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Richmond Chefs and Farmers Collaborate to Promote Slow Food Movement

Chef Jason Alley, of Pasture and Comfort
Chef Jason Alley, of Pasture and Comfort, serves blue corn meal "mush" with hen of the woods mushroom and ramp relish

Many people around the state are preparing for a holiday weekend of cooking and sharing food. One organization in Richmond is hoping summer menus will include food that’s seasonal, grown locally and strengthens the region’s biodiversity. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.

Learn More: Find out more about Slow Food RVA, the Ark of Taste and the September farm tour sponsored by the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers.

The Slow Food movement began in Italy in the 1980s as a response to the dominance of fast food, industrial agriculture and factory farms. It has since spread around the globe, with an estimated 100,000 members in 150 countries.

John Haddad: We live in age where fast food is still problematic and childhood diabetes and obesity is still a problem.

Food writer John Haddad is chair of Slow Food RVA.

Haddad: Our mantra is we’d rather pay the farmer than the doctor, so we’re all about preaching good, clean, fair food.

Good, referring to quality, flavor and satisfaction. Clean, meaning healthy for people, animals and the environment. And fair in terms of costs and conditions. The Richmond chapter also has its own motto:

Haddad: Celebrate, educate and advocate. The movement started about protecting the pleasures of the table. We have to eat every day and we want to make it as pleasurable an experience as possible.

Slow Food RVA's Graze event
Slow Food RVA's Graze event

 Slow Food RVA combines celebration with education at public events, like potlucks, farm tours and food tastings. At Tuckahoe Plantation, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson, Slow Food RVA recently brought together growers, chefs and local food advocates for their biannual Graze event.

Graze invites Virginia chefs to collaborate with local producers, so they can access fresh, seasonal products that don’t have be to transported thousands of miles. At this gathering, Pasture, Rappahannock, Heritage and others are all using local ingredients.

Chef montage: Pork loin coming from Lockhart Farms...Pickled hen of the woods mushrooms and pickled ramp relish...Pea and mint soup...We used grits from Ashland at Byrd’s Mill.

Heritage chefs serve cavatelli with ramp tops, lamb bacon & mint
Heritage chefs serve cavatelli with ramp tops, lamb bacon & mint 

 Many here are promoting a Slow Food initiative called The Ark of Taste. The international project catalogues small-scale food that is native to a specific region and part of that culture’s identity. Anyone can nominate an item, including cheeses, breads, oils and herbs. Once accepted, the items are “boarded” into the ark’s database.

Haddad: Just like Noah, we onboard vegetables, fruits and animals, varieties that are either on the verge of or in danger of going extinct because of big ag and we try to save them and educate people about them and then provide seeds for farmers to start raising them. A lot of the education we do is around taste and we put these heirloom varieties and Ark breeds up against industrial-bred varieties and there’s no comparison, the taste of the heritage breeds just blows them away.

Jocelyn Lockhart: We have with us two ducks, a welsh harlequin duck and a cayuga duck.

Jocelyn Lockhart helps run Lockhart Family Farms with her spouse Josiah, where they use the Ark of Taste list in their efforts to bring back rare and heritage breeds of pigs and poultry.

Lockhart: Cayuga is an American breed duck, a beautiful black duck with a greenish sheen and it was a traditional meat duck until about 100 years ago, when we had more industrial breeds that they started to make. It’s now on the threatened, endangered breed list so we’re trying to bring it back and create a market for this duck again.

The gardens at Tuckahoe Plantation
The gardens at Tuckahoe Plantation

To showcase the Ark of Taste heritage breeds, Estilo Executive Chef Craig Smith and his team stayed up all night working on a turducken using locally raised animals from the Lockhart Family Farm.

Craig Smith: He had a bunch of birds, all Ark of Taste certified, a Plymouth Rock chicken, a Cayuga duck and a Bourbon Red tom turkey.

So Smith rose to the challenge of the complex dish, which consists of stuffing deboned chicken into a duck then into a turkey.

Smith: We kind of thought we knew what we were doing, and then we get into it and start deboning them and the game plan changed a couple times.

That’s because heritage breeds are different from mass produced poultry. Smith says they’re a bit slimmer and there’s more fat. Smith said they also used parts of two other Ark of Taste animals, a Tamworth hog and Silver Fox rabbits, along with local bread, in the stuffing.

Salad wrap demo for youth with Chef Ann Butler
Salad wrap demo for youth with Chef Ann Butler 

Smith: So it was a pig, three birds and then the rabbit offal, the liver, the kidney, the heart, the sort of nasty bits if you will, we made into a pate and mixed with some of the bread. So it was real crazy, .I think it was the first time anybody’s ever done it where all five animals were Ark of Taste.

Slow Food RVA hopes to hold another Graze event in the fall, and this summer they’re working with HandsOn Greater Richmond to offer an urban farming summer camp for teens. And in September, they’re partnering with the Virginia Association for Biological Farming on a new initiative: “Shake the hands that feed you.” The two-day tour will connect residents with producers at 14 organic and ecological farms in the Richmond area. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.