Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest is divided into nine chapters. The “The Goods” chapter includes: Marcus Agresta, Kim Robinson, Larry Wappel, Carl Garwood, Scott Tucker, Mike Horall, Jean Kautt, Mark Souers, Gary Morris, Daniel Orr. Get a taste for this chapter by reading the story below.
When Chef Daniel Orr opened FARMbloomington restaurant just off the town square in the picturesque town that’s home to Indiana University, he found a happy medium that, in a sense, summed up his culinary career. Orr is an Indiana native who’s headed kitchens in places as diverse as Manhattan and the Caribbean island of Anguilla. As he tells it: “Both islands are about thirteen miles long and two or three miles wide. But in Manhattan and the five boroughs, you have twelve million people and Anguilla had 12,000 people. When I came back to Indiana, I decided that it felt like somewhere in between Anguilla and New York. Driving around, you could be in the country in five minutes. I could raise my own produce; I could know my farmers and look them in the eyes.”
Exciting, seasonal, fresh
I’ve been around the world. I’ve known a lot of people from other countries who’ve taught me to cook their dishes. So I try to bring some of those spices and some of those ingredients in and then use local ingredients as much as possible. It’s local food with global influences.
When I think of midwestern food, I think of my grandmother’s kitchen—country cooking of the early 1900s. I go back and I look at some of these old cookbooks—I collect old cookbooks—and see what people were doing then and kind of add my own twist.
We do southern fried chicken every Wednesday night. We do meatloaf every Tuesday night. We do brisket on Thursday, and we do a firehouse catfish fry on Fridays. These are real midwestern comfort foods. Our menu may be a little more eclectic, but we try to always have that underlying feeling of home cooking, things that people used to eat.
One of the things I do is forage. I go out and pick a lot of wild foods. I get cattail pollen and make cattail pollen muffins and pancakes. I’ve just brought in a bunch of elderberries, which I had to fight the birds for, because they love them, too. So I made about four gallons of elderberry syrup that we can use on our local peaches; we can make elderberry vinegar and deglaze pans with pork chops. I pick the elder flowers in the spring and we make a sweet tempura; we fry them and they’re crispy, very lacy looking. I get chanterelles in early July—last year I probably picked fifty pounds of chanterelles. I get wild greens, lamb’s quarter, mustard, onions, ramps (which are the wild leeks). Every season there’s something to pick from the wild harvest.
We’ll do a lot of processing of wild ingredients and local garden harvests. We make all kinds of flavored salts. When we’ve got fresh herbs, we’ll make purple basil salt, we’ll make sage garlic salt, we’ll make rosemary salt with these things that are coming from my garden or from local farmers. We’ll make dried tomatoes, tomato sauces.
We use local meats. We get Fiedler Farms beef and pork and Glick Brothers grass-fed beef; our chickens and pork also come from Gunthorp Farms—we get rabbits from them. We get local eggs from Luke Rhodes, who also brings us duck eggs, whenever they’re available.
In the winter, of course, we can cold-storage things like sweet potatoes, cabbages, and all kinds of squash and be using them pretty much through the next spring. We use Burton’s Maple Syrup from Burton’s Maplewood Farm, and local honeys.
There are people who want their strawberries, even in December, which doesn’t really make sense. But in a college town, you’ve got to give people what they want and make them happy. I think we find a nice balance of buying things less expensively from bigger vendors and then using the little farmers, as well. I think we balance it out so the prices aren’t too expensive. They’re not cheap, but we try to have something for everyone.
Every day I do a small-plates menu, which is eight to ten different things that are just available that day. There may be five of one, there may be seven of another, there may be fifteen of another item. You have to get here at five o’clock if you want to have the whole choice, because, by the end of the night, we try to sell out of all those dishes. I try to use small amounts of things. Let’s say we get a beautiful bunch of radishes. We’ll turn that into a salad with local cucumbers and tomatoes and fresh herbs. It’s exciting, it’s seasonal, it’s fresh.
I opened my restaurant at the very worst time in the economy, but we’re doing well; we’re expanding. I have a clientele that is very loyal. They come in a lot. There’re certain people that eat almost every dinner here—they’re wealthy young couples and they don’t have kids; they just like to come to dinner. Then there are lots of people that come two or three times a week. We have to be on the ball and keep our game up because there are people who drive from farther distances. We have people from Chicago who come down and want to eat here. They say they can’t find anything like this in Chicago, which is hard for me to believe.
But I think we try to hit a certain simplicity in our cuisine and presentation. We don’t do things that are stacked up or artsy-fartsy. We want food to speak for itself. I say that being a great chef is 90 percent being a good shopper and 10 percent not messing up what you bought. That’s my philosophy.