From Farm to Table at Animal Farm

Outstanding In The Field's Culinary Outing

George Alexander. Photography Eric Hester. Art direction Michelle AviƱa.
February 28, 2013

One afternoon in 1971 — the year I published my first restaurant review — I was taken by my girlfriend’s future brother-in-law to a house in Berkeley, California. In the kitchen, the wall above the stove was lined with silvery pots and pans, a fairly complete batterie de cuisine from the illustrious Parisian cookware shop E. Dehillerin. I recall being only mildly impressed, as the cookware was aluminum rather then the tin-lined copper I associated with really serious cooking.

“The woman who lives here just returned from France. She is going to start a restaurant,” I remember being told.  The woman, whom I did not meet that day, turned out to be Alice Waters, and the restaurant she opened later that year, Chez Panisse, went on to profoundly change the way Americans cook. If I knew then what would come out of those vessels, I should have knelt before them and kissed the scuffed linoleum floor.

Waters had gone to France in the late 1960s to continue her work towards an undergraduate degree in French Cultural Studies. While there, she became enamored of the small, mostly rural restaurants that produced meals based on the local, seasonally available ingredients. There was nothing like that in the United States at the time, so she and her partner began to search out local producers of fruit, vegetables, meats and seafood. This approach, rooted in French practicality, was developed by Waters over several years into an entire philosophy, stressing the pleasures not just of the table but of responsible stewardship of the land and waters, of public health and of creating systems of agriculture that could be sustained for many generations into the future.

In 1998, once again in California, a now-popular culinary event was invented when two brothers, Jim and Bill Deneven, staged a dinner in Jim’s restaurant, the Gabriella Café, in the seaside town of Santa Cruz, featuring not just locally grown produce, but also the presence of the farmers who had grown it. Bill was one of the farmers who rose during the dinner to talk about his produce. Fifteen years later, the brothers’ company, Outstanding In The Field, has a full-time staff and organizes dinners at farms and wineries around the United States. Usually held outdoors, the dinners pair a local producer with a local chef of repute, allowing diners to see, touch and smell the ingredients where they are grown and to see how creative chefs utilize them, often in novel ways. Outstanding In The Field organized the first such al fresco dinner at Animal Farm in Cat Spring, Texas, a couple of years ago. Now the idea has caught on,and Animal Farm and local chefs have independently organized meals in the manner pioneered by the Denevens.

This past Thanksgiving weekend, some 50 dedicated gastronauts traveled the 65 miles or so that lie between Houston and the tiny unincorporated town of Cat Spring (population 766) in southern Austin County for the latest outdoor dinner at Animal Farm, a specialty grower of vegetables. 

Animal Farm began as a weekend getaway retreat for the Van Woerden family: parents Cas and Gita and their three children, Dana, Adon and Salome. Cas and Gita had come to Houston in the last years of the oil boom from South Africa, where they had set up after meeting in Holland (Gita is Israeli and Cas is Dutch). They purchased a 70-acre expanse of sandy woodlands for a bargain price in 1991. The family immediately began to make improvements, drilling a well and building a barn for their menagerie, which grew to include riding horses, goats, ostriches, emus, dogs and a white-faced capuchin monkey. (The big birds were a popular investment scheme in the early ’90s, although the Van Woerdens, like most breeders, soon found the project unprofitable and repurposed the birds as pets.) Gita planted a small kitchen garden the first year and found she enjoyed the activity. Although originally trained as an artist, she began to study organic gardening seriously. By 1994, she was selling surplus vegetables to Jimmy Mitchell, the chef at Houston’s venerable Rainbow Lodge. Monica Pope called that same year. As the locavore movement took off across the United States, Animal Farm began, in 1997, to employ a holistic approach to growing produce called permaculture. Currently, about 17 acres of the farm produce food on a series of non-contiguous plots that follow a strict and complex regimen of crop rotation that allows the farm to sell its vegetables during every month of the year except August.

