The farm, at the table
By Martha Miller,
Joneve Murphy is being watched. A man dressed in a jacket and tie and a woman in a little black dress have a bead on her, from their banquette perch with jewel-toned, overstuffed pillows just inside the Inn at Little Washington’s front door. Murphy stands on an ornate, Persian-style rug in dusty sneakers, a faded baseball cap and a sleeveless shirt that does little to hide the tattoo on her left arm.
The tattoo depicts a woman morphed into a willow tree; Murphy drew the prototype image herself. “I call [the tattoo] ‘Misery,’ which I got during a time I was feeling lost,” she says.
She does seem out of place in this palace of opulence and order. After all, chef Patrick O’Connell’s well-documented perfectionism and exacting taste have made the inn a culinary destination for more than three decades. But now in her second growing season as the inn’s first farmer-in-residence, Murphy, 32, is the yin to O’Connell’s yang. His world is elbow-deep in preparation, control and precision, while hers is knee-high in rain, shine and cucumber beetles.
In the dining room, their worlds happily collide: on a plate of mild shishito peppers eaten with your fingers like candy — the skin smoky and blistered black after time in a scorching hot pan, and in the cranberry-size currant tomatoes from Murphy’s hanging baskets in the garden that O’Connell scatters like summer rubies around a plated soft-shell crab.
When the inn opened in 1978 and few major food-service companies would deliver all the way out to little Washington, the chef turned to area farms to fill his cupboards and enable his cooking philosophy, which favors seasonality. Over the years, sourcing locally eventually led to O’Connell’s desire to grow on-site.
With the hiring of Murphy in January 2011, he has taken his vision to the next level. What began as a small garden adjacent to the kitchen has matured into two gardens over a half-acre, an orchard of dwarf French sour cherry trees, an apiary of honeybees, more than a dozen Rhode Island Red chickens and a flock of sheep (just decorative, a visitor is told). The farmer earns a salary comparable to that of a sous-chef at the inn. She rents an apartment on the property with her dog, Blue, a Catahoula leopard and blue heeler mix who heads up critter control and has been with Murphy since she started her agrarian career 10 years ago.
“I chose him because as soon as they took him for a walk outside of the shelter he rolled in the mud,” she says. “I love dirt, too, and we have been a good pair ever since.”
A restaurant with its own garden is hardly a novel idea. For years now chefs in the Washington area have tapped into the convenience and cost savings that growing their own can provide. Before coming to the inn, Murphy worked at Ayrshire Farm in nearby Upperville, which supplies ingredients to its restaurant, Hunter’s Head Tavern, in addition to other ventures. The Local Food Project at the Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton has tended a kitchen garden on-site since 1998. In 2010, Michael Babin, co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, founded the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Alexandria, which in addition to community outreach programs, sells approximately 25 percent of its harvest to NRG’s restaurants.
“There’s this dialogue between the farm and the kitchen that is so special,” says Breanna Detwiler, environmental policy coordinator for Airlie. “Because we have that open dialogue, you know how much to grow. That’s wonderful. That’s a privilege.”
At Willowsford, a 4,000-acre housing community in development in Loudoun County with 30 of 2,100 homes built thus far, that farmer-cook dialogue will extend even further, to the home cook. To better connect people with local food and agriculture, developers have set aside 200 acres of land within the development for agricultural production and have hired farmer Mike Snow and culinary director Bonnie Moore, a former executive sous-chef to O’Connell at the inn.
Together, Moore and Snow oversee Willowsford’s agriculture and culinary programs for residents including farm volunteer days, farm dinners put on by local chefs, and community-supported agriculture memberships, which are available to the 30 families living in the development’s first homes. Moore credits her exposure to local agriculture at the inn as a motivator to work for Willowsford.
“Patrick is truly a trailblazer . . . . Everything that he taught me has enabled me to really embrace this job at Willowsford,” she says. “It’s a farm where people live and want to be close to their food source. It’s come full circle.”
What makes the O’Connell-Murphy dynamic unique is the highly specialized brand of growing the farmer does. Because the chef wants to maintain, rather than replace, his long-standing relationships with the more than 100 local farms, orchards and meat and poultry suppliers he continues to buy from, Murphy’s on-site efforts focus on the difficult-to-source and expensive ingredients O’Connell loves and previously purchased from specialty growers such as the Chef’s Garden in Ohio.
“She grows the microgreens that don’t ship or travel very well,” O’Connell says. “And the garden peas, because even if you buy them in the pods, they get starchy.”
According to Murphy, last year’s savings on microgreens alone made the arrangement worthwhile. Murphy says the inn spent about $15,000 on microgreens the year before she came aboard. Once she began to grow them in a hoop house there, the savings were so readily apparent that the inn’s kitchen upped its usage to what would have cost $24,000 in orders. “I was just happy last year when, by the end of August, I had made back my salary,” Murphy says.
She estimates that, in season, approximately 50 percent of the kitchen’s ingredients come from the gardens. The resulting savings come at a price, however, in the form of Murphy’s time and painstaking effort — or what she calls “doing a lot of pain-in-the-butt things.” For example, she plants microgreens every two weeks, a process that requires carefully dropping three to five seeds in each of 200 holes per tray. “You can’t just scatter the seeds,” she says. “If you plant too many in one hole, then they come out the wrong shape and the greens won’t be uniform. You have to do it by hand.”
In addition to microgreens, Murphy specializes in other labor-intensive crops that O’Connell prefers, such as Carmellini beans, tiny haricots verts that must be picked every other day. She also hunts down new seed varietals for O’Connell and his cooks to experiment with. “I like seeing what weird stuff I can find and get Chef to use it,” she says. The “weird” stuff on Murphy’s grow list this year includes South American aji dulce and South African peppadew peppers, Principe Borghese tomatoes for sun-drying, scorzonera (akin to salsify) and okra flowers, which Murphy is excited for O’Connell to try for the first time. She describes their working relationship as “relatively collaborative” but adds that ultimately it’s O’Connell’s show. “Of course, whatever Chef wants, then that’s what I do,” she says.
But is this model of farming worth it for a young, independent-minded farmer? Mike Snow at Willowsford thinks so.
“We have an opportunity to make a new model that allows people to farm without owning land,” Snow says. “That’s a real obstacle for young, beginning farmers; access to land and access to capital.”
Four years ago, Murphy started her own farm in Vermont, but after record rainfall and flooding, she lost everything and ended up picking apples to make ends meet. “Everyone has this big, romantic idea of what farming is, but it’s really hard work, and things can go devastatingly wrong,” she says. “I learned that I need to be at a more stable financial space before I can do that again.”
For now, Murphy is content to farm O’Connell’s vision and to work the 10- to 12-hour days and six- or seven-day weeks that it requires, a pace she considers relaxed. “This is small scale, and I just wanted to slow down,” she says. “The biggest reason that I took the job here is because I saw this opportunity to grow food, which is something I already loved, but to do it in this beautiful, artistic way.”
Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.