The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Samantha Chulick
The square table is set with spotless silverware and white cloth napkins. Ginger gusts rise from the oven and sweep through the one-room restaurant promising culinary delights. The room echoes with murmurs of gastronomical mirth. No, this isn’t a five-star restaurant in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This is the Traveler’s Table, deep in the Ozarks, near Davisville, Mo.
Located along a narrow, tree lined gravel road, the Traveler’s Table is a foodie’s dream. Modern-day bon vivants who relish in the sensuous experience of eating and drinking are known as foodies. They always search out the latest food fad.
Recently, a popular culinary trend has been the local food movement. These days, foodies can find gourmet, sustainable fare just about anywhere. Chefs, both urban and rural, are creating local-centric menus. From coast to coast, restaurants are reconnecting eaters with their food.
The focus of the Traveler’s Table is on local and sustainable cuisine at affordable prices. It’s a great example of a pastoral location providing an idyllic setting for a local-centric eatery. Husband-wife owners Chris Johansson and Greg Kerlin are unlikely Davisville residents: she’s a California girl and he’s a St. Louis boy.
"People always ask us how we ended up in Davisville," explains Johansson. "The short answer is the car broke down on the Huzzah Bridge."
The two walked the short distance to a pay phone and happened upon a vacated restaurant space on a large plot of land. They were instantly smitten.
They decided on the name because, as Johansson explains it, "not only do you have to travel awhile to get to us, but also because we feature food from around the world."
From the Middle East (Quinoa Tabouleh) to Central Mexico (Chicken Mole Poblano), the chef-owners wanted to expose their customers to a variety of cultures and flavors.
Working with their neighbors, Johansson and Kerlin use primarily Missouri grown produce, dairy and meat. With their customer’s palates on their minds, they feature some of Missouri’s favorite regional recipes such as gooey butter cake. Open only on the weekends, from March to October, the Traveler’s Table is a superb seasonal dining destination.
Tucked away in bucolic Chilhowie, Va., stands Townhouse. Executive chefs Karen and John Shields created Townhouse as a dining destination for gourmands who appreciate their emphasis on local ingredients.
Originally from Chicago, the husband-wife duo made the move to Virginia based purely on their belief in the local food movement. Partnering with neighboring farmers, the Shields designed a menu around seasonal components. With entrée titles such as "Fallen from the Tree" (Foie Gras topped with heirloom apples, sassafras, hazelnuts and a black malt reduction), Townhouse’s menu is written in a literal style.
Hard to even find on a map, Chilhowie is a one-stoplight town in southern Virginia. By making Townhouse both a restaurant and an inn, Chilhowie has become a weekend getaway for political epicures from Washington, D.C.
The commitment to seasonal fare is not exclusive to agrarian venues: chefs in major metropolitan areas are also developing local-centric menus for their consumers. In the West Village in New York City, chef April Bloomfield showcases sustainable cuisine in her hipster gastropub, the Spotted Pig.
Born and raised in England, Bloomfield whips up traditional pub fare with a seasonal twist. For instance, she takes the pub staple of fish and chips and uses local striped bass and russet potatoes. The menu also features artisanal ales made all across New York State, from Brooklyn to Ithaca.
Juggling a hectic schedule, Bloomfield doesn’t have much time to visit farms. Instead, she created a staff position for that. Called a forager, this person is the restaurant’s connection to local food. Erin Littlestar, executive director of Arcadia Food, in Alexandria, Va., describes a forager as "a person who has both culinary and agriculture experience. He/she works with the executive chef and farmers to create dishes that highlight provincial delicacies."
Restaurants across the nation are investing in sustainably sourced, seasonal ingredients. Realizing the connection of farm to fork helps patrons see the importance of eating locally sourced ingredients.
As Chris Johansson, in the Ozarks, explains, "Many of our neighbors are farmers, and (our customers) are learning the delicious difference between ‘farm-fresh’ and ‘processed’ food."
At the Traveler’s Table, and restaurants across the country, the primary goal, as explained by Johansson, "is to work with local farmers and growers to bring the freshest local food we can to the table."