Our apartment plays witness to a weekly rotation of identical waxed cardboard boxes filled with an edible assortment ranging from fresh greens to curious root vegetables, all grown at a farm just 10 miles from our own address.
For anyone who has a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share, this is likely a familiar sight. And if you’re anything like us, the subsequent ritual of assessing the contents is both fun and bewildering.
In Tompkins County there is no shortage of farms utilizing the CSA model, with over 20 farms offering an array of options – including both meat and vegetables, in summer and in winter. According to a 2017 survey conducted by Monika Roth, Ag Extension Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, about 10 percent of county residents participate, allowing local farmers a degree of economic freedom not normally seen at their small scale. While a home cook might enjoy the challenge of incorporating these unpredictable crops over the course of a week, it’s hard to imagine a restaurant doing the same – but not only do the chefs at the Carriage House Café in Collegetown and the bartenders at The Loft rise to the challenge, they relish it.
“It’s a unique challenge that we’ve come to find very enjoyable,” reflected Owner and Chef Kristian Woodall. We’re tucked into a corner of the historic building’s lower floor, during the steady hum of weekday brunch. “It’s a way to really keep things interesting for folks, and for myself, and be able to use a lot more local ingredients and still offer our foundational menu that people have come to expect.”
The Carriage House Café has been buying a weekly CSA from Nook & Cranny Farm in Brooktondale for the last few years. Each Saturday, they receive an e-mail with a preview of the next day’s produce. “But really, that’s almost too late … because I plan a week ahead… so it’s just sort of a surprise, really!” explained Woodall. Once the box arrives – courtesy of Jon Harrington, a farmer at Nook & Cranny who also heads up the café’s kitchen during the hectic weekend brunch – the reckoning begins. “You have to be willing to deal with 25 different things in a box … you have a pound of this and two heads of that, so sometimes we’ll accumulate. If we have four weeks of red potato coming in, we’ll accumulate that and we’ll do a special. Or we’ll get a bunch of peppers … and then we’ll pickle them or make some sort of slaw, or we do a lot of sauerkrauts”
Fermentation, it appears, is their secret weapon. “We always have maybe 10 to 15 different pickles that we’re a month ahead on. We put a pickle board on the downstairs menu but also thought it could be a really good fit upstairs too.”Upstairs, in this case, refers to The Loft. At 4:30 p.m. the bar’s 90-minute happy hour is just starting and the last rays of sunlight stream in through high windows. The evening’s brief food menu is elegantly scrawled on a piece of butcher paper hanging from twine near the bar.
In contrast to the food, the drinks require a more fluid schedule. Bar Manager Hilary Giraudin shared that incorporating local ingredients happens on a different timetable when alcohol is involved. “Jon brought in elderberries the other day … and he was like ‘Here, do something with these!’” she recounted. The result? “We’re infusing them into vodka, so they have to sit for four weeks.”
Barrel-aging and flavor infusion is a common practice here, as is making syrups and fresh-pressed juices from the CSA stock. Downstairs in the café, homemade sauces and from-scratch compotes are an opportunity for similar creativity. Not every establishment is set up to handle these time-intensive processes, but here, they prioritize them – all the way down to who they hire.
“I’m always looking for people who love food and love farms,” said Woodall. “Depending on what they enjoy doing, or what their knowledge base is, I try to give them freedom in that area.” This is very apparent when I’m discussing cocktail creation with Giraudin. “When I wanted to do a peach drink and I wanted to infuse peaches into Bourbon it wasn’t like ‘Oh here’s some peach extract; throw that in there’ – which you see at a lot of bars.” Instead, “they were like ‘here’s a case of peaches, go do it’. That’s something that I love about working here … there are no shortcuts.”
I’m impressed by how thoroughly they have integrated the CSA into their daily operations. Woodall has been devoted to sourcing locally since the Carriage House opened in 2000, but it hasn’t always been so easy. “It was very challenging when we first opened to actually coordinate – because you had to do a lot more directly with farmers, who were very busy out in the fields. That was a very hard thing for us initially, but through technology, infrastructure and different companies here who are working as hubs to bring food in and distribute it, it’s gotten a lot easier.”
“The motto of the Carriage House that we came up with as a family is comfort, quality, and service,” Owner and Private Events Manager Jessica Chandler shared. “So that is something we try to carry through [on both floors]. And we don’t save money by doing things certain ways – we’ll have more staff on or we’ll buy things locally, and it’s not the cheapest way…. But I am proud to say we have supported local companies, truly bought from people hand-to-hand.”
As more restaurants adopt the moniker “farm to table,” the Carriage House Café stands out as an establishment which has adhered to those principles faithfully and with boundless creativity. Returning home to my own CSA box, I draw inspiration from the Carriage House team and make plans for my own fermented goodies – though I know I’ll still be visiting The Loft for my locavore cocktails.
Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.
Recommended for you