Philly Restaurateurs Are Getting Into the Farm Business

Famed Philly chefs aren’t just buying local produce, they’re just starting their own farms

FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, the phrase “farm-to-table” has been splashed across menus at restaurants of a certain ilk. It’s sort of meaningless — don’t all vegetables come from a farm? — but implies that the chef is fanatical about the provenance of his produce. The “farm” in this “farm-to-table” equation isn’t the same large-scale industrial farm that spits out the iceberg lettuce moldering in your crisper, but is something smaller, more personal. And the logical next link in the “Where does my food come from?” chain is this: Philly restaurateurs are getting into the farm business themselves.

Since last summer, chef Mitch Prensky has been working with Blue Elephant Farm, a 75-acre spread in Newtown Square. While he doesn’t own the farm (its owner is an investor in Prensky’s restaurant, Supper), the farm grows produce exclusively for the restaurant.

Prensky is passionate about using local produce, and the farm is the fulfillment of a longtime dream. But, he says, it’s not easy, and there’s little financial incentive, especially since he travels daily to the farm to pick his own vegetables. “Honestly, the amount of labor that goes into it is far beyond what I’m saving. It’d be a lot easier and probably less expensive if I just bought a zucchini.”

Stepping carefully across an empty lot littered with bits of paper and plastic bottles on a windy day in March, it’s hard to imagine that a forlorn field at the corner of 27th and Master will ever produce anything remotely resembling a zucchini, let alone enough tomatoes, carrots and squash to supply a small chain of restaurants and the local community. But that’s what Cary Borish, owner of Marathon Grill, and Patrick Dunn, a veteran of Philly’s urban-farming scene, have in mind for this 15,000-square-foot piece of city-owned land. After establishing a nonprofit foundation, Marathon Loves Philadelphia, the pair scored a three-year lease from the Department of Public Property to establish an urban farm. Marathon Grill will purchase up to half of the farm’s yield (which will be grown in raised beds and greenhouses), and this will help to subsidize the other half, which Borish and Dunn plan to sell, or in some cases donate, to the farm’s Brewerytown neighbors, who are underserved as far as fresh fruits and vegetables go.

Marathon’s motivation might seem to cynics like a clever bit of altruistic capitalism — the restaurant fundraises in order to funnel money into a nonprofit and then gets cheaper locally grown produce out of the deal — but Borish insists it’s not about the money. “The driving force here is to grow for the community,” he says. “We want to make this produce accessible to everyone.”

Meanwhile, in the decidedly more bucolic setting of Ottsville, Bucks County, landscape designers Sean Roulan and Annie Scott of Food System Design Group are knee-deep in the planning phase for Jose Garces’s 37-acre private farm, which the chef intends to use to supply his seven Philly restaurants (and as a country retreat for his family).

“Jose’s doing some really advanced things here in terms of creating the best-tasting vegetables,” says Roulan. “Even if you’re not concerned for principled reasons about where your food comes from, it just tastes better the more organically or biodynamically it’s grown. It’s really about creating a dish backward.” At this future farm, it’s less about the community and more focused on flavor.