The chef talks produce, root veggies and the challenges that accompany using only local food.
Since Sheri Waide and her husband Kip opened Southwark in 2004, the bar and restaurant has acquired a justifiably stellar reputation both for pre-prohbition cocktails and menus built on locally sourced produce and meats. While Kip holds it down behind the bar, Sheri, who trained at the California Culinary Institute in San Francisco and then worked at the Striped Bass and Django upon returning to the Delaware Valley, handles the kitchen. A given meal might feature cheese from Shellbark Hollow and Birchrun Hills Farm, mushrooms from Oley Valley Mushrooms, produce from Landisdale Farm, and meats from Meadow Run Farm and Country Time Farm. This is honestly prepared food, in which Sheri allows fresh ingredients to speak for themselves, whether it’s charred red onion marmalade on the field green salad, or impressively sized pork chops resting on a base of wilted greens and wild rice, accented by mustard sauce and dried Asian pears. PW spoke with Sheri as she was preparing for a final meal before closing the restaurant for a much-needed mid-summer vacation.
PW: You opened up in 2004, before Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma highlighted local food, and before the term “Locavore” was selected as the New American Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” in 2007. What was the impulse to focus on sourcing food from local producers before the concept really took off?
SW: “It’s something we’ve always followed as a philosophy. We’ve always taken advantage of farmers markets, buying things locally, and we were living that way in San Francisco, where things are lot more accessible. When we moved back here, we would join CSAs, and go to the markets for our home shopping. When we opened the business, we just wanted to carry over our philosophy of how we personally choose to eat.”
PW: When you first got started, what were the challenges of sourcing food locally?
SW: “When we started, we did a lot less local than we do now. It’s been a growing, evolving thing. We meet new farmers—some of them we met doing markets— and we’ve continued to use them. Because we are smaller, in some respects, it’s easier for us to use them, because we don’t require large amounts. And Fair Foods has a great organization. They organize bringing together farmers and people that have any type of business in food—where you can meet people and find out what they do—so we’ve met people that way too. And we’ve started to meet people through word of mouth, from other restaurant owners who are interested in the same philosophy.”
PW: Do you find you spend a lot of time visiting local producers? Or once you establish a relationship, you’re spending most of your time in the kitchen?
SW: “We’re more in the kitchen and on the phone. We do form friendships with some of the farmers. We get mushrooms from Joe and Ange from Oley Valley mushrooms—we’ve been out to their house to get their wood for our smoker and have dinner with them. It’s nice because you have a different relationship than with a purveyor. You have a relationship with the person that’s raising your food, and it makes it more personal, and you end up with more of a friendship.”
PW: When you’re sourcing locally, you’re tied to the seasons. How do you deal with the winter?
SW: “Lots of root vegetables. A lot of grains. We try to buy local flours, and to make things with buckwheat, spelt, dried peas and beans. In the last few years, it’s been better, because the farmers know we’ll buy from them year-round. The market has actually grown, especially in the last year. Still, everyone’s happy when the strawberries and the asparagus come back.”
PW: If winter’s the big challenge, what are the particular benefits of sourcing locally in the Delaware Valley? Obviously, this isn’t the Napa Valley, but do we have anything that California doesn’t offer?
SW: “Certain things taste different when the growing season seems longer. I don’t know if it seems special here because food’s not around as long, Take peaches. When I lived out there, I really didn’t eat peaches. If you talk to people, some of them will tell you the different weather, the different climate, the different soil, makes certain things taste different.”
It’s the same thing with beef. If beef eats alfalfa, or if it eats a different type of grazing pasture, people say that beef tastes different, depending on what it grazes on. And I feel that produce—because the climate here is different and it’s a little more challenging—has a burst of flavor that’s missing when it’s grown more often. Because they don’t get that extreme heat in the summer or cold in the winter, for the fruit trees and things, it draws out more complexity.”
PW: Because we are so tied to the seasons here, do you have a particular favorite part of the year to cook in?
SW: “I like July and August. There’s the largest amount of produce available, variety wise. I enjoy fall, when we get into the squashes and the heartier foods. It’s also kind of sad, because you know you’re headed towards the root vegetables.”
PW: Does being tied to the seasons and what’s locally available force you to be a more creative chef?
SW: “Yeah. You can’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘I want to do this.’ We’re in a society where you can get anything whenever you want so it forces you to sit down and write the menu according to what’s in season. It’s not based on ‘what do we want as a protein?’ or ‘I feel like doing this.’ Instead we look at what’s available, and we write our menu according to what we can get.
In some ways, it seems a little backwards from other places I’ve worked. But it makes you sit and be creative. Every year you get the same items, every year we’re trying to do something different with it, to make it interesting and different from the year before. But there still are certain things that we have to bring back, because we have regular customers that like them. In peach season, we have to have the grilled peach salad. But it does make it challenging.”
PW: Is there anything that you’d like to prepare that’s impossible while sourcing local? If there’s something you can’t get, how willing are you to compromise?
SW: “We sometimes compromise with certain grains. But then we’ll try to buy something that’s organic, or that we know is raised in a good way. All our meat is local, and we basically put on the menu what we can get locally and fit to our price point. So that’s challenging. Sometimes, would we like to have a big New York strip or a rib eye? Yes. But could we charge somebody $35 or $40 for it? No. Sometimes that’s frustrating, but it forces us to be more creative with how we do things.“
PW: Seafood’s a challenge too.
SW: “Yes. With seafood, about a year ago, we started using a company called River and Glen. Their focus is only supplying sustainable fish. Sometimes that limits us now too, because I’m not buying from a larger seafood company. Depending on the time of year, I get a list of maybe eight fish, depending on what’s running. It ties us a little bit with what we can use, but I’d rather have those constraints and know I’m buying from a sustainable source.”
PW: Is there anything you think you should be able to get from local sources, but you can’t?
SW: “I’d like to be able to get more dried grains and beans. That’s one of the things that could possibly change—kind of like the root vegetables—if people know that if they grow it and they dry them, and there’s a market for people to buy them in the winter, it’ll be there. The farmers have to make a living, so they don’t want to take a risk of planting a large amount, and then sitting on it. But that’s something I’d like to see. But other than that, there are really a lot of other items out there—you just have to look. You have to take the time to make the connection, talk to the producer, figure out how you’re going to be getting from where they are to where you are, especially if you’re only buying once or twice a year. It’s definitely more work. We can get a lot of stuff locally now that we couldn’t get four or five years ago.”
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