An interview with Chef Woolery Back



During my research, I spent time with several farmers, chefs and entrepreneurs to find out how the farm-to-table movement is progressing on the ground.

I’d like to share my conversation with Woolery “Woody” Back, the head chef at Table & Main in Roswell, as we discussed the local movement and its importance to a healthier lifestyle.

What was your reaction to having a garden available to use on your menu?

Back: Sarah Buchanan started the garden before I got there when she used to work at Table & Main, but when I got there, it hadn’t been taken care of and just had a few straggling tomatoes. But I was really excited about ways we could use the garden in our kitchen.

It’s not a mainstay on the menu – I can’t say, “This is our salad that we grew out back.” What can happen is like today, we took these arugula pods out this morning, and we’ll do something small with it. I’m thinking about a caper pickle on it and we’ll put it on the menu somewhere. That garden can’t support our menu, but we can have a veg plate here and there that can come from our garden.

Former Table & Main Sous Chef Chase Todaro joins the conversation.

There’s a saying that all chefs are farmers and vice versa. When did you realize this was true for you?

Todaro: I think it was when we ordered microgreens for Valentine’s Day and I realized how much we were spending on it. (Both laugh). That was the deciding factor.

Back: We ordered microgreens from a garden at Restaurant Eugene and we got the bill, it was like $300 for less than two pounds of microgreens. So he started growing microgreens. Now he’s got a full-on garden at his parents’ house and a chicken coop at his house.

With all the noise about GMOs, organic and local food, what should customers focus on with their food products?

Back: The more local, the better. If they use GMOs, you know, it’s not really the end of the world. They don’t have to be organic. Some of these small farmers only make like $27,000 a year. And to get organic certified is several thousand dollars. So a lot of them are doing the organic thing; they’re just not certified.

So I think the more local, the better, because you sustain the community. We buy from Lionheart Schools, a school for children with autism. They have a small farm at their place, and we buy radishes, turnips and greens from them. I’ve been buying from the Little Apple market around the corner as well. So I try to keep it as local as possible.

The biggest farm we buy from is Buckeye Creek. They’re kind of like a co-op farm, so they’re a central farm and they pull from all of their neighbors. One neighbor’s a beet farmer, one neighbor’s a corn farmer, the other neighbor’s a goat farmer and they bring in goat’s milk, so they’re a central community around that farm.

What are the biggest challenges the farm-to-table movement faces?

Back: I just read an article in the New York Times by Dan Barber asking where has farm-to-table gone wrong. He wrote about how he was basically bleeding this guy of broccoli and pea shoots for his menu without thinking about how the farmer was going to supply it all on a small farm. He was saying the popularity has taken off, but it really hasn’t taken off in a sustainable way.

Corn and soybeans are still the biggest crops in the world, and they’re still plowing more fields in the Midwest to make room for this; so we’re still in a losing battle for farm-to-table right now. And this has been going on for 10 years.

If you could grow five items regardless of climate, what would those five crops be?

Back: Pull beans, corn, mustard greens, turnips and beets.

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