RICE, Stevens County —
The day dawns on the farm like any other. Roosters have been crowing since 5 a.m. and before long, Lora Lea Misterly is in the parlor, milking the goats to make the cheese that has powered this tiny Eastern Washington farm for 18 years.
But on this crisp morning, a lamb will die; and within minutes, 10 chefs and culinary instructors will be outside sipping their morning coffee as Lora Lea's husband, Rick, transforms it from freshly killed animal to two sides of lamb fit for the walk-in freezer. It's part of a five-day experience in which these mostly Seattle-based kitchen professionals harvest garden fruit and vegetables, butcher ducks, milk goats and help make cheese — in short, become temporary farmhands.
Something unique is happening at Quillisascut, placing this tiny goat-cheese farm — named for a nearby creek — at the forefront of a national movement known as "sustainable food." The movement promotes the sorts of ideals you've probably been hearing about — farm-to-fork relationships and the purchase of local, organic and seasonal ingredients.
These European-based traditions, revived by Berkeley's Alice Waters 20 years ago, have gradually taken root in American kitchens, fueling organic-minded menus, a farmer's market renaissance and the rise of locally oriented chains like Portland-based New Seasons Markets. The effects are being felt as far as the produce sections of your local grocery.
The benefits of a sustainable system, proponents say, are multiple. Food is fresher. Buying it gives struggling small farmers a much-needed boost and creates ongoing relationships. And because it is locally raised, it takes less fuel and uses up fewer resources to get it to the consumer.
Evangelists of good food choices
The Northwest has long been a sustainability stronghold. But as terms such as "pastured poultry" and "grass-fed beef" began dotting menus and shelves, the Misterlys sensed that few people were actually hip to the origins of their food.
They wanted people to see food as they saw it on the farm, up close and personal, the product of careful work steeped in ancient wisdom, a resource to be respected. With a growing air of evangelism, they thought: Who better to reach than the people on the front lines?
That's how the Quillisascut Farm School for the Domestic Arts came to be, and since 2002, more than 180 mostly Northwest-based culinary students and professionals have passed through the program. Attendees have come from the Herbfarm, Pasta & Co. and Cafe Juanita; they've included Danielle Custer, general manager of Bon Appétit's cafe at the Seattle Art Museum and culinary instructors Emily Moore and Diana Dillard, formerly of the The Painted Table and Rain City Grill, respectively.
Tom Douglas sponsors a regular in-house essay contest among his four Seattle restaurants, with hopefuls explaining why they should be sent to Quillisascut. Meanwhile, the Seattle Culinary Academy, at Seattle Central Community College, annually awards 10 farm-school scholarships and will launch a sustainability course this fall.
The idea is that the message will be handed down the line from chef, to sous chef, to cook, to waitstaff ... to you, at your table.
The waitstaff, after all, "are the ones who are sharing most with the consumer," says Jennifer Hall, director of the Chefs Collaborative, a national network of more than 1,000 sustainability-oriented chefs. "Then, beyond 'What can I tell you about our specials,' they can brag a little bit about the food and convey that message to the diner."
"A lot of them are in a position where they can help other people make good food choices," Lora Lea Misterly says. "We think we're making a choice when we look at a menu, but somebody else has already made that choice."
Educating the public
Even supporters of the sustainable-food movement acknowledge there are genuine barriers — and good questions about how to reach real-world consumers who may value quantity over quality. This is a tough one, admits Christopher Conville, executive chef at the Seattle Art Museum cafe.
"There should be a sustainable message in schools," he says. Farmers should visit and let kids taste sample produce, he says, and schools should arrange more farm field trips.
It's a lot to think about, so Conville does what he can. "My goal starts with me," he says.
And chef Seth Hutt of Le Pichet notes that while customers have a general sense that buying organic and local is good, the expense often turns them away.
"It's the restaurant's job to explain what's on the menu and how it's prepared, trying to teach them why you're cooking this food, why it's better," Hutt says.
There is a growing amount of educational activity going on. Nationwide, farm opportunities for the general public range from simple tours to the chance to attend workshops or have dinner at the $30-million, nonprofit Stone Barn Center for Food and Agriculture, on Rockefeller farmland in New York state. California's Full Belly Farm, near Sacramento, offers yearlong, unstructured apprenticeships for people wanting to give farm work a try.
But by specifically targeting culinary professionals with a sustainability curriculum crafted around its modest operation, Quillisascut is carving out a unique niche. "I haven't heard of anything like this anywhere in the country," says Hall, of Chef's Collaborative, who attended herself in 2002.
