Connecting farms to forks

A confluence of factors bolsters connections between urban restaurants and rural growers

Patrick Dorris
Courtesy of Flat Tack Farm. Flat Tack Farm co-owner Patrick Dorris is soon unveiling a beer he developed using farm produce.

When I started writing about Clark County farms nearly 15 years ago, I could only find one small farm in the county that was selling consistently to local restaurants, and most of those eateries were in Portland. While there were exceptions, Vancouver and Clark County restaurants couldn’t seem to blaze a financially sustainable path to a mutually beneficial relationship between local food growers and their own kitchens. Meanwhile, dozens of restaurants throughout the Portland area had embraced the concept to a degree – and several, wholly – planning their entire menu on what farmers were growing to offer their customers the ultimate fresh and seasonal experience.

But as price sensitivity decreases and Vancouver’s core attracts a more diverse and younger-skewing population, with an increase in tech companies and of course the ever-present rising tide of the Vancouver Waterfront development that appears to float all boats, farmers are fast connecting to forks across the city.

At least two harvest feasts and a slow food conference are on tap for early fall. The events are exemplary of how diverse the local food movement is.

Kelly Peters and Patrick Dorris
Courtesy of Flat Tack Farm. Flat Tack Farm owners Kelly Peters and Patrick Dorris.

Flat Tack Farm’s Autumn Harvest Feast features the menu of Miguel Sosa, head chef and owner of Elements Restaurant, which recently took over Willem’s space in downtown Vancouver. Flat Tack is located on one acre at Heathen Estate Vineyard, and the event will take place “in the vines,” said Kelly Peters, co-owner of Flat Tack Farm. Weather permitting, there will be an earthen oven where Sosa can cook pork or lamb, and fresh produce mainly from Flat Tack.

Sosa hails from Chicago where the farm-to-table trend has been well in swing, and he was born in Mexico, which inspires his interest in traditional cooking methods. His restaurant’s concept is based on the four elements – earth, air, water and fire.

“There’s only so much the earth can give us. We have to be careful with what we take,” he said.

Given his already busy schedule, I asked him why he wanted to take the time out for a harvest feast. “A lot of it is raising awareness,” he said. “It’s community driven.”

He said he does see the trend building steam, especially with locally owned downtown eateries. When chefs control their menus, they can take risks and display their values.

“My restaurant is a chef-owned small business. It’s a different animal than a corporate chain,” he said, adding, “A local farmer can’t provide year-round tomatoes. The menu has a lot more diversity. It forces chefs to become more creative.”

Sosa sources his restaurant’s local foods from Flat Tack Farm, and Ridgefield farms Red Truck and April Joy. He collaborates with the farmers during the off-season to build a framework for his menu. He said he also incorporates some items from non-local sources.

“There are some menu items my customers have adopted,” he said. “It’s a balance. There are boundaries we need to plan within.”

Flat Tack’s owners Peters and Patrick Dorris have been working with Sosa since the beginning of the year. They met at a meeting of Slow Food Cascadia, one of the organizations instrumental in building this trend. Only in its second full season, Flat Tack already sells produce to “eight or nine businesses in the area,” including Vancouver hotspots Heathen Feral Public House, Rally Pizza, Slow Fox Chili, Pizzeria La Sorrentina and The Hammond Kitchen and Craft Bar in Camas.

The Autumn Harvest Feast will offer 50 tickets at a relatively high price for the market – $120 each. The night will start at 4:30 p.m., and include a farm tour, meet and greet, family style dinner, wine from Heathen Estates and beer from Heathen Brewing, including a brew Dorris collaborated on using produce from the farm. Dubbed Wabbit Saison, it’s a 10-barrel batch featuring rainbow carrots and four kinds of basil: lime, lemon, blue spice and a little bit of regular basil.

Peters said they held a harvest dinner at Feral Pub last year and “in the end we didn’t make any money.” Primarily she said this year’s tickets are based on cost, which includes high expense items like local meat.

Peters said she is seeing more restaurants sourcing locally, even with its more substantial investment.

“It is changing quite a bit and pretty fast,” she said. “In the beginning, we had a hard time getting restaurants on board, because it might be a little bit more than they pay Sysco, but the quality is so much better. Now, we have new clients jumping on board, and when other people see that, it plants a seed, not to mention I think there’s more demand as well from people, new people moving into Vancouver, who are cognizant of food and where its coming from.”

At the other end of the county, Say Ciao Columbia River Taproom and Eatery chef Peter Gallin is collaborating with farmers at Colibri Gardens Organic Farm and Homesteading School in Washougal. He catered a wedding at the 40-acre farm two years ago and has been building a relationship ever since with owners Lara and Derek Scanlon. The Scanlons asked Gallin for a commitment to a fully organic menu when he is catering at the farm, and it has him reevaluating his sourcing practices and trying new things, even after 30 years in the business.

This month’s Farm to Table Dinner will be a trial run for monthly events next summer at the farm. It features eggs, milk, cheese and pickles from Colibri Gardens, lamb from Washougal’s Reister farms, produce from Shady Grove Organics, beer from Loowit Brewing and a winery to be determined. Tickets are $65 and include a full buffet, two drink tickets, a farm tour and local, live music.

“It’s a value price. We’re doing this as a labor of love,” said Gallin. “As a chef I’m excited to be able to work with all these wonderful ingredients, creating something that will be seasonal fun and fresh.”

The value in the relationship with the Scanlons and their vision extends deeply for Gallin, as his current experiences reshape his next act.

“It’s an opportunity that could change how I go further on in my culinary career,” he said. “It’s another stepping stone in what I do.”

Autumn Harvest Feast

Featuring chef Miguel Sosa at Flat Tack Farm
Saturday, Sept. 21, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
9400 NE 134th St, Vancouver
Tickets $120, available through eventbrite, Flat Tack Farm and Elements Restaurant

Farm to Table Dinner

Featuring chef Peter Gallin at Colibri Gardens
Sunday, Sept. 22, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
1222 Belle Center Road, Washougal
Tickets $65 for adults, call 360-210-5522 for kids pricing
Tickets available through eventbrite

Cascadia Food Festival and Slow Food Summit

Featuring a food and cider fest, conference for food movement leaders, and Cascadian Luau
Saturday, Oct. 5, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fort Vancouver Historic Hangar, 1115 E. Fifth Street, Vancouver
Tickets $35 to $125 
Tickets and more info available at eventbrite