How to Create a Farm-to-Table Program for 1,200 Guests

Many hotels are overwhelmed by the thought of putting together a 'buy local' or 'farm-to-table' culinary program when they also have to serve many guests. Where do you start? Should chefs contact all the local farms, breweries, wineries, fish mongers, meat and poultry farms in their area? Should they visit each farm?


By Chris Ferrier, Executive Chef, The National Conference Center
Many years ago, this was what we did; but with 1,200 meals to prepare, often we would clear out the farmers' goods and still not have enough for what we needed.
Today, Loudoun County boasts more than 40 wineries, cideries, distilleries and even a meadery. In addition, it has 20-plus breweries and over 40 meat and poultry farms. Visiting each farm would be time consuming and inefficient. But how can a chef be confident of the quality and quantity otherwise? There is a huge amount of planning that goes into this process, but the first step, for us, is to contact our Local Food Hub.

The Local Food Hub forges close relationships with local Virginia farmers, and provides the infrastructure for distribution of fresh, high-quality produce. It is a regional leader in ensuring that small farms gain an economic foothold in the marketplace, and that the knowledge and choice of local food becomes the norm, not the exception, for all segments of the community. Local Food Hub's 60 partner farms represent the bounty and diversity of the Virginia food shed. They offer fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, eggs, honey, grains, and more, to hospitals, retailers, restaurants, schools, and food banks, and partner with distributors like Sysco, a major food and beverage hotel provider.

Besides the Local Food Hub, Visit Loudoun sponsored a Restaurant & Producer Market Place in the spring. Loudoun food and beverage establishments were invited to meet Loudoun County agricultural farms, breweries and wineries. This year, 30 establishments and approximately 20 producers attended. The purpose was for chefs and producers to meet and greet and discuss how they can help each other sell products, learn what will be available throughout the growing season. This cut down on visits to farms throughout the county and enabled chefs to sample products.

Two years ago, we started our own garden, right off the kitchen. It excited the staff about developing the farm-to-table program. We grew the basics - tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, green beans and herbs - but nowhere near what we needed to feed 1,200 guests. Mary Watson-DeLauder is the keeper of the garden and our CWO (Chief Wine Officer). She uses the herbs in a wine tasting workshop where she pairs wines with herbs to see how herbs change the palette. This is a big hit with our groups and a great team building event.

We often create large events with a local flavor by practicing this purchasing process. Here's how we at The National Conference Center purchase and cook for 1,200 with a farm-to-table mission. Experience, learning by error, experimenting and basic math calculating are all involved. This is the process we teach all of our staff as they price out menus.

Portions - When portioning for a large amount of people, start with a basic amount per person and apply basic math formulas to know how much to purchase and cook. For example, let's assume we are preparing a banquet for 1,200 guests and are serving Virginia Rockfish at 6 ounces per person. Let's do the math - that is 7,200 ounces, divided by 16 ounces (per lb.) equals 450 pounds of rockfish. Great! Let's get rolling and start cooking! Not so fast. We have to determine if the fish is whole or pre-cut fillets. What is the cost difference? It's less expensive to purchase whole fish, but then we have to add staff time to fillet the fish. If we purchase the fish whole, there will be waste. And we need to put that into our calculations and order more to cover that waste. In the culinary world that is called "useable trim" or the end product that will be served. Filleting fish is time-consuming, the cost goes up. At this point we determine if it's reasonable for The National Culinary Team to fillet or to use a local fish monger.