Some of the students are curious about cheese making, envisioning their own farms someday. Others seek reinvigoration or new insights to share with their workplace.
"I know what it's like to work really hard," Conville says. "But I wanted to know what it was like on the other end. That tomato, that apple, is somebody's life."
Daily duties are shared and rotated, from milking and harvesting to meal planning and cleanup. Attendees also see films on topics such as genetically modified food and globalization's effect on small farms.
Each morning brings a new word of the day, like "sustainability," or "enough." Today's word: Respect.
"Think about the generations of people who developed the seed, the farmers who tended the plant, the weather that affected the soil," suggests Kären Jurgensen, Quillisascut's farm-school chef. Respect governs how you use a vegetable, what you throw away and how.
Cooked here, grown here
Quillisascut is the picture of sustainability, part of a local food system in which it gets nearly all it needs from its grounds, the surrounding area or other farms. Its slogan is, "When life doesn't hand you lemons, make ver jus," a nod to the fact that citrus doesn't grow locally, eliminating a common piece of the cook's toolbox. Instead, the farm makes do with the liquid pressed from acidic, unripe grapes, which are populous.
The main garden is flush with trees offering apples, almonds, peaches and plums; closer to the ground are cilantro, mustard greens, onion and carrots. There are grapes, alpine strawberries, spiny arugula, yellow squash and more, with a ready mix of herbs just outside the kitchen.
That evening, Jurgensen will be using leaves from the grapevines to wrap lamb loin for dinner; the next day at lunch, the yellow squash turns up as a delicious fresh stuffing for tamales.
The Misterlys do choose to buy a few things from beyond the area — butter, spices and olive oil, for instance. Otherwise, meals reflect available ingredients, capitalizing on the season's first corn or cabbage or improvising in the moment.
This is the world farm-school students encounter, where life rolls with seasonal habits and whims: By August, vegetables and fruits are reaching full swing, ushering away the final cherry harvest; by mid-September, heirloom tomatoes, Bartlett pears and area berries are weighing down their branches.
The Misterlys first pondered growing wine grapes, but when Lora Lea's goat-cheese experiments coincided with the product's rising popularity, their course was set; by 1987, they were state-certified, and they've made a living supplying cheese to mostly Seattle-based accounts such as Rovers, Ray's Boathouse and PCC Markets. (Because the milk is unpasteurized, the farm's cheese is aged at least 60 days before sale, as the law requires.)
Lora Lea grew up on a Leavenworth, Chelan County, farm, and after years of hearing that farms had no future she decided to challenge the odds. "I'm happy with my choice," she says. "Although there are days when I wish somebody would milk the goats for me."
She has a nurturing nature, gray setting in where brown used to be and a palpable passion for her work. Imagine, she says, someone experiencing for the first time the world of heirloom tomatoes, which present in traffic-light hues with a range of variations in between. "Visuals are part of the beauty," she says.
She and Rick, a scraggy, mellow native of nearby Republic, settled here in 1981. Their 36-acre property overlooks other small farms of Pleasant Valley, with views to mountains beyond and realities within. "I think we all recognize that death is part of life," Rick tells the attendees at last month's professional retreat. "And if we want to eat meat, something has to die."
He does the killing alone in the barn before dawn, away from crowd and spectacle. The first few times he killed an animal were hard, because he wasn't sure he'd do it right, but over time he's grown to be capable and caring and on this particular morning is soon trundling to the dorm in a small tractor, woolly lamb limp in the bin.
As the attendees look on in the hints of dawn, Rick, in his blue-gray uniform, hangs the lamb — which Jurgensen's sous chef has dubbed "Sorry Charlie" — from its hindquarters to begin the labor of butchering. He conducts the surprisingly clean process in careful order, inviting students to step in when appropriate. Some can't watch it all, but he's done within an hour.
Participation is voluntary; the greater aim is to open eyes to the origins of food, the work it takes to produce it and methods of doing it humanely. The message doesn't always sink in; some have seen it as a purely academic exercise they'll likely never repeat step-for-step in their jobs.
But feeling responsible for death, Lora Lea Misterly says, introduces a sacred element to the process and encourages one to avoid waste. Observes chef Dylan Stockman of Etta's, who hopes to have his own farm someday: "When you take it from life to death to the kitchen, you just respect it so much."
"You don't always think about these things being parts of a whole," says line cook Kim Sturts, of Seattle's Dahlia Lounge. He'll think twice before throwing out parts. "It comes back to respecting the animal," he says.
Building a ritual of food
Meals are perhaps the most bonding and illustrative of farm-school rituals. Students take turns slicing, chopping and stirring; they stem grapes or make cajeta, a goat's-milk caramel sauce.
