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Chef Alex McCoy wants to channel the flavors of Southeast Asia at his forthcoming Petworth restaurant, but some of the herbs and produce used in the cooking are difficult—if not impossible—to find here.
“There’s this fantastic herb that tastes almost like raw fish. It’s great. It’s delicious,” says McCoy, who was previously the chef at Duke’s Grocery and recently competed on Food Network Star. Other herbs have very funky flavors, while some he describes as very similar to Japanese shiso leaves. Plus: “A lot of people don’t realize how many types of basil they use in Southeast Asia… They’re all very nuanced.”
Curries and other Southeast Asian dishes are often served alongside a bouquet of fresh herbs like these, which help offset the spicy richness. But rather than finding substitute ingredients for his yet-unnamed restaurant at 845 Upshur St. NW, McCoy is taking a different approach. He’s importing around 30 types of seeds from growers he’s met in his travels on the other side of the globe and partnering with local farmers to grow things like water mimosa, pandan, Vietnamese mint, and cha phlu just for him. Some of the ingredients don’t have American names.“Just to be able to cook with those ingredients, as hard as they are to source, it’s going to add this wonderful freshness, this wonderful vibrancy to our food,” McCoy says. “That kind of stuff wakes me up in the morning.”
While plenty of restaurants brag about their local sourcing, most rely on what farms are already harvesting. A handful of chefs, like McCoy, are going a step further by building relationships with farmers who will custom-grow less ordinary ingredients.
In an ever-competitive dining scene, such arrangements are a way for restaurants to stand out and offer more unique or authentic flavors. It’s also what the next frontier of the farm-to-table movement could look like.
Potomac Farm Market owner Steve Magassy, one of the farmers who’s working with McCoy to grow many of these Southeast Asian plants, says the chef’s approach is rare. “There are very few people that actually do follow through and support their local farmers,” he says. “No one wants to pay the prices. Everybody wants the quality, but nobody wants to put forth the effort.” Magassy supplied McCoy in his days at Duke’s Grocery, and now, McCoy cans goods for Magassy to sell at his farm stands.
But beyond that, Magassy is simply interested in planting new things: “I love growing. I grow smiles… My stuff is grown with pride and intention,” he says. McCoy adds that not every crop works out when removed from its native tropical climate. There can be a lot of trial and error to find the right conditions, and many of the herbs will only grow during a brief window of a couple weeks or months. But Magassy is nonetheless up to the challenge. “He sees what it means to introduce people to ingredients that they’ve never tried before. That’s the reason he does what he does,” McCoy says.
Chef Rob Weland, who recently opened Garrison on Barracks Row, also plans to custom-grow certain ingredients through his partnership with farmer Mike Protas of One Acre Farm in Boyds, Md. Portas has already done his seed order for this year, but in the winter, the chef and the farmer will confer to discuss what to grow for next year. “I’ll set aside a parcel for them and grow exclusively their things,” Protas explains. One Acre Farm already grows many of the ingredients Weland will want, like purple radishes, colored peppers, fennel, and all sorts of heirloom tomatoes. But Protas is also willing to take a shot at more obscure things. Weland hopes to bring his staff out to the farm to help plant and harvest.
Protas also operates a CSA on Capitol Hill and plans to grow extra of whatever Weland wants to give to his members. He likes the idea that his members will be able to find the same products in a neighborhood restaurant. Plus, there’s an element of mutual back-scratching: Protas helps out Weland by growing the products he wants. Meanwhile, Weland helps Protas by buying all the produce that’s leftover from the CSA at a reduced rate. In years past, Protas donated the leftovers, but he was struggling to find a group to continue to pick up the food.
Birch & Barley chef Kyle Bailey says farmers are usually pretty accommodating to requests, but he’s opted to do the gardening in-house instead. Bailey works with Neighborhood Restaurant Group handyman and rooftop farmer John Stark to grow rare varieties of herbs, edible flowers, and produce on the roof of sister restaurant Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria. That way, they can experiment with one or two packets of seeds, “whereas a farmer’s going to want to do more than that,” Bailey says.
Every year, Bailey and Stark go through a rare seeds catalogue and pick out the plants that pique their interest. This year, they bought 30 to 40 different varieties of seeds, their largest supply yet. Among the summer bounty are a couple varieties of okra—including some that are “short and fat and you can’t put your hand around them”—as well as purple jalapeños that are green on the inside. More unusual still: marshmallow flowers and dragon egg cucumbers. “They’re so cool,” Bailey says. “It’s like Game of Thrones.”
“I like having the only one of something in town,” Bailey says.
Similarly, ThinkFoodGroup has contracted with Up Top Acres, D.C.’s first commercial rooftop farming business, to maintain a 7,000-square-foot plot on the roof of Oyamel’s building. The company grows a wide variety of micro-greens, flowers, and herbs, including “harder to find, higher value stuff that doesn’t stay fresh as long,” says Up Top Acres co-founder Kristof Grina. The bounty is then shared among ThinkFoodGroup’s downtown restaurants, including Jaleo, Zaytinya, Minibar, and China Chilcano.
China Chilcano is also working with Good Fortune Farm in Brandywine, Md. to grow aji peppers, which are prominent in Peruvian cooking. Unlike in Mexican cuisine, which uses a lot of dry chilies, Peruvian cuisine uses mostly fresh chilies. “It’s really difficult to get them and really expensive to get them from Peru,” says ThinkFoodGroup Director of Research and Development Ruben Garcia. He says there are some aji pepper crops in California but not so much on the East Coast. “We want to support the local economy, obviously,” Garcia says.
McCoy finds that collaborations between chefs and farmers are much more common on the West Coast simply because there are so many more farms within close vicinity.
“A lot of the chefs and the restaurant owners, they really want to bring in a product that’s different, that separates them from other restaurants,” McCoy says. But at the same time, in D.C., even those who’ve embraced the farm-to-table philosophy typically still rely on distributors to bring them organic produce.
“The easier it becomes to collaborate with farmers, the easier it is to get these phenomenal products and the better that the food in the city is going to be,” McCoy says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery