Monday, May 30, 2011

The Refinery's Greg Baker on supporting local agriculture and his food philosophies

Posted By on Mon, May 30, 2011 at 1:00 PM

"Two years ago, I was in Ashville, NC in line at the grocery store behind an 800 year old dirt farmer. I’m not going to say anything one way or another about his personality, I didn’t speak to the guy, but stereotypically these are not people that are easy to change. He had 16 cans of snuff on the conveyor belt, not even Copenhagen, just generic, in white letters, 'Snuff'. As he paid in cash, he pulled out a cloth shopping bag. The mentality of people in that area is very strongly localized. Keep this place what it is right now by supporting local businesses and local farmers. We don’t want to lose our farms and have subdivisions made. That was my light bulb moment. If someone can convince that guy to bring with him a cloth shopping bag, I can come back to Tampa and I can start changing peoples’ minds."

Chef Greg Baker of The Refinery sits back and recalls the first time he knew that making changes to the Tampa food culture was what he intended to do. Over a Stump Knocker Pale Ale brewed just 132 miles away, he sits relieved at the end of a Thursday night on the upper deck of his restaurant. On Thursdays, The Refinery launches a new menu to reflect what is fresh and coming in from local farms that week.

The concept for The Refinery began as a hangout that happened to serve good food. After the bar ended up taking longer than expected to complete, Baker shifted his focus to contemporary American fare in a relaxed setting, with a price tag indicative of regular patronage as opposed to birthdays and anniversaries.

Baker has spent a collective 11 years cooking in Tampa along with his wife, Michelle. Part of the impetus to provide a medium for fresh, local ingredients came from Baker’s attendance of the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, OR. The Pacific Northwest has always had a reputation for being an ingredient driven food culture with a focus on local, seasonal produce and seafood.

Castelnuovo Berardenga, 40 miles outside of Siena in Italy, is home to a local market open once a week on Thursday mornings. Having spent some time traveling, eating and cooking around Italy, Baker found himself there in front of a stall selling fresh apples. "One bite of that apple and it all made sense about buying things locally. You tasted the terroir; the earth that it came from, the care that was taken with it, the generations of people that have raised that apple." As he recalled that story, his eyes gazed off romantically for the moment. If smell is the sense most closely associated with memory, taste must be ranked second.

The reason for our society’s collectively dysfunctional food culture, which Baker is actively combating, traces back to 19th century Germany. Fritz Haber, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1918, takes the credit for nitrogenous fertilizers, which are used comprehensively in modern agriculture. Nitrogen is required in plants during periods of rapid growth. It is essential to photosynthesis, and a building block of both RNA and DNA.

As Michael Pollan speaks about in In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, humans couldn’t drink milk post-childhood because prior to about 5,000 years ago, the digestive enzyme which allows for the digestion of milk (lactase), self terminated after nursing. It was herding communities in north central Europe that first evolved to digest the nutrient rich cow’s milk, and through that development, were able to produce more offspring. The same process applies to the increase in crop yield as a result of the industrialized fertilizers.

Before the advent of these nitrogenous fertilizers, agriculture was limited by the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Farmers were forced to alternate cover crops, such as legumes, to replenish the soil. With their expansive surface area, these crops would absorb larger amounts of sunlight, which produces larger amounts of Nitrogen.

Since farmers could now buy their nitrogen from the store, they could do away with the animals they had kept for fertilizer, as well as the less profitable cover crops they had previously inserted into crop rotations. Now, government price supports keep farms producing exuberant amounts of commodity crops, most notably, corn. In direct correlation with the wide acceptance of these synthetic forms of nitrogen, came the population boom that occurred in the early-mid 20th century. This was the end of wide-scale sustainable agriculture, and the birth of the need for individuals like Chef Baker and his dedication to slow food.

The benefits of dealing with faces instead of faceless purveyors and bulk shipments of imported produce are many. Dealing with the people that grow your food directly enables buyers to walk the planted rows of the farm and taste the product outside of a commercial setting. It also allows for the farmer’s pride to come through. Its their life’s work to generate a product that people want to eat. "I would always seek out local farmers. It wasn’t necessarily for the sustainability at that point; they just had the good stuff. And if I got something that wasn’t a good product, there was that relationship that allowed me to have a dialogue," Baker said.

"This is Florida. This is a sustainable business model," Baker said. As you walk through The Refinery’s door, written on a black wall in Baker’s handwriting are the names of the farms providing your food. Hunsader, King, Shepperd’s and Claxton farms were all featured during the third week of January, as well as locally caught Alligator featured in a ceviché application.

Baker, for uses outside of the restaurant, recommends community supported agriculture (CSAs), found in the forms of many local community gardens. Gateway organic farm in Clearwater offers the opportunity for members of the community to invest in their farm. The cost is $900 dollars a year. In return for the cost, investors assume certain risks involving natural disasters and crop failures, but also receive a weekly stipend in the form of fresh-from-harvest fruits, herbs and vegetables.

"I’m still forced to deal in commodity meats but I’m working on that. Restaurants are held to a higher standard," said Baker. "The thing about co-ops and local meat producers is that the majority of them don't have the FDA required certifications. Some places will take the risk, but there is a hefty price that comes along with that."

For more on nitrogen and its roles in agriculture and industrialized food, visit The Canadian Ministry of Agriculture: Food and Rural Affairs website.. For More on the history of Nitrogenous Fertilizers, and the statistics of how much petroleum we ingest, Read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: A History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

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