Breakfasts, lunches and dinners colorfully evoke the farm cornucopia via Jurgensen's seasonal repertoire or student improvisation. Ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms. Huckleberry and sage ice creams. Gazpacho soup with arugula pesto.
The bounty isn't limited to the gardens, as Jurgensen and Lora Lea Misterly illustrate one day by leading a foraging session that starts by combing for pine nuts along the farm's long driveway and ends with a mother lode of creek-bed watercress in slushy marshes beyond. Nearby, and along the main road, are berries galore — small, tart Oregon grapes; maroon, stick-to-your-teeth chokecherries; and tiny, applelike rosehips, used for syrups.
Witnessing a local food system at work shows how the simple life is anything but, says Michelle Catalano, who attended last year when she was with the Pike Place Market Cooperative. "It was very humbling," she says, to see local farms acting as parts of a whole and how everything within Quillisascut itself was part of a larger picture.
Some leave not only with renewed obligation to craft but to themselves, or as Chefs Collaborative's Hall says, "thinking about what my own habits support."
With the morning's collected milk used for cheese later that day and another day's mozzarella decorating dinner that night, "it doesn't get any fresher," Hall says. "That message — that local does provide the best flavor you can find, from people who treat their animals well — is a very powerful message about how the food system used to work on some level before commercialism and technology got hold of it."
"You are doing a great thing, an important thing, with your work here," reads a guest book entry from August 2003. "I promise to go forth and spread the word about what I've learned here ... and to think and respect my food."
"We need to start with ourselves," SAM's Conville says. "I can't stand up and save the world and make it better right away. But I can have a positive influence."
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org
What it means
The sustainable food movement comes with a vocabulary of its own. Here's a brief glossary.
A system that produces food in a manner healthy for consumers and animals, doesn't harm the environment and provides fair wages to farmers.
A term applied to products, producers and farmers certified by a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved (USDA) agency. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, genetically modified or grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge. Animals must be fed only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics.
"Most people agree that heirloom vegetables and fruits are those types known through historical documentation or folk history for at least 50 years," according to a USDA report on heirloom varieties. The report notes that heirlooms are also specifically distinct from the many created hybrids now common in commercial agriculture: "In addition to their long history of use, the heirloom vegetables that are routinely grown from seed are open-pollinated, meaning that they set seed 'naturally,' often aided by wind, rain, or pollinating insects, and can thus be renewed by sowing the seeds harvested from each generation of plants."
As it sounds, refers to animals raised and fed on a pasture rather than being fattened on grain in a feedlot or barn.
Artisan generally means a skilled craftsperson. In this context, it's someone who specializes in creating a particular kind of food, or the food itself. For example, the Bread Bakers Guild of America defines artisan baking as "the work of a knowledgeable, skilled and conscientious baker who is attempting to make the best possible product."
Sources: All from Sustainable Table, a New York-based consumer campaign developed by the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (sustainabletable.org); except heirloom vegetable item, in which a USDA source is cited in definition.
Trying it at home
If you want to experiment with sustainable food in your own kitchen, Quillisascut's Lora Lea Misterly and others suggest starting small. "Maybe pick a few things — like, if you drink a lot of milk, get it from a small dairy that doesn't use hormones," says Tom Loverich, chef at Islandwood, who attended last month's farm retreat. "Cook more from scratch, or eat less ready-to-eat food. Start with the basics."
"Rethinking the Kitchen," the handbook Misterly authored with farm-school chef Kren Jurgensen, targets professional kitchens, but many of its green-minded tips about shopping and conservation apply to any kitchen. Here are some suggestions from the handbook and from others who've been through the Quillisascut program.
What to buy
When shopping, look first for items that are both local and organic; then local; then organic. Support stores and restaurants that do their best to offer those ingredients.
Don't dump it
Use as much of a vegetable, fruit or animal product as possible. "To me sustainability is just not creating waste," says Amy Pennington of Tom Douglas Restaurants. Recycle and compost what you can. Conserve energy and water.
How you eat
Commit to regularly sharing meals with your partner or family. "It brings the value of food to an important level when you're taking the time to sit down and enjoy it," says Michelle Catalano, formerly of the Pike Place Market Cooperative.
Patronize farmer's markets
Meet farmers personally, ask what their offerings are and how to prepare them. "Any time you meet a producer, they're more than happy to talk about what they do," says chef Seth Hutt of Le Pichet. "We'll all benefit, from supporting a local economy to just being smarter as a whole."