Words and images by Tiziana Onstead
Delicately textured leaves floated to the bottom of the glass as its bright green color reflected on the surrounding translucent walls. Lime was squeezed over the unraked pile and soaked into every crevice before muddled into tattered pieces.
Submerged under countless pours and shaken with ice to the beat of the surround sound, the once thin sheets of nature became animated specks that danced as one with the new concoction.
But even after such transformation, the mint’s sharp aroma escaped the rim with liveliness as if it were just plucked from a recently flowered stem — which it was.
The following philosophy of the San Marco bar, Grape and Grain Exchange, applies to everything it serves: straight from “garden to glass.” Using newly grown ingredients to create drinks that arouse taste buds, you would think this should be a secret the owners, Bob Smith and Jackson Somphonphakdy, would take to their grave. But it’s not, and neither is the bookshelf inside that hides an additional entrance to their second lounge, The Parlour.
The bars may be separately run with different atmospheres, and drink menus, but they’re owned by the same guys and recognized for the same concept: crafting drinks with technique and fresh, local products.
They aren’t using an orange garnish or umbrella straw to enhance a popular drink. The Grape and Grain Exchange and The Parlour are using unique components to turn an original into something your palates will crave.
“You’re getting regular mint from your grocery [store] when we’re getting some fancy, chocolate pineapple mint,” Somphonphakdy said. “That’s definitely going to have a different flavor profile and it does make our drink a lot better.”
It’s flavor like chocolate pineapple mint and high-quality that’s motivating numerous bars and restaurants throughout Jacksonville, and around the country, to join the movement, farm-to-table —a culinary practice that means just that.
Ranging from Grape and Grain Exchange and Black Sheep to Orsay, Moxie Kitchen, and The Kitchen in San Marco, each place is serving up dishes from unique menus that revolve solely around local, farm-grown products.
“We just wanted to give our guest the best products, the best ingredients that we can,” Somphonphakdy said. “Sourcing it from farms was the best option that we found.”
And it’s products like these that you won’t find on a corporate distributor’s semi.
According to research from the Iowa State University, the farmed food transported by large distribution companies travel about 1,518 miles till it reaches consumers.
Farm-to-table skips the everlasting process of products purchased by manufactures, packaged at a warehouse, picked up by a wholesaler and shipped to the retailer. Instead, bartenders and chefs are linking up with local farms one day and serving the herbs, vegetables, fruit, dairy and meats hours later.
It’s a process that allows them and their customers to not only know where the ingredients are coming from and how fresh they are, but it enables them to source products that aren’t delivered in a grocery store.
Grape and Grain Exchange doesn’t use common cocktail components and sourcing the products from farms themselves allows the bar to include ingredients anywhere from chocolate habanero peppers to any type of edible flower. Having this type of availability also allows Grape and Grain Exchange to make its own in-house simple syrups and bitters.
“We are willing to work with anything that has a flavor profile,” Somphonphakdy said. “We look more for quality in ingredients with really great flavors.”
Farm-to-table is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean it’s new. The idea dates back to the ‘70s when organic food was trending among hippies and menus were inspired by farmers’ markets. Decades later, it’s still a concept that local chefs in the area relate to and use.
A few minutes away from the Grape and Grain Exchange, a Riverside restaurant is almost always a packed house. Offering an open, triangular rooftop patio, customers can enjoy the sky transition from oranges and pinks during sunset to a dark blanket of glimmering stars all the while eating products that were grown under the same evening sky.
The Black Sheep restaurant provides a modern atmosphere filled with hospitality to its customers, as well as delicious, seasonal plates that originate from the strong relationships built between owner and chef, Jonathon Insetta, and executive chef, Waylon Rivers and their local farmers.
“If I ever see somebody in the market, over at the Riverside arts market I’ll approach them,” Rivers said. “And let him know that we are interested and start a relationship that way.
That relationship that then flourishes like the crops on the farm. Rivers said that being an established restaurant helps, but having a personal relationship with the farmers enables the restaurant to thrive even more, delivering small, fresh batches of ingredients on a daily basis.
“Like Black Hog Farm, I texted him last night, he’ll be here today,” Rivers said. “So in the matter 12 hours I can have a delivery of fresh eggs, chickens, all kinds of produce.”
The restaurant will not serve anything that doesn’t support its local and fresh standards and won’t turn to a grocery store when it’s out of stock or season. As the weather changes, so does the menu, and this is something the Black Sheep kitchen takes advantage of.
“I love seasonal cooking, you know. I love what’s available to you, it’s almost an easier aspect,” Rivers said. “A good saying is ‘what grows together goes together,’ and we use that a lot.”
Farm-to-table is not only helping create high quality food in the culinary industry, but contributes to the growth of local farmers and the Jacksonville community.
In the business world someone always wants to be on top, but Black Sheep sees no competition in more farm-to-table restaurants.
“We are not about being the only good restaurant or trying to be one of the only restaurants in Jacksonville,” Rivers said. “It’s a scene that we are all very supportive of each other.”
The movement is allowing restaurants and bars to serve a menu it stands behind, but farms are not getting the short end of the stick.
According to the CNN affiliated website, Eatocracy, farmers end up making only about 16 cents for every dollar spent by chain distributors. The rest is spent on everything from the diesel used during the delivery, the cost of storage at the warehouse, the satellite tracking the shipments, to the forklifts removing the food from the semi.
That is 84 cents going anywhere but the farmer’s pocket. With more and more local businesses using farm-to-table, it’s not only increasing the farmer’s pay, but advertising the farms and products for current and future chefs and bartenders to use.
“You are backing local people who are in your community who you live with on a day-to-day basis,” Rivers said. “You’re not backing up a corporation who has a CEO that’s driving because they have to push their company for profits.”
Farm-to-table is an awareness that illuminates all the great things Jacksonville has to offer.
It’s a movement that promises Grape and Grain Exchange’s famous cocktail, Kale Ale, to return every September and Black Sheep’s popular entrée, Black Hog Farm Chicken, to remain with seasonally changing sides.
It’s food that is appreciated by the farmer, chef, bartender and customer.
“It’s about doing something that you believe in,” Rivers said. “And [something that] fits in line with what you do on a daily basis.”