Richard Holcomb, Jamie DeMent and the chef Marco Shaw at Coon Rock Farm.
NEW YORK TIMES FIELD REPORT
Fresh Direction: A Farm-to-Table Restaurant
By CHRISTINE MUHLKE
Published: April 19, 2010
On a March morning at Coon Rock Farm — 55 acres of just about everything you can grow and raise — in Hillsborough, N.C., Jamie DeMent is showing me a fallen tree that’s being milled into tabletops for the farm’s biggest project to date: Eno Restaurant and Market.
Who knew the farm-to-table loop would become so compressed or so literal? But it was only a matter of time before the farmers’ market evolved into the farmers’ restaurant.
Eno, which is scheduled to open early this summer in downtown Durham, will serve dishes made from Coon Rock’s meat, vegetables, eggs and milk (including from a cow named Eudora — as in Welty). Toward the end of the meal, diners will be handed a dessert menu and a market menu. Liked the pork chop and Russian kale? Take some home and cook them your way. As DeMent envisions it, “You’ll be able to get a little brown bag if you thought that was the greatest pork chop you’ve ever had in your life, which it will be.”
The restaurant’s market area will also sell house-made charcuterie, cheeses and prepared food. Subscribers to Coon Rock’s community-supported agriculture program, or C.S.A., can pick up their weekly allotment there, too. If all goes according to plan, Eno will be like a farm stand with a wine list.
In five years, DeMent and her partner, Richard Holcomb, have traded the world of C.E.O.’s for the world of C.S.A.’s. Holcomb, who grew up on a farm, built several successful software companies. (His father has gone from thinking he’s insane to building a house on the farm.) DeMent, who worked for a congressman on Capitol Hill and in museum fund-raising in North Carolina, says she “led a very prissy existence, in very high heels and very tight skirts.” Today their sustainable farm operates at a befittingly high level, generating enough heritage-breed meat and heirloom vegetables for 300 C.S.A. members and four farmers’ markets in the Raleigh-Durham area, as well as the Raleigh restaurant Zely & Ritz, which Holcomb owns with its chef, Sarig Agasi (who is also a partner in Eno).
“It’s more cool in a lot of ways than it is doing a big deal in Tokyo,” Holcomb says. “You can see the impact you’re having.”
The farm was able to get up to scale quickly — building costly infrastructure and doubling production each season — thanks to Holcomb’s financial stability. And it has built a community of loyal buyers in no small part because of DeMent’s outgoing, how-y’all personality. Together, the couple’s understanding of marketing and business helped them see new opportunities for 21st-century agriculture.
Holcomb bought the run-down farmhouse in 2004 as a weekend place for his children, who weren’t benefiting from life in an 8,000-square-foot house in Country Club Hills. (“The only thing they did was fight, play video games or watch TV,” he recalls.) Within weeks the kids asked to move to the wood-heated house, which was the size of the master bedroom at home. Holcomb used the land to grow vegetables and raise pigs for Zely & Ritz, and soon diners were asking where they could buy the pork and greens. (Holcomb and DeMent met when he overheard her talking about how good the restaurant’s greens were. “Those are my greens,” he said, introducing himself.)
The couple decided it was time to create an even more interactive experience than having Zely & Ritz’s bartender hand over 100 C.S.A. boxes a week. A restaurant on the farm was out. So, Eno. “I wanted you to sit down and feel very, very connected to the region and the food,” DeMent says of the restaurant, which has been delayed by the usual permit snags. “I want it to be obvious. That’s why the tabletops will be made from wood from the farm and the waitstaff’s going to work on the farm” one day a month. “It’s all a way to make people more connected to their food. I think that’s one of the biggest problems in civilization right now — no one is connected to their food anymore. If it comes from a window or in a bag, it’s not food.”
The couple hired the chef Marco Shaw from Portland, Ore., where he owned the farm-to-table restaurant Fife. The classically trained chef was looking for more diversity, in both a city and its restaurant community, and Durham’s revitalized downtown and the region’s vibrant food and farming scene inspired him. Although Shaw knows what it really means to cook seasonally, supplying a restaurant from just one farm will be a challenge. He says that Coon Rock will be able to provide 60 percent of what Eno needs the first year, the goal being 100 percent.
“It’s a whole different mind-set to realize that there will be some days when you don’t have salad greens,” says the dreadlocked chef over a lunch of country-ham sandwiches with mustard-green slaw, sitting on the couch at Coon Rock. “You have to figure out how to make salad from turnip greens — and then sell it. When there’s no celery, how are you going to make stock? How are you going to make sauce when you don’t have onions?” There’s also the question of scaling up production on the farm: “With a 75-seat restaurant open six nights a week, just on dinner, I’ll go through 35 chickens,” he says. “Lunch? That’s potentially 80 chickens a week.”
“I need to order chicks!” Holcomb says.
Holcomb and DeMent know that running a farm-to-table restaurant is about more than flipping through seed catalogs to pick out pretty squash. Their desire to feed people and their business backgrounds might have helped them to hit on a new model.
I ask which is harder, farming or opening a restaurant.
“Farming!” Shaw says.
“Opening a restaurant!” DeMent says. “Chasing pigs isn’t that hard, Marco.”