June 15, 2017

Appreciating farm to fork

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Babcock Ranch grows organically with Chef Rashty


He was the only possible choice, really. When Babcock Ranch food and beverage director Matt Seiler was in a position to hire an executive chef for the all-new, eco-friendly, sustainable solar city, the stack of resumes consisted of one. Seiler had recognized at once how Chef David Rashty always “forged strong relationships with ranchers and farmers to locally source products for his menu.”

“We get along really well, too,” added Seiler. “We have the same New York upbringing, the same mentality, we eat the same things. We both know how to think bigger picture and see the end goal.”

Rashty, former chef de cuisine at Jack’s Farm to Fork at Fort Myers Beach, is, in fact, our local Mr. Sustainable. “I was approached over a year ago about this concept. They planted the seed, so to speak.”

He’s come a long way on his journey toward an environmentally sustainable food system. Ironically, this same guy who now eschews processed foods once launched 32 Domino’s. But when his dad got pancreatic cancer, David dropped everything to come home and cook for him during his final months. “My dad never drank, never smoked. Something caused it,” Rashty insists. “It’s 100 percent coming from our food.” And he’s one of a fellowship of chefs who are as committed to doing something about it as Babcock Ranch is to embodying sustainability, energy conservation and living in harmony with nature. Rashty is president of Slow Food Southwest Florida and local leader of Chefs Collaborative, a national network of chefs whose mission is building a better food system — from environmentally sustainable farming and fishing to humane animal husbandry.

“What I do on a plate is one small component of changing the food system in this area,” Rashty said. Now his plate and the picture are much bigger. Rashty and Seiler are already outlining their bigger picture, which will ripple out from the Ranch’s Table & Tap restaurant to multiple on-site hotels and restaurants. Nobody exactly lives there yet, but Babcock ranch’s rustic-chic lakefront restaurant effectively opened the solar town to the public on March 1, drawing 100 diners by word of mouth to sample Rashty’s farm-to-table fare. The next eatery to open later this summer, just down the street, will be Slater’s Goods & Provisions, a community market and cafe with honey from Babcock bees, milk, eggs and locally grown produce by the pound. A package license allows it to sell liquor, wine, beer, even growlers. Its coffee and ice cream shop, Square Scoops, plays on the Founder’s Square name with a cleverly blocky logo of square ice cream scoops.

“It will be kind of a grab-and-go Whole Foods, with breakfast, lunch, dinner and maybe a ramen noodle bar,” said Rashty. Upstairs, The Hatchery entrepreneurial incubator houses a catering kitchen more than 10 times the size of Table & Tap’s. It will begin serving the ultimate healthy school meals to Babcock Neighborhood School on Aug. 1. “Conferences are already being scheduled for the summer,” said Rashty. The Ranch has already become a go-to site for members of the local Slow Food movement.

Roy Beckford of the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, is bringing 350 there in August. In the long term, Rashty hopes to add a speakeasy, a burger bar and a couple of health-conscious food trucks to serve the roughly 1,000 workers on property daily.

In Rashty’s perfectly sustainable world, nothing is wasted. “I’ve always cross-utilized everything,” he said. “We use chicken in three different dishes, bones for soup, extra legs and thighs for specials. Ultimately I want to recycle whatever we can from the kitchen as compost. I want to give back to the soil and to the 5 acres we have to plant for the restaurant and the marketplace.”

Cultivating not only the soil, but also relationships with local purveyors, Rashty works with vendors like Circle C Farm, which supplies the restaurant’s free-range, steroid- and antibiotic-free, non-GMO protein.

“They really do things properly and humanely,” he said. “I visited in the pouring rain, and their cows came walking up in these movable garages with little heaters to keep them warm. The chickens were in different cages for different ages. They kept handing me chickens, but I don’t like to get that close to my food.”

It’s as much of a challenge getting goods delivered to the remote Babcock site as it was to Fort Myers Beach. “Many local fish purveyors don’t want to dedicate a truck to come here, but if purveyors are willing to do business with us, we’ll cultivate the relationship. “And, hey, I have a pickup truck at home! That and 20 more hours in the day, I’d take care of it myself.