Chef Johnny Vee Wants to Know

Cherie Austin Montoya, Farm & Table

Photo by Sergio Salvador

With the arrival of warm weather and summer just around the corner, foodies are getting excited about the new produce at farmers markets around New Mexico and the crops they hope to reap from their own gardens. Restaurateurs, too, gear up for this bountiful season, particularly at one very special dining destination in Albuquerque’s North Valley. At Farm & Table, which opened in 2012, owner Cherie Austin and her team of chefs, staff and farmers are dedicated to what has become a national movement, the celebration of local, organic, sustainable food. To Cherie, the farmtotable concept is not a trend but rather “how she rolls.” I spoke with Cherie about how she pulls it all together. My favorite quote: “I don’t work with pirates.”

Chef Johnny Vee: When you were planning the concept for your restaurant two years ago, did you feel you were following a trend or starting a new one? And how essential was the farmtotable concept to your business plan?

Cherie Austin: Farm and Table’s philosophy and mission are entirely hinged upon local and sustainable ingredients. I don’t believe utilizing local ingredients to be a trend at all, despite its growing popularity. On the contrary, I believe working with local farmers and utilizing seasonal ingredients that are sustainable, and  grown and raised to be that, is as back-to-the-basics as it gets. My family has been in the Alameda Valley for over seven generations. Like most here in New Mexico with deep histories, they grew up raising and farming their own food. I’m inspired by our elders to bring back good foodand to employ the most creative culinary professionals to take it to another level.

 

JV: You have had a few different chefs involved with the business over the years: Ka’ainoa Ravey, Jaye Wilkinson and now Sean Sinclair. Have you had a hard time finding culinary talents that were on board with Farm and Table’s vision? What qualities do you look for in your chefs?

CA: While finding the right executive chef is certainly a daunting task, it’s actually been quite easy. I look not only for someone with stellar skills, the right experience and full dedication to food, but for someone with passion that fits the Farm and Table standard. I take the time to make sure my candidate is someone with a deep respect for food in its elemental form; someone who respects the animal and the farmer; someone who is not afraid of working with 65 different farmers in a given week; someone with drive, passion and love for creating good food and inspiring a team around him or her,; and most of all someone eager to learn something new every day. They also have to be a nice person. I don’t work with pirates.

 

JV: How involved do your chefs get with the farmers? What kinds of vegetables do you grow that you use on the menu?

CA: We have a massive list of local farmers. We reach out to them, they reach out to us. Our onsite farmer, Ric Murphy, is a huge part of our success. Ric works with our chef to plan and purchase seed and we all work closely on a daily basis to communicate about upcoming harvests and plan future harvests. Ric grows spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, arugula, several types of root vegetables, tomatoes, peas, chile, beans, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, okra, sunchokes, lots of herbs and edible flowers.

 

JV: What is your favorite part of the restaurant business?

CA: My favorite part of the business is the connections. There is some amazing magic that happens when these connections are made. First, [it is about] connecting talented and creative individuals on my team. There is no ceiling at Farm and Table––everybody gets an opportunity to contribute to our collective success. Connecting people and ideas is where the creativity blossoms.

Next is connecting with the people who grow and raise our food, and even those who make some of our wine and beer––hardworking, amazing, talented people who we know and love. These individuals are the root of our success.

Finally, connecting the community––artists, musicians, friends, family, and ultimately our guests. This is when the culmination of all the artistry and connections come together in a beautiful way, when they enjoy a dining experience that was created with lots of love.

 

JV: What is your favorite dish on Sean Sinclair’s current menu? What is your favorite dish of all time since you opened?

CA: My favorite dish is our Farm and Table steak because it is beef that was raised on our propertyand it tastes so good! My favorite dish of all time was Sean’s house-made agnolotti pasta with pork cheek, mascarpone and uni butter. It was melt-in-your-mouth divine.

My favorite dish of Jaye’s was her house-made ramen noodle with fresh veggies, farm egg and pork belly. My favorite dish of Kai’s was his pork belly.

 

JV: How has the business evolved in the past two years? Did diners get what you were all about right from the beginning?

CA: Over the last two years we have settled deeper and deeper into our mission of serving local food. We have been able to connect with more farmers and ranchers and can better plan for the seasons. It’s very tricky being beholden to local availability and through the years we have learned to plan for it. Because of the fluctuating availability of produce and proteins, our menu changes more often than we originally planned for. Most of our customers understand and love that factothers don’t understand why we don’t always have a tenderloin on the menu. We incorporate education into our table talk. For example, most people don’t know that there are only 20 pieces of tenderloin yielded from an entire cow!

 

JV: The average consumer may not realize how much more expensive it is to utilize farmers’ markets over traditional food suppliers like Sysco. How do you and your chef keep your prices competitive?

CA: Our food costs are higher than those of restaurants that don’t utilize 80 percent local ingredientsthat’s a fact. We don’t work with Sysco at all. We keep our food costs down by limiting waste and maximizing creativity. We only order food that is needed for the next few days and utilize almost 100 percent of our product. We do our own butchering and utilize all parts of the animal. Scraps of meat, lamb and pork get ground into sausage; veggie stems and stalks are juiced or dehydrated. Our waste is extremely low. Winter gets a little tricky; therefore, we depend on a good summer to even out our numbers.

 

JV: Does composting and recycling play a part in your business? What kinds of things do you do?

AC: Composting and recycling is a huge part of our business. We compost all veggies, fruits and coffee grounds for our farm. We compost all table scraps, meat and dairy with a local company called Soilutions who then turns it into organic compost. We recycle all cardboard and paper. We only toss away plastic and glass that can’t be recycled.

 

JV: If you could dine with three other foodies, alive or dead, who would they be?

CA: Alice Waters, Dan Barber and Daniel Boulud.

 

JV: What new plans and ideas do you have for the future of Farm and Table?

CA: There is always the temptation to expand or open a second location. I resist that temptation so that we can get through our third year with consistency and continuitywhile pushing our creativity. We will be travelling with key team members to explore fantastic food here in the States, and perhaps [take] a trip abroad if things work out. We will also continue to offer special prix fixe dinners each month. These are a great opportunity to push the envelope on our culinary creativity and create incredible food and wine experiences for our guests.

Farm & Table is located at 8917 Fourth Street NW, Albuquerque. 505.503.7124. farmandtablenm.com.

Story by John Vollertsen


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