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Savannah's Food Evolution

By Lindy Moody

TO BE known as a food destination can be troubling. On one side of the coin, as is the way for Savannah, Georgia, tourists flock to the historic district to taste shrimp and grits, red rice, and fried green tomatoes--all delicious in their own right.

The less frequented side of the coin involves the struggle for chefs and cooks to be known for something more--something authentic. Not authentic in the way your grandmother cooked, but genuine in how regional ingredients are used and prepared. I almost always try to rig the gamble to ensure my coin lands on the side that is so often overlooked.

I am talking about 'farm-to-table,' a term that became popularized some years ago. The intention for naming the idea started honestly, and unfortunately, changed over time--as with many movements before it. Sadly, at least in my humble opinion, the trend has progressed into just that, trendy.

For true chefs, farm-to-table is not a campaign. Selecting and cooking with your area's seasonal produce is natural for most chefs. There is no need to flip a coin because it is the only and proper way to prepare ingredients.

Savannah was educated in the farm-to-table movement through Elizabeth on 37th. Elizabeth Terry was the first local chef to win a James Beard award, authenticating her views on the use of local low country food. Unfortunately, since the 1990s, when Savannah was first placed on the culinary map, not much has happened (besides the infamy of shrimp and grits) in the way of legitimate regional cooking. At least until recently.

Sadly, after Elizabeth's swift moment into the spotlight, the idea of sourcing local and seasonal farm-grown produce for restaurants quickly dried up. After returning to Savannah, renowned and beloved Chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey noticed a large gap in the market. "What I noticed when I came here is that there were a lot of different businesses here, a lot of different small businesses that focused on food. They had a large butcher shop, and they had several fish markets. I don't know when it happened; maybe in the 90s or early 2000s, a lot of that stuff started closing down. She elaborated, "When the Grey got here, it was hard to source locally because the infrastructure was not there anymore." Continuing, she told me, "Because restaurants were not buying from farms and local markets that those places started going away."

It appears that the longtime lack of recognition of Savannah's exuberant food has a lot to do with a gap in the market. Thankfully Savannah is evolving into what it can be, culinary-wise, through the persistence of several local restaurants and chefs.

Chef Bailey has broken the glass ceiling by being only the second Savannah Chef to receive a James Beard Award. But also, as part of that, she is just one of the Chefs in our humble town that has helped modify the nonexistent network of nutrition. In her own words, she put it, "I think the shift in local eating is the exposure that locals are giving restaurants. I even think the type of food, like what is Savannah food, you don't see in restaurants. You see it in people's homes. You see it through word of mouth."

After infiltrating local farms, Chef Bailey recognized that the proper way to honor such excellent ingredients is to keep the traditions of the area in which they are produced. So how does a classically trained Chef and well-established force de jour do such a thing? Chef Bailey explained, "As a restaurant, you are forced to observe and honor those [Savannah] traditions," says Chef Bailey.

Whether it is thumbing through an old cookbook or personally meeting with the farmers who handpick the oysters served each night, Chef Bailey's take to evolve the Savannah food outlook is by taking on tradition. "When I came down to Savannah, I thought I was going to cook in the traditional way that I have always cooked. That means professionally. I have always cooked professionally in a French kitchen or an Italian style or Mediterranean style kitchen." But she says, "As I came to become more comfortable with the ingredients here and began to really develop those foodways, I started looking a more Southern-style chefs."

The result was simple, says Chef Bailey, "We started to pay attention to what was abundant, and we started to use southern ingredients and classical applications to express ourselves through them."

Finally, evolution comes in the form of education. "The way we continue to bring awareness is by teaching other folks what we think and how we use these ingredients and seeing how they express themselves through that," says Chef Bailey on working with other Chefs at The Grey for the past five years.

For the brains behind Common Thread, Executive Chef Brandon Carter and Executive Chef John Benhase, evolution comes in building relationships. Relationships with farmers, chefs, cooks, guests, and the community as a whole.

In the past, Savannah lacked a worthwhile network of small local producers available to a small number of restaurants. It is not that the farms and farmers did not exist; due to cost, whether on the part of the farmer or restaurant, those channels were not available.

The Co-Executive Chefs have set out to change that. Even if it means they are the only ones in Savannah to do so. As a sea-situated town, you would expect to find local seafood relatively easily. But as Chef Benhase put it, things needed to change. "As a city, almost as a region in a lot of ways, but especially as a city, we neglected that aspect of commerce so completely for so long that it almost went away. We had to push really hard to find quality and the level of seafood that we wanted. The reality is that people are not catching fishing commercially here because nobody was buying it. It is kind of like a Field of Dreams kind of thing--we have to build it for them to come."

As for farmers, the problem for Savannah is similar. The channels connecting the farm with the restaurant were not here due to a lack of demand from restauranteurs. Chef Benhase said directly, "The problem with restaurants is scaleability. The amount we go through when we are busy is a hard thing for a small farm to keep up with." Chef Carter and Chef Benhase hope that more restaurants will jump on board with forming a farmer-friendly relationship, creating more networks for the local farms--Symbiosis at its best.

In the short time Common Thread has been open, the market has already started to change. When they were planning their first menu, it was not worthwhile for certain small farms to spend time and money to bring produce to the restaurant, and "Now that there is more than just one restaurant here looking for a certain type of peaches, now it is worth the trip. It is sustainable," says Chef Carter.

The final piece of the puzzle for the start of Chef Carter and Chef Benhase's evolution is building relationships within the restaurant. This means anything from inviting a new chef into the kitchen to creating a well-supported work environment. In the words of Chef Benhase, "What I said for a long time is that people would open concept after concept and say Savannah isn't ready, and then it wouldn't work. I think the reality is; everybody is ready for everything. If you commit to them fully and hold up your side of things, and don't use other people's limitations as a crutch for your success, then you can be successful, and you can also help move a needle a little bit. We are not the only people doing that in any capacity. We are doing it from a cultural standpoint to in how we run our business, and how we take care of people, and how we grow people."

Chef Christopher Hathcock, the Executive Chef of Husk Savannah, takes on a similar philosophy when working with our community. "I want to grow younger cooks and be what I wish I had in a chef when I was in my early 20s. Trying to mentor them into being a good leader, and empathetic, and bigger vision of food rather than just chasing James Beard nods or Best Chef."

But as an individual Chef, for Chef Hathcock, an evolution is about cooking delicious food and sharing it. He explained, "I think it is having a responsibility to the ingredients, and to treat it with respect, whether it is a vegetable or animal. You know it takes time to grow from the dirt when it's a vegetable. Then the person harvests it and cleans it, and all that. You have to pay them respect because they take the time to grow that. When it's an animal that gives its life, we have to utilize all of it."

He elaborated, and I agree, "With the expansion of highrise hotels came the evolution of the local palate. Most of which can be attributed to certain Chatham chefs and their willingness to swim against the sustenance stream. The rest is due to the desire of our area's farms to purvey in-season products.

If you have been in our town for the past few years, I am positive you have noticed the change as well. But our evolution has hopefully just begun. It is why I implore you to stop dubbing products, menus, and restaurants farm to table. Restauranteurs have evolved beyond labeling menus as such, and we as buyers (in our way) should begin to look at what is available to us locally and seasonally. Not only should we go out and support the movement makers, but we should take part in it as well. Because simply put, eating local is sustainable, healthy, and builds up our community.

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