Ask a novice how to prepare a fancy dinner for a couple hundred people, and you’d probably get a logical response: Decide on the menu well in advance, then go out and find the ingredients for those dishes.
But chef Andrea Reusing does just the opposite. She cooks in reverse, gathering the ingredients and then deciding how to use them. And like an artist who selects just a handful of colors for the palette, Reusing doesn’t really want unlimited choices.
“As a cook, you really need limitations,” says Reusing, who oversees the restaurant at boutique hotel The Durham. “We want to work with ingredients that are not only flavorful and nutritious, but also in-season and available. We make our menus daily based on what is available.”
Farm to Fork
So Reusing created the menu for the Farm to Fork 2016 dinner as she perused the offerings at a local farmer’s market and gathered the day’s fresh ingredients just a few hours before the meal would be served.
“It’s a really perfect time of year right now in North Carolina, like a microseason,” said Reusing, who, along with former White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass, was tasked with feeding ticketed guests at The Durham on the Saturday of the 2016 Farm to Fork Weekend. The annual weekend, organized by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, supports beginning farmer training programs. CEFS is a partnership of N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We have a foot in spring and a foot in summer, so you’re able to come up with a menu of things that you wouldn’t normally have together. We’ll have tomatoes on the same table as peas, and that’s a rarity. That’s the kind of thing that really excites us as cooks.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina sponsors the annual Farm to Fork Weekend, drawing attention to the health benefits of farm-to-fork dining, as well as the boost it gives to our state’s food economy.
Reusing has been a fixture of the Triangle cuisine scene since taking on chef duties at Enoteca Vin in Raleigh in the late 1990s, despite no formal cooking training.
“When I lived in New York, I cooked for friends’ parties and did a lot of informal catering,” Reusing says. “And I line cooked in college, but I never saw it as my career until I moved here to North Carolina.”
She quickly rose to prominence among the culinary cognoscenti and decided to open Lantern in Chapel Hill in 2001, creating a unique menu that featured Asian dishes made from North Carolina ingredients. In 2015, it was time for another challenge, which came in the form of establishing the restaurant at the newly opened The Durham in a former bank building downtown.
Cooking with Sustainable Agriculture
Reusing is at the forefront of the farm-to-fork movement, supporting local farms that practice sustainable farming methods to produce our state’s world-class fruits and vegetables.
“There’s an incredible tradition of agriculture in North Carolina,” Reusing says. “There are so many people working on sustainable farming here, and consumers like that. I think the reason there are so many great restaurants in this area is because sustainable agriculture is so supported.”
Reusing, who in 2011 won a coveted James Beard Award for excellence in cuisine, feels fortunate to have found a receptive North Carolina audience for her dishes.
“People here are very sophisticated about food, but not in a way that they know the name of the latest trendy spice,” she says. “They’re sophisticated in understanding why a really good chicken or really good egg costs more than a lousy chicken or egg. They’re sophisticated on a deeper and more meaningful level. Eaters in North Carolina understand the implications of ‘cheap food’ and they’re willing to support something different.”
For the Farm to Fork dinner menu, Reusing ended up with ingredients from more than 30 North Carolina farms. Still, she did use some seaweed from the West Coast: “Just for fun,” she laughs.
To sample Reusing’s take on farm-to-fork dining, visit the restaurant at The Durham or read her book, Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes.