Updated: Thursday, September 28, 2017, 6:08 AM
Though many local restaurants have stopped listing every farm from which vegetables are sourced, more and more are highlighting the artisan products enhancing dishes on their menus.
“In a way, these connections are what small business is about,” says Cake Life bakery co-owner Lilly Fischer. “In a city like Philadelphia, there are multiple opportunities for collaboration, and it’s fun to explore that.”
And there is the cachet, of course, of being one of the first to discover an emerging product and to showcase it in creative ways, on the menu or at the bar.
At Fork, chef John Patterson felt that tingly sensation when he first sampled Castle Island Smokehouse’s ham. The Bucks County purveyor’s product was among the best Patterson had tasted. “It’s got that perfect balance of smoke, salt, and sugar, but it’s also just really nuanced and elegant,” Patterson says. “I wanted to figure out the best way to use it right away.”
On Fork’s menu, the ham can be found in a tilefish entrée with a succotash of corn, potatoes, and peppers. “I cook the vegetables with rendered ham. The fish is then glazed with green tomato and green apple instead of lemon, and then I shave more of the ham and drape it on top.”
Fork also has longtime relationships with Kensington’s Felt+Fat tableware and West Chester’s Éclat chocolates, the latter of which will be part of the Fork 20th anniversary dinner in October with a cocoa-infused multicourse menu.
As a new generation farm-to-table eatery, Suburban Restaurant & Beer Garden has committed to pretty much local everything. “I was at White Dog Cafe for five years and then I was at Wyebrook Farm, so I have built up relationships with many local farms and purveyors over the years,” says chef Eric Yost. “Some, like Shellbark Hollow Farm, are ingredients I’ve worked with everywhere I go. It’s just a wonderful cheese.” He currently uses Shellbark’s sharp goat cheese in a roasted beet salad with cucumber and crème fraîche.
Other local products Yost likes to highlight include Whiskey Hollow maple syrup, aged in a whiskey barrel, which is sold in the restaurant’s vestibule, and Five Saints’ Blood Orange Liqueur from Norristown. “It definitely takes more work, and it can be more expensive than to just go with a distributor’s stuff, but there are so many more regional products to choose from now that it’s a great time to be buying locally.”
A chef can lend expertise to a product, as in the case of Brigantessa’s forthcoming partnership with Primal Supply Meats. Chef Adam Taylor helped develop an Italian sausage recipe that Primal Supply will be selling at farmers’ markets this season. The sausage, flavored with Calabrian chili, fennel, coriander, and red wine, brings the Brigantessa brand to the emerging meat company while giving customers access to the kind of product Taylor would use in his kitchen.
“Even if people don’t recognize the names involved, being able to talk about your suppliers or collaborators is a conversation starter, and it’s something we like to share with our customers,” he says.
Restaurants and eateries can act as middlemen, taking local ingredients and turning them into something new. In an amusing circular example, Green Engine coffee uses Rival Bros. beans to make its Kyoto-style cold brew, which it sends to Capogiro to create a gelato. The gelato is then sent back to Green Engine, where it’s sold to customers.
Sweet Box Cupcakes’ longtime work with Yards Brewery began during an event in 2011 when owner Gretchen Fantini was approached to create a cupcake from the beer. She came up with a Brawler-infused toffee crunch cupcake. Then she developed a chocolate cupcake with the brewery’s Chocolate Love Stout beer.
“The beer makes a very moist cupcake, not too heavy,” she says. “I now make them year-round — if I can’t find the Chocolate Love Stout, I use the regular Love Stout.”
It’s an arrangement that benefits both sides. “When people visit from other states, I make sure to tell them this cupcake is made with local beer,” she says. “Yards often posts about the cupcakes on their social media accounts, so it works both ways, and everyone seems to get a kick out of it.”
In another exchange of flavors and ideas, Fantini supplied her cookie dough recipe to fellow food truck Zsa’s Ice Cream, and it’s now the cookie dough in Zsa’s Cookie Dough Brownie ice cream sandwich.
Sometimes, food connections are forged simply by proximity, as with Fishtown’s Cake Life bakery and the neighboring Kensington Quarters restaurant, two doors down.
“When we were in the process of finding a location for our bakery, we started going there as customers and getting to know everyone,” Cake Life co-owner Nima Etemadi says. When it came time to develop a classic British sausage roll for the bakery’s breakfast menu, it seemed only natural to reach out to Kensington Quarters for their sausage. It has since become a popular item that sells out daily.
The era of listing the provenance of every ingredient on a menu might be over, but signaling commitment to “buying local” still means something to some customers, who enthusiastically recognize a brand like Kensington Quarters or Éclat chocolate. “Some people don’t care one way or another, but some see the description and are happy when they know they’re supporting another business they like,” Etemadi says.
Meanwhile, Kensington Quarters, which used to operate a retail butcher shop, also supplies its meats to local bar Martha for hoagies and charcuterie plates. And on its restaurant menu, it shouts out Philly’s Soom tahini, used as the basis of a sauce for a salmon dish with a delicate herb and root vegetable salad. A draft line devoted to Phoenixville’s Baba’s Brew kombucha supplies house cocktails.
The restaurant sources just about everything locally, so the decision to call attention to certain local items is a selective one, chef Damon Menapace says. “Mostly, we love to find cool products with great stories and then talk them up.”