Still down on the farm, in the middle of the city

Chef Andrew Wood works in the kitchen at his restaurant Russet in Philadelphia.

 Five years ago, with the farm-to-table movement sprouted into the vernacular, Andrew and Kristin Wood opened Russet, an American restaurant in a stately brownstone near the Kimmel Center, on Spruce Street near 15th.

Odds are stacked against any first-time restaurateur, especially those in that high-rent, highly competitive neighborhood.

Adding to Russet's challenge is being a BYOB, which denies the restaurant lucrative revenue from higher-markup alcohol sales.  

Andrew Wood, now 40, said Russet has turned the corner. "I personally like to think that we're a much better old restaurant than we were a new one," he said in the dining room of his restaurant. "The kind of feel that we've always wanted to cultivate is something that's honest and sincere. I know there's a whole circuit of new-restaurant voyeurs. They're on to the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. That's not our strength. We're about consistent, slow, evolution. We're in it for the long haul."

How did you get started in what we now call "farm-to-table"?

Well, I hate to use the pun, but it was pretty organic. In 2001, 2002, I was working in Boston with my wife. We were just coworkers at the time. She had gone to culinary school in California. She's like, "You know, you seem pretty serious about food. If you are, you should really go to California." I was kind of put out, because I grew up in the suburbs here.

I didn't really understand what she was talking about, but she won me over. Eventually, we quit our jobs and saved up enough money, living with her parents, to move to California.  We lived in Napa Valley for 2½ years, till 2004. It was eye-opening. Farmers showing up at your door, not even just farmers, but just people showing up at your door with bags, grocery bags full of chestnuts or garbage bags full of fennel that they had to trim out of their garden because it was overpowering their zucchini. I worked at a bunch of restaurants, but it was always, it's the end of the night, you pick up a phone and you leave a message. Then, miraculously, boxes of food appear. There was a real disconnect.

Then we moved to San Francisco. I worked for Michael Tusk. He had no purveyors of any kind. One time, the Sysco truck pulled up in front of the restaurant because they were delivering to somebody else. He made the guy leave because he thought, "I can't have people thinking that the Sysco truck is delivering to my restaurant." That was the level of passion.

He would call me at 6 in the morning and  we would go to four or five different farmers' markets. He knew everybody by name. They all had stuff set aside for him that was better than anything that they had out. I really saw the value of the relationships and the quality of food that he got. Then, his overarching philosophy of working backward from the food that you get to the menu.  That meant a lot to me because I got bored real easy.  Having it constantly evolving was something that really, really attracted me. 

After that, we came back to Philadelphia, and Kristin almost immediately got pregnant. We had to sideline our restaurant plans for almost five years, but it was really good that we did that because it allowed us to really reach out and develop relationships.

How does that work?

They introduce you to people you didn't know. Before you know it, you have foragers coming in. You know David Siller. Then David Siller connects you to his mushroom guy. The mushroom guy takes you to another mushroom guy. Before you know it, each year, you find things that you never found before. Just last year, we found guys that are finding local porcinis that rival anything that I've seen in Italy or California. I'm finding guys that get morels in Pennsylvania that are bigger than beer cans.

Is it supply or demand at work? 

For me, there was never, after living in California, any other way for me to do a restaurant that I could understand. I believe that the most powerful thing that we can do is vote with our dollars. I think we've, over the five years, we've put at least a million dollars into small farms, just over what we've spent on ingredients. If you think of that million dollars and the impact of that on the small guys vs. agribusiness, it's huge, because it's the difference of a tractor. The tractor means more rows, means more anything. As far as the customers and the acceptance, I think it blew up. 

Where is farm-to-table going? Where do you see it in the next five years?

You know, the community of farmers around is definitely growing. I think that it's getting more affordable. There is a quality that represents our ethical stance. I mean, organic doesn't always equal better. Locality usually trumps. Locality and responsible handling -- like I trust individuals more than I trust labels.