At Four Columns Inn in Newfane, farm-to-table cuisine takes planning, relationships
NEWFANE — Parish Hill Reverie Cheese from Westminster West. Back Roads granola from Brattleboro. Duck eggs from Sweet Pickins Farm in Putney. Heirloom apples from Scott Farm Orchard in Dummerston.
The sample menu at Four Columns Inn's Artisan Restaurant in Newfane reads like a Vermont map of local farms, making it clear the farm-to-table cuisine isn't just fresh; it's produced right down the road by neighbors who work with the inn up to a year in advance to ensure Four Columns has the menu to match the produce.
"In January, farmers give me the seed catalogues they prefer," chef de cuisine Erin Bevan said. She will use that information to build the Artisan Restaurant's menu around the harvest, months in advance. It's similar with meat, she said, meeting with farmers in December as they finalize their slaughtering schedule for the coming year.
The pork for the fall-winter menus was delivered by the farmer in September, as agreed the previous January. Bevan planned the menu well in advance of fall: First came the chops recipes, followed by the tenderloins, and now the loin. There are also ham, sausage and other pork dishes.
Diners might be unaware of the advance planning that goes into each menu, but they appreciate the farm-to-plate commitment and taste.
"I have a lot of foodies who come here for the farm-focused menu that is constantly changing," Bevan said. "I want this to be a culinary destination."
Bevan came by her commitment to fresh and local cooking honestly. Growing up in Hampden, Massachusetts, outside Springfield, her parents had to feed five children on a limited budget. So, she said with a smile, their 2-acre property was covered with animals — sheep, goats, rabbits, horses, capons and more — an orchard, berry patch and vegetable gardens.
"It was insane," she said, noting that the property provided plenty of entertainment for the children on the school bus. But, Bevan said, she learned the importance of hard work, to appreciate what farmers achieve in producing quality food, and how to use local produce to its best, simplest advantage.
"We'd wait until the meal was cooked before we'd go out and pick the corn," she recalled. "I can still feel my jaw exploding from the fresh tomatoes off the vine."
With a large family to feed, her parents opted for value-minded all-you-can-eat restaurants, Bevan said. "I had no idea that restaurants did great food," she said. "I had never eaten at a fine dining restaurant until I was 26 years old."
That was one of award-winning chef Lydia Shire's restaurants in Boston, where Bevan said the food was "beautifully plated."
"It just lit a spark in me," Bevan said.
After training for 16 years with other James Beard awarding-winning chefs, Bevan came to the Four Columns Inn — which has throughout its history hosted celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Michael Douglas and Sting — in 2017 to build on the historic Inn's long-standing commitment to farm-to-table cooking.
"Think about being at the place at the forefront of that movement," Bevan said. "Little did I know there's a culinary mecca here."
In many areas of the country, chefs are able to buy certain products locally. In Vermont, almost everything is available. While chefs in cities like Boston rely on "big farms," Bevan has an army of little farms and foragers to supply everything from micro-greens to mushrooms (she finalized the invoice for "Benjamin the mushroom forager" on the back of a paper towel).
Part of the appeal for Bevan is helping local farmers stay afloat and grow. She said when Four Columns Inn commits a year in advance to a certain level of produce or meat, those farmers know they can count on the income, which helps them plan and hopefully flourish. One farmer who knew she could count on the Inn's business was able to take a soil chemistry class and expand the farm's yield. That farmer then worked with other local farmers to increase their yields.
"I am lifting them up and giving them a platform so they have been able to expand their business," Bevan said. That's a thrill, she said, "to empower people and my whole community because of the choices I make as a chef."
The farmers are appreciative.
"She plans ahead for us so we can make a production schedule a year in advance," said Ashlyn Bristle of Rebop Farm in Brattleboro, who sells local, organic grass-fed meat to the Four Columns Inn. "It means that we can do that knowing that we have a market for the meat and we're not just sinking a ton of cash in hoping that people will buy from us."
Bevan has used Rebop's veal, rabbit, turkey, lamb and pork in her dishes.
"She made a point to do it because it was best for us," Bristle said. "It's not common for chefs to do that."
Bristle said Bevan's menus, which feature the name of the farms where the products are raised, have been good publicity for Rebop.
"It's been really meaningful for our business. We've grown a lot over the years, and her support has grown along with us," Bristle said.
There are challenges facing farm-to-table restaurants like Four Columns Inn. The first is financial. The high-quality produce and meats cost more than mass-produced items, Bevan said. For example, organically raised chicken costs $4 to $5 per pound to produce, significantly more than store-bought chicken. Bevan knows customers won't spend $35 on a chicken dish, so she uses duck instead.
Second, some people are put off by the look of the farm-fresh food. Mass-produced pork chops look similar or identical — same shape and size, Bevan said. But fresh chops from the local farm sometimes vary in size and shape. And a veal chop made from calves that are confined have a "melt in your mouth" reputation, whereas locally produced veal from farms using more humane practices might require some chewing, she said.
In addition, although it usually works out fine, there is some risk to relying heavily on local farmers. She said one farm that supplied the kale was hit with a cabbage-eating aphid that devoured everything.
But Bevan said the Inn, which she calls one of the first truly farm-to-table restaurants in the nation, is in it for the long term.
"This place is a dream come true for me," Bevan said. Even during the slower months, "We stay on the mission every day. That's a special thing to be part of."
Susan Allen is a freelance writer living in Grafton.
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