Nearly any restaurant can call itself "farm-to-table,” but Tusk, Eater PDX’s Editor’s Choice for 2017 Restaurant of the Year, actually lives up to the name: Executive chef Sam Smith works incredibly closely with farmers, helping to bring new crops to Oregon, and to eaters. The resulting flavors cannot be faked or replicated.
Smith describes his style of cooking as "an approach," rather than a particular cuisine; the Middle Eastern flavors he learned while cooking at Philadelphia's Zahav, the “finest” restaurant to experience Israeli cuisine in the U.S., are merely a jumping-off point for what Tusk calls “locally sourced, aggressively seasonal cuisine.”
Man'oushe, an aromatic, pizza-like flatbread, is constantly updated to reflect the latest crops (it's best to get it with the egg on top). The brunch-time grain bowl is loaded with local sprouted barley and, right now, Oregon radishes and bell peppers. For dessert, soft serve ice creams feature seasonal fruits.
The best way to communicate the intensity of Tusk's flavors is to highlight the huge number of Oregonians — chefs and restaurateurs, farmers and agricultural scientists — working together to keep local ingredients local, neither imported or out of season.
"I always remind my staff," says Smith, "everything we use comes from real people who work very hard at something they believe in.”
A New Breed of Farmer
In 2014, while laying the groundwork for Tusk, Smith was visiting Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon, when co-owner and farmer Anthony Boutard broke out an unfamiliar melon. The Ave Bruma tasted as sweet as many summer melons but with one key benefit: It could grow through most of the winter, delivering succulent summer nibbles all the way through February.
Recognizing its value, Smith immediately wanted to place an order, but Boutard said it wasn't available. The melon had been briefly introduced from Europe to America in Thomas Jefferson's time, and after years of neglect, its quality had faded. With the seeds available to him, Boutard couldn't yet promise a flavorful crop.
But Smith was undaunted — and perhaps even a little obsessed. He spent months following up. "I essentially begged him to let us have a few," he says.
Boutard finally offered a deal. "Here is my proposition," he wrote in an email. "I will deliver all of the melons I have to you gratis. I would like you and your staff to separate out the seed of the melons you would want to buy next year."
By saving and returning the seeds from only the sweetest melons, Smith helped Ayers Creek Farm breed a better tasting crop. The farm planted the select seeds, and the resulting melons — now in high demand and available for purchase — were more reliable.
Now, each winter, Smith serves the juicy, flavorful melon as part of his seasonal menu.
"We've dressed it with Aleppo pepper, Katz vinegar, hazelnuts, and scallions," says Smith, "as well as with radishes, pistachios, and sumac. It also makes really delicious granita for dessert."
The Culinary Breeding Network
One of the main hurdles for bringing more flavorful ingredients to diners is the deceptively simple task of getting farmers, chefs, and eaters in the same room (farmers work long hours in the country, while chefs work long hours in the city). But Portland has an ace in the hole: the Culinary Breeding Network.
Founded by Lane Selman, the group brings together the chefs and farmers who will decide which fruits and vegetables will land on your dinner plate in the coming decades. Smith is one of the local chefs wholeheartedly pitching in to the effort.
"What Lane [Selman, founder of the Culinary Breeding Network] is doing is some of the most incredible work in the country," says Smith. "I believe she is spearheading the future development of produce in the U.S."
With a focus on the annual Variety Showcase, the Culinary Breeding Network has numerous outreach programs that connect chefs, farmers, and eaters. If farmers are debating the best pepper variety to plant for the biggest sales at market, they can bring the options to locals chefs for feedback. And chefs don't only focus on flavor; they take into account shape and size, with an eye for which is the fastest to prep and causes the least food waste. They also test the crops in a variety of cooking methods. Then, for the ultimate test, they present the plates to diners.
Smith says that the farmers who take part in the program welcome the constructive criticism. “It is impossible for them to taste every piece of everything they sell,” he notes, “and pretty much all of them are perfectionists like we are at the restaurant.”
It is this emphasis on collaboration that ultimately sets Tusk apart in a city of farm-to-table dining.
“It's through mutual respect and excitement,” says Smith, “that we are able to offer better and better produce, and therefore better food."