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Food from farm to table: an illuminating process

Jim Webster, America Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers
Jim Webster, America Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers
Published Oct. 20, 2014

It all started with a pig. Or, more specifically, half a pig. Jim Webster, when he was a copy editor and writer for the Tampa Bay Times, drove up to Nature Delivered, Rebecca Krassnoski's farm near Tampa, with the aim of filling up his freezer with humanely raised pork. He wasn't looking for loin, shank and belly sealed carefully on plastic-wrapped trays. He wanted to meet his live, snuffling pig. And then see what happened after that.

"I felt like I had to watch it, I had to know I was okay with it," he said. "And that if I wasn't going to be okay with it, I was going to have to rethink my priorities."

He watched the slaughter. He ate the (quite delicious) pork, and he talked over what he'd seen and how he felt about it with a few friends over late-night drinks. Two of those friends were Michelle and Greg Baker, co-owners of Tampa's Refinery and the soon-to-open Fodder & Shine, and the other friend was Mario Batali. That Mario Batali.

Their story, too, began with a pig.

In 2008, Webster entered Batali's grilling contest with something that verged on stunt food: Pig-Wrapped, Pig-Stuffed Pig. Think of turducken with a one-track mind: pork tenderloin stuffed with sausage, rolled and wrapped in pancetta. Batali, an inveterate pork fan himself, was smitten. Webster won and got to hang out with Batali at a NASCAR race in Texas. They stayed in touch, first as gushing fan and celebrity chef, and later as friends and potential colleagues.

But according to Greg Baker, it was that post-pig-slaughter late night that was the germ of Batali's and Webster's new book America Farm to Table (Grand Central Life & Style, $35).

"I'm almost certain that that was the light bulb moment," Baker said. "He wanted to talk further about farm relationships, how chefs and farmers are mutually dependent for their success."

In short, it was a discussion of that dreamy catchphrase "farm to table."

"And Mario, a shrewd and capable business person, said at the end of the day you have to make money off of this or you starve on your principles," Baker said. "That conversation evolved into one about how it can be done and how it can be profitable."

That, in turn, led to more discussion, a book proposal, a book deal and Webster hitting the road to crisscross the country meeting chefs and the farmers with whom they partner.

"When Mario and I had conceived the book, we came up with a list of 20 cities we were interested in, where we either knew of a particular product or a chef, or that just geographically fit right in the spread across the whole map. We knew that was too many, so we got it down to 14, identifying chefs that either he was friends with or we were familiar with by reputation."

Webster tramped around on farms and ate great food (most memorable: a flat of tomatoes from Eckerton Hill Farm in New York that Webster made an impromptu caprese with after a long day of travel), and he stood with chefs in kitchens and sat down with them in dining rooms to explore where their food came from.

He learned some things along the way.

"It's mostly about respect. It's putting a face to everything you eat. Everything that you eat somebody put effort into. Now I feel I have to think about everything I buy, not in any sort of arrogant way, but I think it's important."

The result is a stunning portrait of the growing collaboration between American chefs and farmers, many of these relationships documented by Tampa Bay Times photographer Lara Cerri.

A few years ago, Batali was asked who the next rock stars of the food world would be. His answer: farmers. From Nashville chicken farmer Karen Overton to San Francisco pepper farmer Andy Griffin, Webster celebrated serious rock stars — then Batali dove into his test kitchen to come up with more than 100 accessible recipes that would make those rock stars proud.

Webster says he and Batali probably each have a number of "origin stories" for the book, events that constituted their own "light bulb moments." For many home cooks, America Farm to Table might provide similar illumination.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.