Chef Matt Christianson: The Delicate Nuance of Farm to Table

27 Oct, 2013

by Bruce E. Boyers

There are an ever-growing number of culinary visionaries today taking advantage of the bountiful flavors available in local and sustainably raised produce and meats. For Matt Christianson, executive chef at Portland, Oregon’s Urban Farmer steakhouse, it’s not just the local touch, however; it’s the many subtleties of location, the time of year, and numerous other factors that influence what you experience on your plate.

“One learns that the best-quality ingredients produce the best food because you have to do very little to them,” Christianson told Organic Connections. “But with that you can learn the nuances of food: for example, the difference between first-of-the-year English peas versus English peas in the middle of the summer versus the ones at the end of the year. There is also the issue of how microclimates are affecting crops, and talking to the farmers about why they plant what they do where they do. I have definitely seen that there are different growing regions that are great for different things, and growers in each of them could speak to why.

“Just like a chef knows how hard you need to sear a piece of meat, or to what temperature you need to cook fish so that it’s not raw or overdone, all these people know the nuances of their fields, their crops, their seeds, their workers’ ability, and these various kinds of things that are equally as important as the many small nuances that you’re dealing with while you’re cooking on the line.”

Finding a Sense of Place

Christianson himself began making this discovery quite some time ago when he was chef de cuisine at famed chef Bradley Ogden’s One Market restaurant in San Francisco, a position he held for seven years. “That’s where I got my love for food and just what it meant to have a sense of place,” Christianson related. “We would take a significant amount of cash with us and shop at the farmers’ market twice a week, change the menu as much as our cooks and we ourselves could keep pace with and as much as the season drove it.

“When you go out in the morning and taste six different people’s strawberries and decide which ones to get, you’re able to speak of that to the guests and the servers, and all the way through the dining experience—where it came from and what you did with it, or how little you did with it because you sourced it right.”

Care and Understanding

Christianson has seen that it is the care producers take that makes the difference. “There’s the science that has to be applied,” he said. “Better nutrients in the soil are going to produce sweeter crops and root vegetables. A better fog layer in the morning is going to make your lettuce crisper in the morning, which is when you want to harvest, versus the afternoon when there’s full sun and the lettuce is developing its sweetness. When things are harvested is very important as regards a lot of crops.

“In relation to livestock, it’s their diets and the way they’re raised. Genetics are important as well. I talk to various ranchers and they speak very highly of their genetics; the more you talk to them, the more you understand where they’re going concerning tenderness and other factors. A lot of it is not over-inbreeding, so that there is this diversity. The same thing applies to diversity in crops; you get this natural selection and it’s self-sustaining, and everything just tastes better.”

Seasonal Balance

Of course when you rely on local sources, available ingredients will vary with the seasons. “The seasons affect what we do greatly,” Christianson said. “We change the menu about four to six times a year depending on the season. There are certain staple items that will always stay on the menu, but specials are interchanging every single week. Different salads are coming on and off; soups are changing.”

There are ways, however, to hold over some items. “One of the fun activities we do here at Urban Farmer is we pickle a lot and we jar quite a bit of produce,” Christianson continued. “We’re able to carry certain seasons over into other ones. As an example, two days ago we bought four hundred pounds of peaches. They’re the last of the season’s cling peaches, and we’re going to can them in a nice light syrup. We’ll then be able to serve peaches all the way through the wintertime on our pancakes, waffles and things like that. We’ll have about ninety half-gallon jars of peaches.”

Scaling Up

Given the popularity of Urban Farmer, Christianson has had to make adjustments for scale yet still maintain that local subtlety and touch. “The size of our operation is significant enough that I can no longer keep up with the volume of going to the markets with cash and a hand truck and hauling out the produce I need on a biweekly basis,” he said. “So I have to rely on the people who are able to have that conversation over the phone, or visit them at the market and have them be willing to stop by here and deliver. Fortunately there are a lot of people who are dedicated to that in Portland; while they have a presence at the farmers’ market for their retail operation, they are aware of the importance of having their names on a menu. Their ability to move more product relies heavily on their ability to sustain relationships with restaurateurs.

“We’re there for those people who are able to take that scaling on and still remain viable in the farming community. They still can change what they are going to grow because something didn’t work one year, and I’ll be equally excited about that. So I let them drive a little bit regarding my creativity and innovation in the next year. They really get excited about that too.”

Vision Moving Forward

Urban Farmer has become so successful in its local, seasonal approach that its parent company, Sage Restaurant Group, has decided to replicate the model. “We’ll be opening an Urban Farmer Cleveland steakhouse in Cleveland, Ohio, in early April of next year,” Christianson reported. “We’ll have again a sense of place there. We have already done some research and development—gone out, met farmers, met ranchers, to figure out who we’re going to partner with. I’m going to assist in the opening, and they’ll have their own executive chef who will be in charge of developing those relationships. Local is important and having that person right there being able to connect to those people individually is very necessary as the concept of Urban Farmer grows.”

Mission

While Chef Christianson is impassioned about how he works, it matters equally to him that others learn it too. “I would say a good part of my mission is cooking food with purpose and teaching other people how to do that as well,” he concluded, “imparting a great understanding of why it’s important to prepare ingredients that way; why we get what we get and from whom; and why, in my humble opinion, it’s the best. Understanding the sense of why is essential in relation to my culinary style, so that they can be empowered to make those decisions for me here as well as later in life in their own culinary careers.”

For more information on Urban Farmer, please visit urbanfarmerportland.com.

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