The farm’s regular customers, past and present, also include such celebrated Houston restaurants as Brennan’s, 17, Mark’s, Sorrel, Urban Bistro, Local Eats, Benjy’s and Roots Bistro. For us civilians, Gita regularly womans a booth at the Urban Harvest Eastside Market on Saturday mornings.

The November 24 meal began at 2 pm and lasted until 10 pm, by which time the air temperatures had dropped into the 50s, encouraging diners to stand close to the cook fires. The event was produced and hosted by Crystal Lee and Forma Revivo owner Dutch Small. The 10-course tasting menu, entirely made from the Farm’s own produce by a crew from Uchi (currently perhaps the most talked-about restaurant in Houston), featured a team that included the director of culinary operations Philip Speer, chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards, sous chef Page Pressley, sous Chef Jeramie Robison (both Pressley and Robison have moved to Austin since the event) and production chef Brian Bush. Wine pairings, which were included for the $175 ticket price, were chosen by Uchi’s award-winning sommelier, David Keck.

Additional tasting events at Animal Farm are being planned for later in the year by several restaurateurs. Gita Van Woerden told us she hopes to make it a monthly event, except for the sweltering months of July and August. The next meal, scheduled for Saturday, March 2, will feature the culinary stylings of Sorrel Urban Bistro’s executive chef Soren Pedersen. On April 9, Chandler Rothbard of Roots Bistro will helm the Farm’s kitchen. Van Woerden says talks are underway with Uchi for two or three more events in 2013, as well as talks with Dylan Murray (Benjy’s and Local Eats), Justin Yu (Oxheart), Jason Kerr (Hollister on Washington), German Mosquera (La Colombe d’Or) and Randy Rucker (the former Laidback Manor).

Contributor Will Walsh savors a culinary epiphany en plein air at the Uchi-powered Animal Farm repast

The late autumn afternoon began with champagne and an hors d’oeuvre of heirloom carrots roasted in the farm’s wood-burning oven and served with sea salt — simple and fresh from the ground. Following this reception and a farm tour, we settled down to business at a single long table snaking through the grasses and trees and falling leaves. The first course was Uchi’s unique take on Ohitashi, a Japanese dish that was interpreted as a roll of chard, katsuo flakes, arugula, cress, yuzu dashi, pink peppercorn gastrique and pickled chard stems. The dishes poured out of the small makeshift kitchen. Grilled long beans and yellow flat beans had their smoky char tamed with crème fraiche, goma shio and sharpened with a Madras curry oil. Then salty, sweet and sour flavors balanced spicy root vegetables with a duck confit, Cincinnati radishes, bacon-braised Easter egg radishes, lime-cured watermelon radishes and candied radish greens. Next, the flavor of green garlic dominated a cold broth with oak-grilled mackerel, lemon, caramelized uni and edible fall leaves. Another course consisted simply of grilled Jerusalem artichokes. As the sun set and the temperature began to quickly drop, eggplants cooked with red curry, paneer cheese and nuoc mam warmed our bodies.

The highlight of the meal was a raw-fish preparation with heirloom tomatoes, crispy garlic relish, golden beets and pickled baby beets. It first appeared that the star of this creation would be the cured Hawaiian kampachi, or Almaco Jack fish, but as we started to eat, the questions began to take shape in my mind: “Why do I care more about the tomato? Why is the fish not the star?” Clearly, the cured fish was used as a salty component to accentuate the tomatoes picked from the farm’s greenhouse. The relish and vinegar from the pickle added acidity and an earthy radish flavor.

After nine courses made from the vegetables and herbs that we had seen growing in plots around the farm, the culinary artists had one last surprise: a pliable ganache with cocoa nibs, mandarin gel and avocado purée with a lemon basil sorbet. As the dessert was being plated, diners took in the foggy haze that was rolling out eerily into the woods, from a container of liquid nitrogen. The minus 321ºF liquid was being used to freeze the sorbet.

After the dinner, the chefs took questions, many of which had the same root: “How did it feel to visit this farm and taste the food fresh from the ground? Did this experience change how you look at food?” The questions continued, and the conversation was flowing, but through all the explanations and laughter, I reflected on the many gastronomic epiphanies I had experienced this day.