By Tom Speed
When they lived in California, Joel Miller and his wife Cori would sometimes sit around the house sipping a glass of wine and sketch out plans for a restaurant and bed and breakfast they hoped to operate one day. They would utilize fresh, organic, local produce and meat on the menu as much as they could. They would grow many of the vegetables and herbs on the premises. They’d welcome travelers and they would live on the property. Joel was a trained chef, having studied at Johnson and Wales Culinary Academy in Charleston, South Carolina and had worked in several restaurants. His work as general manager and wine buyer for Catch restaurant in San Francisco often took him to the wine country, where he would frequently encounter just such a place. A few years later, their plan came to fruition, but instead of opening up their dream restaurant in the hills of northern California, they did it right here. In Oxford, Mississippi.
The restaurant is Ravine and true to those original sketches and ideas, Joel utilizes as many locally produced vegetables and as much local meat as he can. And that’s a lot. Miller estimates that as much of 65% of his menu is sourced locally. Staples like olive oil and flour can’t be sourced locally, and sometimes he just can’t get the volume he needs.
“I can get local onions but not in the amount we use,” he says “We go through 50 pounds of onions every week or two. I can get pretty little onions to highlight on the menu but it terms of onions as a workhorse for the restaurant I just can’t get enough locally.”
What he does get locally he obtains from several farmers. But it wasn’t always so easy. When he first opened Ravine four years ago, there were far fewer local farmers, and the ones he did contact were hesitant to sell to him.
“A lot of the farmers I deal with today wouldn’t even entertain the idea of selling to a restaurant when I started,” Miller says. “They were very wary. They thought I’d place one order and they’d never hear from me again.”
So facing reluctant local farmers, Miller grew many of his own vegetables that first year. In garden beds surrounding the restaurant he planted tomatoes, peppers, squash, beets, radishes, spinach, beans and herbs.
“Because I couldn’t get anybody at first, I grew all five of those front beds at first,” he says. “I had all of them full the first two years because I couldn’t get anybody to grow regularly for me.”
Eventually, the farmers warmed up and started supplying him more consistently. Eventually, more farmers came on board. Today, he still maintains his gardens at his restaurant, but it’s mostly herbs with occasional summer vegetables. As per the original napkin sketched plan, all of his on-premise gardens are organic, too. He uses yard and kitchen waste as compost.
It’s not just produce though. Miller sources a lot of his meat dishes from Stan’s Country Meats—pork chops, steaks and other cuts. At the root of all of his efforts is a dedication to living and eating locally, more naturally, and more sustainably. Regarding the idea of a locavore “trend,” Miller says “Hopefully it is not a trend. Fifty years ago, we all ate this way. Then industrialization comes along and we stopped eating that way. I hope the industrialization of food is more of the trend that is dying out and we’re getting back to the way it should be. Because that’s much healthier. It’s better for you and me, the environment, the economy—everything.”
Shannon Adams shares a similar dedication to locally sourced meals at the restaurant she operates with her brother Sean, Honey Bee Bakery. Recently remodeled and revamped in order to offer dinner service, Honey Bee has been seeking and serving locally sourced produce since they opened their doors three years ago.
What started as a bakery that grew into a lunch spot has now morphed into a full-fledged fine dining destination at night. Honey Bee garnered lots of attention locally for their inventive sandwiches and daily soup specials. Those soup specials are often dictated by what local produce was coming in from the area farms Adams uses.
“The farmers say we’ve got this squash this week,” Adams says, “we decide, ok we’ll make a soup with that! That’s why the menu is seasonal, that’s why the soups change daily. Sometimes it is hard to get people on board with that because people want what they want. And if they want tomatoes on their sandwich, they can only get them in the summer time, because they’re not really good in January. Now that we’ve been doing it for a few years, people are more trusting.”
Adams says transforming people’s eating habits is partly conditioning and partly education, noting that it’s sometimes a slow process. “I think Mississippi is very slow to change (to local eating),” she says. “Which is funny because it was probably very slow to change the other way, way back when. But it’s certainly growing in Mississippi. It is growing in Oxford. I’ve been involved with many of the people who’ve worked towards that and I think it’s a good outlook for the future.”
But it’s not just newer restaurants that are part of this growing trend. John Currence’s restaurants are a major buyer as well. From fresh, local entrees on the menu at the flagship landmark City Grocery to the pork smoked on premises at Big Bad Breakfast and the specials at Snack Bar, each part of the City Grocery Restaurant Group utilizes local food frequently.
Brad Solomon of Old Thyme Farms is a local pork provider who helps supply the group. “Currence is our bread and butter,” says Soloman. “They buy 85% of our pork.” Sometimes the farmer can even help create a dish.
“At City Grocery, [Chef d’Cuisine] Heath [Johnson] and I collaborated on a dish with overgrown okra,” explains Soloman. Okra pods are selected and picked when they are a specific size, about 4-5 inches long. Beyond that, they lose their tenderness. So when Soloman found himself with a batch of overgrown okra, he sought a way to use it.
“I knew there was something could be done with the immature okra seeds,” he says. “I took it to Heath and asked if he’d ever used okra seeds in a dish. We threw them in the pan with garlic, salt and pepper and bacon fat. Heath put together a dish with our pork and the sautéed okra seeds. It was an appetizer special last summer.” At Big Bad Breakfast, meats are smoked on premises, including pork chops from Old Thyme Farms.
As Oxford diners are becoming more sophisticated and requesting locally sourced dishes and local chefs maintain a commitment to local foods, area farmers are able to thrive too, establishing a three-pronged ecosystem that provides a healthy and sustainable environment for the community’s health and economy.
Note: This article was originally published in Invitation Oxford, 2011.