Dinner as Theater

Local Stars in Loudoun

Local Stars in Loudoun

By Stefanie Gans / Photography by Kate Bohler

Kevin Grove of Quarter Branch Farm and Kanchsna Sermbhongse of Ayiara Thai.
Kevin Grove of Quarter Branch Farm and Kanchsna Sermbhongse of Ayiara Thai.

 

“People think Asian, and they think cheap,” says Noom Sermbhongse.

As the owner of Aiyara Thai Restaurant in Leesburg, Sermbhongse breaks down eggs to the penny. When he calls upon his wholesaler, he can find a dozen factory-produced eggs for $1. When he works with local farms—where chickens graze on grass—it’s $4. That’s a 400-percent increase, Sermbhongse quickly points out.

With one egg required for pad Thai, he spends about 10 cents or 40 cents, which may not seem like a big difference to someone who pays $10 in tolls just to ride 267 to Leesburg, but in an industry with a brutally slim profit margin, pennies count.

Local eggs are worth it to Sermbhongse. And that’s exactly what Miriam Nasuti is counting on.

It happened instantaneously for Nasuti. One day she was a marketing professional, trying to feed healthy foods to her family, and the next, she dramatically shifted where she bought food.

“Food Inc.,” the 2008 documentary that shed the ugly morning light on the corrupt food system in this country, started the transformation. “We watched the movie, and [the] next day it changed,” she remembers thinking. She sat her family down to watch with her and, “I had tears in my eyes.”

She didn’t just start shopping at the farmers market either; she now buys cow shares. This new calling didn’t stop in her home. She soon got to know local farmers and the agricultural business in Loudoun County and wondered how to better promote the area’s foods.

Grove and his two-and-a-half acre micro-farm in Lovettsville.
Grove and his two-and-a-half acre micro-farm in Lovettsville.

With an extensive background in event planning, fundraising and public relations, she transformed almost two dozen restaurants into live theater for the local food moment. For 11 days, participating restaurants developed menus where at least 70 percent of the ingredients came from Loudoun farms, wineries and distilleries.

It took Nasuit eight months to comb together the resources for Farm to Fork Loudoun. She cold-called 35 chefs with the idea: Pay a $500 participation fee, spend time developing relationships with local farmers, develop new menu items and budget for higher food costs. Twenty-one chefs said yes.

This is the second year for Farm to Fork Loudoun, and 22 restaurants will specifically offer Loudoun’s meat and produce from July 26 through Aug. 5 for the initiative.

Before working with Nasuti, Sermbhongse and his 67-year-old mother, Kanchsna Sermbhongse, both originally from Thailand, mostly relied on the national supply chain for ingredients. In 2010, a year after opening, they started shopping at the Leesburg Farmers Market, specifically for their weekend-only “Fresh Farm” menu.

After working within the Farm to Fork network, Sermbhongse now talks directly to farmers and receives better bulk pricing. In fact, Sermbhongse formed such a close connection to 30-year-old Kevin Grove of Quarter Branch Farm in Lovettsville, that Grove now specifically grows Thai basil and Thai chilies for Aiyara.

Grove showing off his bounty
Grove showing off his bounty

“Customized growing is a trend,” says Nasuti, founder of event, about the increased, direct connection between chefs and restaurants. And that’s really what Nasuit, a South Jersey native, had in mind. “I was the catalyst, the glue that brought everyone together.”

In March, Nasuti commences Farm to Fork with a gathering of all the participants letting everyone interact in a casual setting. She then sends spreadsheets of contact information and detailed listings of each farm’s output. Because of the relationships developed last year, Grove is happy to take seeds from chefs, as he does with Sermbhongse. In fact, he prefers it.

Living on two acres of land, Grove started planting fruit trees for his own consumption. After he lost his job as a cabinetmaker, he took the farm into full-scale production mode and in six months started selling greens at the Leesburg Farmers Market.

Miriam Nasuti, Grove, Kanchsna  Sermbhongse and Noom Sermbhongse.
Miriam Nasuti, Grove, Kanchsna Sermbhongse and Noom Sermbhongse.

At this point, 10 percent of his crop yield goes to about 12 different restaurants in Loudoun (60-percent of the produce Grove sells at the farmers market and the remaining 30-percent ships in Community Supported Agriculture shares). Selling to chefs is advantageous for farmers, and Grove wants to reach out to more restaurants. “The bottom line is that I want to sell whatever I grow,” says Grove. “And the best way to do that is grow what people want to buy.”

While this chef-farmer relationship clearly benefits the farm, for restaurants that haven’t previously figured in a higher unit price, the transition is tougher.

Before Shane Weese, executive chef of King Pinz, started working with Nasuti and Loundon farms, the upscale bowling alley didn’t serve any local items on its menu. The menu also hadn’t succumbed to seasonality: It remained unchanged in the two years since its opening.

Weese, a chef for 25 years, sounds excited for the challenge. He understands the importance of supporting the local economy and relishes his time with the soil. “It’s really exciting for me to get out of this kitchen, to get out of this building, to go breathe the fresh air, to walk around and see the product there. It’s a really cool thing.”

The idyllic agrarian dream must be kept in check. A 30-percent increase in food costs can cause damage to a restaurant’s budget. “Unfortunately, everything’s the bottom line. My owners are the ones that pay the bills. They were just as excited as I was,” says Weese, but the finances reign. His owners told him, “Chef, don’t go crazy.” Weese reiterates, I won’t “spend the whole farm.”

After Farm to Fork, Weese plans to keep about three locally sourced dishes on the menu, bowing to the seasons.

“I would say that I’m very proud,” says Nasuti, as she looks to grow the Farm to Fork model. She’s in talks to bring the concept to the Shenandoah Valley and two other markets in the Metro-D.C. area.

“You got a bowling alley doing this,” Nasuti says smiling. “That’s exciting.”

Farm to Fork Loudoun, July 26 through August 5. Check website for participating restaurants, farms, wineries, breweries and distillers; farmtoforkloudoun.com.

Aiyara Thai Restaurant
5 Catoctin Circle SE, Leesburg; 703-771-1131; aiyarathairestaurant.com.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)

King Pinz
1602 Village Market Blvd., Suite 100; Leesburg; 703-443-8001; kingpinzbowl.com.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Average entree: $12 and under ($)

 

(July 2012)

 

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