Cost - We have to calculate the purchase amount for ALL FOOD on the menu. We have formulas, Excel spread sheets and experience to help us with this stage. But when it is time to "plate up" the meal for 1,200, we have to ensure that the culinary team follows the correct portion amount that was previously calculated. For example, if we order 2 ounces of green beans per person, but the cooks put 3 ounces per plate, we will be short of green beans. The point is that the planning, purchasing, preparation and final product all have to match.
Timing and Quality - How long will it take to "plate up" 1,200 dishes? At The National, we can plate 100 people in approximately 15 minutes. So think of the first 100 that are plated; how long will they hold as we plate up the next 1,100? We can't do Dover Sole for 1,200 and expect it to remain moist and fresh for a long time. Mahi Mahi or Black Cod are better choices. The starch, vegetables and sauce are all taken into consideration when time is of the essence.
What Type of Event? - In other words, is this an "a la carte" menu, where each guest is served an entrée? What if it is a buffet? We could potentially prepare more food for a buffet than an a la carte event. But if it is a buffet, how much food does a guest eat? Also consider how much they put on their plate? There is potential for more food to be used, but not necessarily consumed.
Back to Cost - What is the client paying per person? Can he afford a plated, a la carte dinner or does his budget reflect a buffet? Can he afford Salmon versus Seabass; Flat Iron Steak versus Filet Mignon?

All these decisions add up to how much we need to buy, how much is available and how we serve. Generally cooking with a farm-to-table program is limited to smaller properties, but by using a Local Food Hub that collects and distributes food from all the local farms, it's a better choice for the client, the hotel and your team.

We use this same process if we're cooking for 30 at a Chef's Table or 1,200 at a banquet. At a recent Chef's Table, we offered these foods from these local farms:
Arugula - Planet Earth Diversified, Standardsville, VA
Baby Lettuce - Shenandoah Growers, Harrisonburg, VA
Tomatoes - Hanover County, VA
Assorted Squashes - Hanover County, VA
All Natural Stone Ground Grits - Woodson's Mill, Lowesville, VA
Monocracy Ash Goat Cheese - Cherry Glen Farms, Boyd's MD
Honey - Bubba's Sweet Nectar, LLC, Waynesboro, VA
Organic Chicken - Shenandoah Valley Organics, Harrisonburg, VA
A Little History

The National's food and beverage facilities and program underwent a complete make-over in 2014. In the past, the 900-seat dining facility was a cafeteria-style food program. The team totally renovated the buffet areas eliminating trays, tray shelves and conveyor belts. John Walsh, food and beverage director, and I focused on local farm-to-table cuisine for the guests at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with as many as 1,200 people at capacity. A new area was designed for specialty coffees and wine for purchase.

Seating areas were renovated with a new floor and colorful wall treatments and tablescapes. Custom-designed artwork was installed that enlivened the dining space. In keeping with The National's farm-to-table brand, large framed photos were created that quote U.S. presidents and other dignitaries on food. One shows a large green broccoli spear and remarks by President George H. W. Bush: "I do not eat broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli..." Images of fresh foods, supporting the chef's farm-to-table cuisine, add color, interest and appeal.

The next phase of renovation in The Dining Room provided space for cooking demonstrations replacing steam tables and buffet arrangements. Induction cooking allows food to be freshly prepared 'a la minute' and presented with very little holding and warming needed. All new menus are developed and tested. The food and beverage operation is chef-driven, with graduates of the Culinary Institute of America and more than 50 years of cooking for large groups.
Finally, I'd like to share one of our client favorites: Homemade Heirloom Tomato Soup. This recipe is my daughter's favorite, and we always combine it with Brioche Grilled Cheese. Enjoy!

Heirloom Tomato Soup (yields 10-12 portions)
4 lbs. ripe Heirloom Tomatoes
2 ea. medium carrots (peeled and sliced)
1 ea. medium onion (peeled and sliced)
1 gallon Vegetable stock
3 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. sugar
Salt and pepper

Core and cut tomatoes in half. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Drizzle with 1 Tbs. olive oil and slow roast in 300° F oven until tender.
Sweat onion and carrots in remaining olive oil until tender, add roasted tomatoes and cover with vegetable stock and slowly simmer for 20 minutes. Puree in a blender and pass through a fine kitchen sieve adjust seasoning and enjoy.
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