This is a time of ethical eating, an idea not nearly as complicated as the grocery store’s organic food isle would lead you to believe. From a community perspective, it simply means: We are all in this together, or as Chef Mac Edwards puts it, “Eating local is about building relationships.”
Mac Edwards is the owner and executive chef of The Elegant Farmer restaurant. This almost 40-year veteran of the restaurant and hospitality business was a “locavore” long before the term was invented in 2007. “Yea, it’s just the locavore thing,” said Edwards. “If you eat local, it’s just good for the economy; to look the person in the eye who you are buying something from.” Not only is eating local the right thing to do, “it’s life,” said Edwards. “Everything … life is just one big thing, ya know, we’re all tied in.”
The First Elegant Farmer
The Elegant Farmer was a restaurant in the Port of Oakland’s historic Jack London Square, and the original restaurant is long-gone. Edwards remembers it as his parents’ favorite restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, his childhood home. The woman who owned the first Elegant Farmer had attended a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following the speech, she and her girlfriends asked Eleanor Roosevelt why the President couldn’t use the word “fertilizer” instead of “manure” in his address to farmers. Eleanor Roosevelt said it had taken her ten years to get him to use the word manure; “you, my dear, must be an elegant farmer.” Hence, the name was created.
Fast-forward to 2013, and Memphis’s Elegant Farmer wakes up with a shout from Edwards, “We’re live!” as lunch service begins and the first customers trickle in early.
The restaurant opened two years ago in the back portion of a modest half-timbered building. Laid-back dining and modern preparation of traditional Southern foods earned The Elegant Farmer a “Best New Restaurant, 2012” award from Memphis magazine. An unpretentious interior with aged wood floors and a no-frills arrangement of wooden tables, chairs and benches is the background for local artwork, colorful food presentations and carefree dialogue. The back porch is available for seasonal outdoor dining.
A Few Items on the Menu
Chef de Cuisine Gannon Hamilton is an adventuresome artist in the kitchen, and the staff is made up of restaurant professionals who interact like family. The evening crowd ranges from casual groups to relaxed twosomes enjoying the daily special paired with a glass of wine. Chef Hamilton’s favorite item on the menu is the pork, supplied by Newman Farms. Rita and Mark Newman raise Berkshire pork in Myrtle, Missouri, and they were recently honored by the James Beard Society.
Lighter fare might include a plate of fresh vegetables whose flavor is preceded by a scent of rosemary sprinkled on top. “We focus on keeping it simple,” said Edwards, “and I think simple is healthier. What we do here is a lot of olive oil, salt and pepper. This is not squash, quail and unborn baby vegetables. We’re just cookin’ here, ya know, it’s just real simple.” In the kitchen, a dried herb mixture of thyme, oregano, basil, tarragon and rosemary is always nearby. This seasoning is added to the pot roast, the chicken … everything.
A popular item on the menu is the PB & J, recently highlighted by Deep South magazine when they named The Elegant Farmer “one of the 50 restaurants in the South redefining Southern food.” The “P” in this sandwich stands for “pecans” from an orchard just down highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta, and the preserves are from Jones Orchard in Millington, Tennessee. With sweet potato chips, carrot sticks and ranch dressing on the side, it’s an elegant take on a school lunch.
“Local” may be a few hours away or just down the street.
Edwards often receives tomatoes and turnip greens from friends’ backyard gardens, but the vendors who offer their wares at area farmers’ markets make it possible for him to maintain a local menu year-round. Even off-season, 80 percent of the restaurant’s food inventory is locally produced. Edwards frequents all of the local farmers’ markets year-round, and he is a founding board member of the Memphis Farmers’ Market downtown.
Since the Memphis Farmers’ Market opened downtown eight years ago, they have averaged 50 vendors per week in season, and they’ve had more than 65,000 people attend over the last three years. “It’s a big deal. It’s really important to me,” said Edwards. Through the farmers’ markets, Edwards has established relationships with local suppliers who either look for him at weekly markets or deliver directly to The Elegant Farmer. The Memphis Farmers Market opens in April, but other markets open earlier in the year if the weather is mild. (See a list of area farmers markets’ opening dates below.)
Farmers’ market vendors such as Wade Mathis from Mathis Creek in Covington, Tennessee, routinely deliver their wares to the restaurant. “[Wade Mathis] That’s who grows the beef. He brings it. The guy who grows the beef brings it to me,” Edwards affirms. Edwards also gets a weekly delivery from Earl Lake’s catfish ponds in Dundee, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. “People think you can’t sell catfish in a nice restaurant. We sell, 20 to 25 pounds of catfish a week here,” says Edwards.
Year-round, The Elegant Farmer is no more than one degree removed from the farmer. Woodson Ridge brings produce from their farm in Oxford, Mississippi, to Edwards every Tuesday and Friday. During cooler months in this region, the Woodson Ridge folks go down to their sister farm in Louisiana or to other small farmers in Louisiana and southern Mississippi and Alabama, and they bring produce back. “That’s the next best alternative to local, stuff from other small farms. The guy who you trust is going to get stuff from those other small farms,” Edwards explained.
It’s not just about food, really. As Edwards substantiates, eating local is about community and building relationships. “There’s just one sort of energy out there, whatever you want to call it: Different religions, different faiths, we call it different things, ya know, but certainly, in the big picture,” he says, “we’re all in this together.”
You may run into Mac when visiting local farmers’ markets this spring!
- Cooper-Young Community Farmers’ Market, open year-round, Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
- Memphis Farmers’ Market Downtown, begins on April 6, open Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
- Farmers’ Market at the Agricenter, beginning May 1, open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., closed on Sundays.
And we know you will meet him if you dine at The Elegant Farmer!