Upping the Ante in Gainesville’s Food Scene: Swallowtail Farm
If you’re looking for a different type of dining experience – slow, fresh and local, yet prepared by a gourmet chef, then Swallowtail Farm in Alachua may be the place to find the dinner you have been longing to savor.
Swallowtail kicked off its second Farm-to-Table Dinner Series in November, a monthly gathering running through June that brings some of Gainesville’s finest chefs out to the countryside to prepare a gourmet feast with fresh ingredients right from the farm. And what’s not produced or harvested here – say beer, wine or some cheeses – comes from other local growers and entrepreneurs who bring together the remaining pieces so the chefs can put forth their one-of-a-kind palate pleasers.
“I feel like we are kind of trailblazing farm-to-table in our community,” said Noah Shitama, a 34-year-old Gainesville native who founded Swallowtail Farm in 2009. After graduating from Emory University with a BA in religion, he says he wanted to get more in touch with the basics of life, so he proceeded to study the fundamentals of food and shelter.
For Shitama, these fundamentals have blossomed into a way of life filled with meaning and nourishment. “For me, Swallowtail Farm has always been the expression of a desire to live practically, to cultivate nourishment in the context of community, and to align my hopes with my vocation, guided by a clear sense of responsibility to future generations. Among them, my own children of course.”
The farm-to-table idea is catching on with those who want eating to be more than just consuming calories. Essentially, farm-to-table means that the food one is eating came directly from a local farm. But in this case, farm-to-table means the table is at Swallowtail and the chefs come to the farm to prepare the meal.
This year’s season began with Chef Mark Newman of Leonardo’s 706 in November. The menu is always based on what’s fresh and available at that particular moment, and the chef works his or her magic using the available ingredients.
“I like everything about cooking out there,” Newman said. “It is a real inspirational thing. For someone who loves to cook, to be able to actually see the fields the food came from right in front of you is inspiring.”
Newman does most of his farm-to-table cooking on site, with little prep-work done in the commercial kitchen he is accustomed to. “It’s a little bit Spartan, but I like the challenge of cooking on a four-burner stove for 55 people.”
But anyone who knows Leonardo’s 706, knows Newman was an ideal kick-off chef for this season, given that the restaurant’s web page stresses their dedication to using “the freshest locally grown ingredients”. But of course, Newman and his colleagues are not alone in that approach and in fact, Shitama says the farm-to-table idea came about through conversations with chefs who were already stocking their kitchens with farm-fresh produce from Swallowtail.
These include chefs Chase Rossi of The Top and Tate Clair of The Lunchbox, who prepared December’s feast. Also on the calendar for 2014 are Chef Amanda Bisson of The Jones Eastside (Jan. 11); Chef Gail Johnson of Delicious Delivered (Feb. 15); Chef Jose Gonzalez of The Jones B-side (March 15); Chefs Kris and Teresa Callen of Liv Foods (April 19); Chef Sandra Carlisi of East End Eatery (Mary 10); and Chef Patrick Jones of Gainesville Country Club (June 7).
Shitama says Swallowtail has capped attendance between 50 to 60 people for each farm-to-table experience, a number he says that is manageable for the chefs in the just-raised “barn” that also houses the kitchen. Dinner is served at family-style harvest tables, but he stresses the evening is about more than just the food; guests are invited to arrive early for a tour to learn about the farm. Cocktails are then served while the guests have an opportunity to meet the evening’s chef and learn more about the meal they have prepared.
The farm-to-table dinners served as a kind of fundraiser for Swallowtail last year for specific farm projects, like building the barn or buying more animals, Shitama said. The evening in the countryside does not come cheaply – it’s an $80-per-person price tag, but as Shitama stresses it is about more than just the food.
“It was really a means to develop our infrastructure last year. But now it is built into budget as part of our revenues to help us maintain what we are doing,” he said. “It is a way for people to support the farm, while enjoying an amazing meal and experience.”
Farm-to-table dinners were a natural progression for Swallowtail, given the farm’s emphasis and dependence on Community Supported Agriculture or CSA. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, CSA is about developing relationships between farms and consumers so that consumers have direct access to fresh, high quality food grown locally and the farmers have a market they can rely upon.
In other words, people buy a “share” of vegetables, fruits and flowers grown at the farm and Swallowtail delivers the produce and other items to the consumer at one of five drop-off locations, including the Haile Village and Union Street markets.
It is a win-win; the farmer gets his cash up front and can plan an annual budget based on the number of shareholders in the CSA, and the consumer gets a ready supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers weekly or biweekly, depending on the agreement.
Ruth Steiner, a Gainesville resident who considers herself a part-time gardener, defines herself as a charter member of the Swallowtail CSA and enjoys the experience of going to the farmer’s market to get food.
“I don’t need to put together a shopping list. I don’t need to think about what I might like to eat next Tuesday. I simply pick up these wonderful, fresh and tasty vegetables of all colors, shapes and sizes. Then the fun begins”, she said.
Steiner even uses her share as a way to expand her culinary horizons. “Once I get the vegetables home, I look through new recipes to discover new and innovative ideas for how to use them,” she said. “Most importantly, I am supporting a local farmer who can understand me as a consumer, and who responds to my requests for different foods.”
Steiner is one of 180 members of the Swallowtail CSA. And her attitude is exactly what Shitama and the other Swallowtail farmers and supporters are seeking to cultivate. “We want people to get to know what grows when, and change their method of cooking by learning to cook seasonally,” he said.
The property itself is 30-acres, although Shitama says right now only seven acres are cultivated, in the interests of doing what is sustainable. They are also beginning to raise chickens, pigs and one cow, he said.
Education is part of the Swallowtail mission and they have now formed a foundation to try and reach out to schools and community groups. They have also started holding all-day festivals, where people can learn about different things relevant to country living, such as beekeeping, blacksmithing or just having a good time on the farm. The next festival is scheduled for mid-April.
A chance to spend a day, or even just a few hours, on the farm is an opportunity to see firsthand the impact a local farm can have on the community. Taste a carrot or get a whiff of cilantro straight from the field and who knows, if you opt for a Swallowtail farm-to-table dinner experience, what you see out on the farm may be the very vegetable that ends up on your plate.