or mussels or a farmer brings in broccoli rabe, that's what ends up as a special," he said. "I want to showcase Alaska's cuisine."

McHenry landed in Homer 12 years ago, coming up from the Lower 48 to help out in someone else's kitchen. He never left. "I still have the round-trip ticket." He grew up in Oregon on an organic farm, worked in Oregon and the Colorado Rockies as a cook before heading to County Cork, Ireland, for more formal culinary training at Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery School. "My whisk and copper pot are well-traveled," he said.

He earned a reputation as a serious cook at the Homestead restaurant, outside Homer, then moved on to his own place after an ownership turnover. With the Fresh Catch Cafe open only a few months annually, McHenry spends the rest of the year as a butcher (moose and bear, as well as more traditional animals) and perfecting the kitchen particulars: curing bacon and making sausage, mastering bread and pastry technique.

By the close of summer, when he's ready to shutter the door, even the locals are tired of fresh seafood, never mind that they've been dining on crab, halibut, salmon and shrimp for months. "By fall, we all need meat," he said.

Fresh Catch Cafe, 4025 Homer Spit Road, Homer, AK 99603, 1-907-235-2289, freshcatchalaska.net (closed for the season).

From the Harbor View to Holden Village

Who makes a change when they are at the height of their success?

Paul and Carol Hinderlie and their business partner, Tom Ahlstrom, did just that five years ago when they sold the Harbor View restaurant in Pepin, Wis., and headed to the Cascade Mountains of Washington for a new opportunity. The three were returning to their roots, of sorts, to run Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center, where they had all worked earlier, and where Paul's father had been director.

They left behind a 26-year-history with a restaurant that had won national acclaim, a close-knit "family" of longtime staffers and the ability to source plentiful local foods, from mushrooms to lambs.

But they didn't leave behind the ministry of feeding people.

The trio finished their five-year-commitment to Holden on Sept. 1, during which they faced challenges that would fluster even a Top Chef.

There are no roads to Holden. It takes a two-hour ferry along Lake Chelan far into the Cascades to get there, followed by a 30-minute drive on harrowing switchbacks to reach the retreat, housed in a former mining camp. Dry foods come in on a barge. "We could survive two months if we had to," said Paul. Fresh food reaches them by ferry -- in 90-degree heat in the summer.

They have plenty of local purveyors, though logistics can become cumbersome. "It's fun to buy local," said Paul, "but we couldn't survive on it." And that's before the freight charges are figured in.

His staff has more turnover than a fast-food joint -- and the dish crew is democratic (everyone on staff rotates through the dish pit, as it is called).

The cooks are volunteers, many of them college students in their early 20s, who tend to stick around for three weeks (for a short-term post) to one year (long-term). Paul teaches them cooking techniques along the way. Then they're gone, and he teaches the next batch of cooks. Which sometimes means that mealtime isn't as perfect as it might be at a restaurant.

"At Harbor View, after one year a staffer might have moved up to prep work," Paul said with a shrug.

Yet they still cook from scratch at Holden: homemade bread, soup, salads, fish (with cod and sockeye salmon from Alaska), a philosophy they call "lavish simplicity."

In his latter years at Harbor View, the food world was quickly changing its focus from the meal itself to the celebrity status of the chef.

"I'm always surprised about restaurants that become temples, and where food becomes God," said Paul, a former seminary student.

"Here at Holden, we give food that's down to Earth."

Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749

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