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The (Farm) Spirit of Locally Grown Food

“Vegetable forward cuisine is definitely the next big thing,” says Aaron Adams, the owner and chef of Portland’s Farm Spirit restaurant. “We like to joke that we are so vegetable forward that we don’t even use meat at all.” Open since June, Farm Spirit offers multi-course all-vegan dinners, featuring locally grown food. Aaron stresses that the restaurant is customer focused – similar to the style of a Japanese tea service – with diners sitting at a 14-seat counter in full view of the chefs and the preparation of the meal. Guests and the chefs can talk throughout the evening, which has one seating beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. After getting an early morning jumpstart on his preparations for that evening’s meal at his restaurant, we caught up with Chef Aaron Adams for a phone interview as he drove to the Coast to forage for some seaweed.

A vegan himself since 2004, Aaron says most of his guests are not vegans, and some do not even realize they are at a vegan restaurant until they ask for milk for their coffee. Formerly with Portland’s Portobello Restaurant, Aaron says the counter-style seating allows him to provide the quality of food he wants within the constraints of a limited start-up budget. “We have eliminated the back of the house people without losing any of the quality service,” he explains. “We have pared it down to the essentials – food and beverage pairings. I can remunerate chefs well and attract top people, as a result.”

Farm Spirit chefs, L to R; Chef Ricardo Perez, Chef Tim Dearing, and Chef Aaron Adams

Aaron says he appreciates the opportunity to interact with his guests. “I am enjoying it immensely,” he says, adding that a recent visit from some French guests had him blushing. “They were just so nice,” he says. “They said this was the best food they have had here, and they were not vegan.”

Aaron has developed close relationships with local farmers for his menu items. Three growers he relies heavily upon are Dancing Roots Farm, Black Sheep Farm and Groundworks Organics. His December tasting menu is filled with mushrooms, winter squashes and root vegetables. “The character of the menu changes as the season changes,” he says, adding that he also is making use of canned tomatoes and pickled vegetables he put up at the end of the summer.

Describing his menu as “Cascadian horticultural cuisine,” Aaron says he bristles when he reads the phrase “local whenever possible” on a menu. “It’s always possible to be local,” he says, “but if your menu stays the same for six months, you are not doing it locally. Menus need to change with the seasons.”

After a whirlwind start that includes sold-out reservations on a regular basis, Aaron and his Farm Spirit team are taking a two-week break in January to plan new techniques, new menu items and a new Sunday brunch. “We will be doing tons of cross-training during those two weeks,” he explains. We will be learning about breads and fermented beverages…We will be setting up our own science lab right here in the restaurant.”

As he talks, Aaron reveals his passion for plant-based, locally sourced food and for his new restaurant. He concludes by saying, “I just want people to consider the idea of eating a plant-based diet – or at least of reducing the amount of meat they eat – for the environmental and the ethical reasons and then to see that it is possible to eat really well.”

For more information about Farm Spirit, visit http://farmspiritpdx.com/, their Facebook page, or Twitter.

Images: Nikki Unger-Fink

Eugene’s Cornbread Café: From Cart to Diner

Owners, Kristy Hammond, left, and Sheree Walters. Photo by: Jackie Varriano

Every day aspiring chefs and restaurateurs are thinking small, opening food carts and stands to dip their toes in the small business waters. For Kristy Hammond and Sheree Walters, owners of Eugene’s vegan Cornbread Café, a food cart was just the beginning.

The two met on the internet, when Hammond responded to a posting from Walters titled “Vegan Entrepreneur.” They hit it off and a few short months later, the Cornbread Café food cart was open for business.  “We looked at a couple of restaurant spaces and realized it wasn’t particularly feasible, and that it was less than it about being feasible – more about it being scary. I mean, there’s an 80 percent attrition rate when it comes to restaurants, they just seem to fall by the wayside within a year, so the food cart seemed like the most viable way to see if her recipes, her food, her ideas were as good as I thought they were,” says Hammond.

As it turns out, Hammond wasn’t the only one intrigued by the idea of vegan soul food. In under a year, the cart began selling product wholesale to the New Frontier Market, and the cart attracted a large following. “We did everything in our trailer. That was our kitchen; we didn’t use our home kitchens or any other space. It became quickly apparent that we were running out of room and that just from a storage standpoint that we were sort of capped,” says Hammond.

Cornbread Cafe. Photo by: Jackie Varriano

When it became time to renew their lease agreement with the cart, Hammond and Walters faced a decision. After a year in the cart, it was clear they had a proven product. Their wholesale business had potential to grow, and their loyal customer base begged for longer hours. It became clear; they needed a restaurant space.

So where does the “cornbread” come in? Well, in addition to serving up moist, yummy slices of it (including a gluten-free version), the duo finally settled on Cornbread Café after deliberating on several different business names. Hammond says, “I liked the simplicity of the word cornbread. We had thrown around a bunch of names, but once I said “cornbread,” that was it.”

The food cart closed December 31, 2010. Hammond and Walters took the time to build their wholesale business, sharing a commissary kitchen with a local catering company in downtown Eugene. They searched around the area for a new home, finding one at the old Deb’s Diner at the corner of Polk and Seventh Streets.

They hosted a successful grand opening early in the summer of 2011, and have continued to grow claiming small victories here and there. “Last week I had a customer say “One of my favorite things about coming here is the diversity that you have,” says Hammond. Their attention to detail, hand-crafted menu, and welcoming atmosphere (alongside items like their popular fried tofu “Eugenewich”) has been creating a buzz and attracting vegans and meat eaters alike.

Hammond and Walters now provide items to four area markets and are at their ‘50s style diner five days a week. “The food cart was a great learning experience in many, many ways. It’s nice to go from little to big,” says Hammond.

Jackie Varriano is a Eugene-based writer thinking of making Cornbread’s Mac-un-cheese part of her daily diet. Keep up with her at seejackwrite.tumblr.com.