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US chef turned farmer and writer, Chris Fischer has finally come home to roost at the five-acre family farm in Martha's Vineyard, where his love of food was first formed. Following several years spent honing his cooking skills in some of the best restaurants around the world, Babbo in New York City, The River Café and Bread and Wine in London to name but a few, he’s back growing vegetables in the earth his grandfather once turned.
Home is Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark where he practices human scale agriculture in the close-knit island community - the flavour of which he captures in James Beard Award-winning book, The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook: A Year of Cooking on Martha’s Vineyard. Part diary and part ode to the pleasure of having his fingers back in the soil, it's clear his farming habit is here to stay.
We caught up with Chris at this year's chef congress Identita Golose in Italy, to find out more about what goes into a life spent growing, cooking and writing about food.
Do you describe yourself as a farmer that cooks or a cook who farms?
I think I’m more of a cook that farms because the cooking supports my farming habit. I’ve worked, I’ve cooked for a living and been a private chef, I’ve run restaurants, I’ve done consulting and that always supports whatever my farming habit is that year. Every year, the farm is different. This past year, we [raised] rabbits and grew flowers and we had a composting programme. But the year before I was promoting my cookbook and running a restaurant, I was just growing herbs, basically for the restaurant. My farming practices change every year based on what I’m doing and what I’m interested in.
What dimension does being a chef and a producer give your food?
It gives you control. It allows you to harvest vegetables at the exact moment you want them and treat them differently. It gives you the ability to be extremely thrifty… so nothing goes to waste. I really love raising rabbits, it’s amazing to feed them the food scraps and waste from the restaurant – they fertilise the fields. Rabbits are the future, in a lot of ways, I hope. They’re the only animal protein that I know of that you don’t have to buy feed for. They have a 100% vegetarian diet.
How do you get people excited about fresh farm produce?
When it comes to selling vegetables you need to educate people about how to cook them and how to make them delicious, about why it’s important to support the small farms. We need to educate people about the nutritional value of eating something that was harvested hours ago instead of something that came from South America three weeks before. I’ve been lucky: I developed really good people skills. I’ve been able to connect with people, articulate it and explain it. I love nothing more than working at the farmer’s market booth for the farm and just being able to talk to people all day about food.
Being both a chef and a farmer, do you feel double the satisfaction or double the pressure?
I feel like most successful people I know are inherently insecure; I suffer from that with everything that I do. There are chefs that are so hardcore they never leave the kitchen and they like living that certain life and those are the people that symbolise being a chef. There are farmers that are outside all day. It’s like farmers are poor, that martyr thing, you have to live a certain way, if you don’t get up at 5am you’re not a real farmer – all that stuff sort of gets in your head. Then there are writers. There are martyrs in all businesses.
I’m a martyr in all three. When I‘m writing I worry I’m not spending enough time cooking or farming. I don’t know if I’m projecting it or if it’s true, but, because I farm, I feel like I must prove myself as a chef repeatedly because I do these other things. I have a non-traditional background in all. The most success I had was when I when running the restaurant, farm and book – I coordinated everything at the same time. We were feeding hundreds and thousands of people, we were producing the most we ever had.
What are your thoughts on Dan Barber’s idea that recipes should be written at a seed level? (see Dan Barber's honey nut squash here)
I think there are a few things Dan Barber’s doing that are so important. I feel like people are cooking less and less, and they have less knowledge about cooking, so any sort of education that gets someone excited is good. It’s like a positive feedback cycle. If you cook something delicious and it tastes delicious and it makes people happy then it’s good. People look at cooking as a task or as a chore or work and that needs to change too, so education about food on any level can only be of benefit.
What are your thoughts on the farm to table movement?
I think there is fatigue right now in the farm to table movement, which is unfortunate. Whenever there’s a fad, people jump onto it and I think a lot of people jumped onto the farm to table conversation for the wrong reasons, so the movement lost some of its integrity. I think the conversations about food waste both in small communities and large cities and countries are important. I think chefs and consumers are getting involved in that. It’s going to be something we have to do across the globe before we destroy resources even more.
What’s next for you?
If I can continue to do good work, then I’d love to write another book. I want to write and write. I had such a positive reaction to my writing about food and culture. I think it’s just going to be a book about food in the style of Gabrielle Hamilton. Or some of these people that really write about food.