Field to plate

Eno is raising the stakes on eco-friendly eating

CorrespondentApril 22, 2009 

A tour of Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough is essentially a preview of Eno, a farm-to-table, work-share restaurant scheduled to open in Durham this summer. The rows of Asian microgreens and baby lambs frolicking in the pastures will be on its tables in a few months -- and the felled trees will be the tables.

The burlap coffee bags from roasters Counter Culture Coffee and Larry's Beans seen on the farm's compost pile will be used to make bolsters on the restaurant's banquettes.

And the hands that weed the organic fields, harvest the carrots and melons and slaughter the chickens and rabbits will be the same ones that chop fruits and vegetables, roast the meats and plate the dishes.

It doesn't get much greener than that.

Eno is at the pinnacle of eco-friendly restaurant practices, but the trend reaches beyond foodies with farms at their disposal. The greening of the restaurant industry is a national movement affecting every echelon of the food world. Fast-food chains learn they can donate their fryer grease to biodiesel collectors, while mom-and-pop places like Chubby's Tacos in Durham have swapped plastic forks for those made from corn and potato starches.

As an ideology that was once regarded as hippie mumbo jumbo becomes mainstream, the hope is that green practices will draw in customers.

A recent study may offer some hope to anyone debating going green at a higher cost. In it, EnviroMedia Social Marketing and Green Seal, an independent nonprofit product certification organization, found that 82 percent of consumers continue to buy earth-friendly products, even in a recession.

Many say the Triangle had an eco-friendly food scene long before it was hip. Strong community-supported agriculture programs, farmers markets, seasonal menus and using reclaimed materials are nothing new, but these practices are gaining prominence.

Chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern implemented green ethics in opening the Chapel Hill restaurant in 2001. From the start, she used biodegradable paper products, recycled her egg cartons at the farmers market and contracted with a high-temperature compost company to take almost every scrap, including meat products. But she still wishes she could have afforded more energy-efficient appliances when building her kitchen.

"One of the frustrating things is that in an industry like restaurants and food that requires so much energy, it's also expensive and labor-intensive to save energy," said Reusing, who made Grist magazine's international list of "15 Green Chefs" in 2007.

Lantern was one of Gourmet magazine's best farm-to-table restaurants in 2007 as well - she has a relationship with many local farms. Still, she laments not being able to purchase a hood system that would have captured heat from the stove and ventilated to heat the water tanks. By now, she thinks, it would have paid for itself.

Ingredients near here

For some chefs, the real motivator in using local, organic ingredients simply comes down to quality: the less distance food travels, the better it tastes. Chefs including Reusing, Amy Tornquist of Watts Grocery, Drew Brown of Piedmont and Aaron Vendemark of Panciuto base their menus on seasonal ingredients. Many Triangle chefs change their menus daily.

At Piedmont in Durham, the menu is often dictated by what's left of the whole pigs they purchase from local farmers.

"When you have a whole animal, it reminds you that until the last couple of generations, everybody got their meat from a small farm that would have to use the entire animal, and we really got away from that," Brown said. "We don't throw any of it away."

Brown thinks there is a direct correlation between the quality of life of an animal and the quality of the meat: The person who raised the animal will likely make sure it is respectfully slaughtered. "You can taste it," he says.

In some cases, a chef will foster a relationship with the farmers, even influencing which crops are grown.

Chef Scott Crawford just started his tenure at Heron's at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, but he's already established a relationship with Cherry Lane Farm in Alamance County. Robert Phipps and his wife, Meg, will be growing artichokes for the first time this year partly because of Crawford's wish list. Meg Scott Phipps, a former state Agriculture commissioner, spent time in federal prison for taking illegal campaign contributions.

"I don't mind buying from many farmers," Crawford said, "but if you partner with a farm ... you can grow that relationship to the point almost where they know exactly what you're looking for."

Crawford is also developing a compost program in which scraps from Heron's will find their way back to Cherry Lane to help grow the veggies that will appear back on Heron's tables.

Second-chance building

Nearly everything at Eno -- located in an old fire station in downtown Durham -- is salvaged, either from Coon Rock Farm or the building itself.

Eno is the brain-child of Richard Holcomb -- co-owner of Zely & Ritz in Raleigh, another Triangle restaurant that brings most ingredients in from Coon Rock -- and his partner, both in business and in life, Jamie DeMent. Zely & Ritz does not, however, have the work-share relationship with Coon Rock that Eno will.

Architect Scott Harmon said perhaps the greenest thing someone can do is infill construction, or using a vacant property in an urban setting. His company, Center Studio Architecture, has helped several downtown Durham shops and restaurants open in reclaimed buildings.

"Make it dense," he said, because an existing building can make the smallest carbon footprint of them all.

At Eno, the coffee bag-covered banquettes will be made with steel irrigation piping. The bar will be built with reused sheet metal and its poured-concrete countertop will be flecked with glass bottles found in a trash pile behind the farmhouse at Coon Rock. The partners will not cover the old distressed brick walls, and they plan to refurbish the original terrazzo floor to its original glory. Light fixtures are to be fashioned from chicken hoops, and there might even be an old fireman pole left to remind folks what the building once was.

The entire menu, aside from a few basics like olive oil and soy sauce, will be from Coon Rock Farm. A few other ingredients from North Carolina farm partners also will be featured, including cow's milk cheeses from Chapel Hill Creamery, grass-fed beef from Harris Robinette Farm and fish from North Carolina's coast.

"This is what it's all about," Holcomb said, "to plant the crops by hand, then see friendly faces enjoying it months later. It's that direct connection to the food and the people we share it with that makes this so fulfilling; we hope it will be the same for our customers at Eno."

DeMent and Holcomb plan to announce the chef for Eno this spring. In the meantime, they will watch the lambs turn into sheep and the asparagus grow and will weed by hand the eight acres that will produce food to be placed on those wooden tables in downtown Durham this summer.

A true farm-to-table restaurant with a work-share program remains a rare thing in this country, and the fact that Eno is opening in Durham only backs up Bon Appetit's assertion that this area is the "foodiest small town in America."

Perhaps with the greenest food scene, as well.

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