Farm-to-Table Dining

On a recent evening Jody and I enjoyed a fine meal at a relatively new farm-to-table restaurant in Montclair named Escape (http://www.escapemontclair.com/). The restaurant was nearly empty. Only one other group of three persons was seated when we arrived, and another couple came soon thereafter. That was the extent of the traffic during our visit on this weekday night.

Escape procures most of its fare from local farms and fisheries. One exception is the salmon, which we were told was wild-caught Pacific salmon. At least that’s what I understood the server to say. Jody was served scallops that came from New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay.

The portions we were served were artfully plated and modest in size. Although each entrée on the menu included several vegetables and most included a starch along with the protein item, we did not get much in the way of vegetables or starch. We were asked if we wanted one of the vegetable sides but decided against it because, after all, each entry included several vegetables.

We were not dissatisfied with the size of our servings; on the contrary we both remarked afterwards that we enjoyed not having to stuff ourselves to finish our meals or ask for a container to take home what we could not comfortably eat. We do wonder, however, why there is so little vegetable content when local vegetable harvests are at or nearing their peaks.

Opening a restaurant that serves mostly locally sourced food, and charges relatively high prices for it, seems like a risky venture. The scarcity of patrons on a fine summer evening serves to underscore that risk. I believe the story underlying the risk is also about the high cost of sustainable local food production. Having spent part of that same day doing volunteer work at City Green (http://www.citygreenonline.org/), we were more aware of that cost as were enjoying our meal than we might otherwise have been. We have seen at City Green that running even a small farm requires a lot of resources, including a lot of labor.

Although Escape does not make any claims—at least none were visible on its Web site—about contributing to the health of the environment or contributing to the nutritional benefit of low-income residents of the area, I believe the conceit of serving mostly locally sourced foods places it in the realm where those issues might be addressed.

In that realm, but also with no public claim of environmental or social benefit, is the Montclair Farmers Market, which we patronize regularly. It’s interesting to note that two of the farms from which Escape purchases its fare also sell their products at the Montclair Farmers Market. Also in that realm, but with strong public claims of providing a social benefit, are organizations such as Passaic County’s City Green and Essex County’s A Lot to Grow (http://www.alottogrow.org/). Most recently I’ve also learned about the establishment of two community gardens by the Center for Food Action in Englewood (http://www.northjersey.com/news/englewood-s-center-for-food-action-opens-two-community-gardens-1.1047976).

I have no sense that Escape is not doing well or is in danger of failing. I wish its owner and staff well. I don’t wish them well because it’s likely to become a favorite place for us to dine. Frankly I don’t think we could afford it. But if I knew that our purchase of a couple of meals would not only sustain the restaurant but also contribute to the greater good, I might consider it worth the extra expense.

So here are the questions: Is there a connection, or the potential for a connection, between the success of an expensive farm-to-table restaurant such as Escape and the success of attempts to provide healthful locally grown food to low-income residents in Northern New Jersey? If Escape succeeds, would that success offer any encouragement to other entrepreneurs or even to local nonprofit organizations to open similar eateries in locations where they would be accessible to diners of more modest means? Would it raise awareness of local farms and of the nutritional and ecological value of supporting these farms insofar as they can offer some produce that is affordable for low-income consumers and insofar as they practice sustainable farming methods? I don’t have answers to these questions, but perhaps someone reading this will be able to offer some insight.

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