Woods Hill Table: good food, family farms, and sustainable sourcing

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Woods Hill Table is a restaurant in West Concord, Massachusetts, USA. They epitomise the quest for sustainable, ethical food, with their own farm producing a great deal of their produce, and a farm-to-table, nose-to-tail philosophy. They are extremely strict with themselves and their suppliers about the whole gamut of food ethics, even when it hurts the prospect of profit.

Locavore spoke to General Manager of Woods Hill Table, Jason Doo, about the restaurant and farm, their continuing campaigns to improve the food sector, and about revisiting the roots of New England cuisine. 

When, how, and why did Woods Hill Table begin?

The impetus for the restaurant was the simple fact we were looking for a sustainable source of grass-fed, organic, and pasture-raised meats from the New England area. We were unable to find a steady and consistent supply of beef, lamb, pork and chickens that met our strict criteria. So we purchased an old 260-acre farm in Bath, New Hampshire, and we converted it to a completely off-grid working farm where we decided to raise everything the restaurant needs. 

You work in tandem with the Farm at Woods Hill to produce as much of your own food as possible. How much of the restaurant’s food comes from the farm? And where does the rest come from?

About 80% of all our meats come from our own farm. During lulls or in periods where our meat is ageing (due to everything being grass-fed and pasture-raised, our meats have to age thirty days to become tender enough for the American palate) we have partnered up with White Oak Pastures and US Wellness Meats to source us grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, and occasionally stock bones. 

How do you choose which suppliers to work with?

We have a very strict interview process and our suppliers have to sign a contract ensuring their farming practices (including animal wellbeing) follow our rigorous demands. You can read our lengthy and very specific ‘Supplier Code of Conduct’ here.

How would describe the food you serve at the restaurant?

We have been labelled ‘New American’ and ‘Farm to Table’. However, our dishes are specifically founded upon the idea of receiving fresh and local produce from both our farm and the local New England farmers. By focusing upon sustainability and regionalism we are revisiting the roots of New England cuisine, and have been focusing on studying the history of New England cuisine and revisiting both classic cooking techniques and farming methods – with the goal of supporting restorative farming.

Who are your influences, and food heroes?

Our Chef Charlie Foster has been greatly influenced in sustainable working by Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (where we met John Woods of US Wellness Meats), and Chef Kobe Desramaults formerly of In De Wulf in Belgium where Chef Charlie Foster performed a very informative stagiere.

With the coming of Brexit in the UK, there is much in the media about the US food system. Specifically stories of chlorinated chicken and growth hormones in beef are held up as ways things are done in the US that are to be avoided. Is this view of the American food system a fair one?

Yes, to be fair. Many of our customers love our food and the style of restaurant, but I would say most consider our environmental and sustainable practices as ‘icing on the cake’ instead of the main draw of our food and atmosphere. 

The farm and restaurant are owned by Kristin Canty, who made the film Farmageddon detailing the struggles of small-scale farmers against the bureaucracy of the US government and its food laws. Have things moved on since the film was made? And if so, how?

Kristin is still working with both federal and local authorities on these matters; recently Kristin has been focused on lobbying for the Prime Act introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine and Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky. The Prime Act allows small farmers to slaughter their animals at local state-inspected abattoirs versus driving their animals out of state to the few USDA facilities available to them. This is important because it saves transportation fees for small farmers, lowers the stress on animals (drives in Kentucky can exceed 20 hours to get to the closest USDA facility), reduces use of fuel and as a result lowers the cost for both the farmer and the consumer.  State-inspected abattoirs tend to be smaller, cleaner and handle less animals. 

How does sustainability affect other aspects of your business? 

We have found that our staff retention rates are much higher then typical restaurants due to our mission of sustainability.  Not only do we provide our staff healthy wages, flexible work hours, but also a mission they believe in.

You say that you’re not just following the locavore/farm-to-table movement, but pushing it forward. How so?

Many restaurants will purchase what we have dubbed ‘show’ vegetables, or feature a whole pig from a local farm. However, everything from the carrots and onions in our stock to the tallow we cook our french fries in are from our farm or local farmers. We don’t take short cuts even if that means it hurts our bottom line.

Sustainability in the restaurant sector has come on in leaps and bounds over recent decades. With studies now saying we need a drastic change in our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic climate change, do you think there has been meaningful change? What more needs to be done?

Well, here in America we have taken a giant step back on the federal level. Without getting too much into politics we have always believed in democracy with a small ‘d’ and have tried to push for change locally and statewide.  Our state Massachusetts, along with a few other States in the Union, have done a great deal to address climate change and how to prevent a catastrophic future for our kids.  We strongly believe the first step, from a restaurant perspective, is to offer better raised meat. The realistic view here is that Americans, as a whole, do not believe a meal is complete without meat – so introducing vegetarianism or veganism is really not a mass market appeal option. However, if we change the processes we can start lowering the 14% of green house gasses that animal farming emits globally.

Do you think meat can be part of a sustainable, ethical diet, in view of the environmental impact meat protein has on the environment?

Yes. Vegetarianism and veganism are not the answer in the short term. Going from one polar opposite to the other is an exercise in futility. However, raising meat properly and sustainably, and increasing the ratio of vegetables or grains to meat per meal, are the first steps – for us in America at least.

You’re the first restaurant in the USA to be awarded three stars from the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Do you think other restaurants will follow suit?

It’s tough to say. In America the profitability for restaurants is very low due to the cost of rent, labour, and produce and meat. It’s always easy for a restaurateur to make ends meet by cutting the quality of produce and meats since it is the easiest cost to control. Our restaurants are far below average profitability due to us making sure everything is organic, GMO-free, pasture-raised, grass-fed, etc. We are very lucky that both our team and our investors are not profit-driven, but wholly mission-driven.

What are your plans, hopes, and fears, for the future?

There will be a even greater backlash on the federal level regarding environmental standards here in the States. Our hopes are the next generation will see the negative environmental impact the generations before them have caused, and strive to change and fix what we have already done.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

Because, it’s the right thing.

 

For more on Woods Hill Table visit their website or find them on Instagram.

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