Local Helping Local: Knoxville Restaurants Collaborate with Local Farmers
If you’ve ever spent a Saturday wandering the farmers market at Market Square you’re probably familiar with names like Hudson Farm, Shelton Farms, and Springer Mountain Farms. All of the market’s vendors come from surrounding Knoxville communities and provide shoppers with the freshest produce, meats, and flowers available.
The same familiar names are also popping up on your dinner menu around town. Walnut Kitchen and Knox Mason are both well known for packing their menus with locally sourced ingredients. While it’s not always the easiest or cheapest option for them, their chefs and staff members are passionate about utilizing Knoxville’s neighboring farms and are proud to call their purveyors friends.
A Farm-to-Table Family
Beyond purchasing products from local farms, both restaurants feel strongly about cultivating close relationships with their providers. David Rule is the owner and chef at Walnut Kitchen. When asked about what it means to source locally, he said, “Ultimately what it usually comes down to is that you can put a name and face on a regular basis with the personal that’s producing [the product].” He speaks regularly with Jim Simpson of Southern Natural Farms, a local beef and pork producer. Rule explained, “I know his kids’ names. I know his wife’s name.”
Knox Mason also maintains excellent relationships with local farmers. Marlee Harris, the General Manager, explained how working with farmers is a cyclical experience. “Relationships come with time. The chefs are consistent with them [the farmers]. In turn, farmers contact us when they have a great new crop.”
Menu items that name the source of their product, like Knox Mason’s Shelton Farms Cornbread Panzanellaor or Walnut Kitchen’s Simpson Farms Dry Aged Beef, also gives cultivators well-deserved name recognition. “It’s important that we have this pride to highlight our farmers,” said Harris.
In 2017, Knox Mason was the only restaurant in East Tennessee to be listed on the Good Food 100 list. This list spotlights restaurants that are helping to build a better food system through sustainable food preparation and by sourcing from local purveyors, among other qualifications.
“We buy fresh food and utilize it. We strive to waste little to no food,” said Harris, who also indicated that nearly 70% of food dollars are spent on local and regional purveyors.
Walnut Kitchen also buys predominantly from neighboring farmers, with approximately 75% of their products coming from regional providers.
Sourcing locally and regionally means that produce as well as other ingredients may not be readily available, which can heavily influence the menu. Both restaurants credit menu creation to food availability and seasonality. If something doesn’t grow around the area, they are challenged to use what is available or what has been preserved from another season.
For example, Rule described how Walnut Kitchen recently preserved ramps (a crop with a short growth period) so that they can incorporate the ingredient into dishes well beyond its peak. The challenge of using what’s locally grown also encourages Knoxville chefs to be creative, utilizing what’s available to enhance the taste of what is being served. “I love being able to share what’s coming out of our ground here in Knoxville,” Harris said.
Collaboration and the Community
Sourcing locally benefits the restaurant as well as the consumer and the community. Guests may reap health benefits by eating the freshest product possible. In turn, the patron’s money stays in the community and gives restaurants support to invest directly back into local farms.
Rule explained, “We’re supporting small businessmen and woman like myself, and supporting our community. When we make a decision to buy a ribbeye from the guys at Southern Natural or from a large feedlot in Texas, it’s a pretty easy decision.”
Harris echoed the same sentiment, saying, “It’s important for restaurants to use local farmers to support them and to input dollars into our immediate community”.
It’s clear that the farm-to-table dining experience is here to stay. Restaurant goers are eager to dine on the area’s local offerings just as they are willing to fill their refrigerators with fresh finds from the local farmers market.
Knox Mason and Walnut Kitchen serve as leaders in their industry illustrating for Knoxvilleans the importance of buying locally as well as the positive effect it can have on the community as a whole. Their success may even persuade more locally owned restaurants to adopt their passion for collaborating with local farmers.
As Harris explains, the experience is “exciting, relational, and in my opinion the only way to do it.”
About the Author: Lindsey Watson is a freelancer writer for hire specializing in food centric topics. She’s passionate about all things local and believes everything is better with a fried egg. When she’s not writing she can be found exploring the nearest park with her two dogs. Follow along on Instagram @865foodie.