Old MacDonald had a farm, and on that farm he had some cows. But in today's world of 99-cent fast-food menus, both Old MacDonald and the independent chefs using his beef and milk face an uphill economic battle.
As Charlotte's food scene has exploded, another quieter phenomenon has occurred in the background. All over the region, small farms and restaurants are reaching out to support each other in the face of larger competitors with bigger pockets. Whether we eaters know it or not, we all benefit from these collaborations.
Local food doesn't get much more artisanal than Uno Alla Volta cheese. Every round of mozzarella and burrata takes shape under the large yet nimble hands of former chef Zack Gadberry. Along with his ricotta and richly flavorful cultured butter, they emerge from milk Gadberry has carefully sourced from North Carolina dairies. Yet even as his products have been gobbled up by chefs and consumers alike, Gadberry remained unsatisfied.
"I was kind of getting bored making the same six, eight, 10 cheeses," he says. He and his wife Victoria had already discussed expanding, particularly acquiring a cave for aging cheeses, when "Jeff [Holton] just kind of fell into our lap."
The owner of Holton Hollow, a family-owned dairy going back several generations, had recently lost his own on-site cheesemaker. Sitting unused on the farm in Mooresville — aside from hundreds of gallons of potential milk production — were a cheesemaking room and aging facility.
"It was just the perfect combination of everything we needed," says Gadberry. He and Victoria ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to help Holton get fences and equipment repaired, and used their own funds to purchase a pasteurizer. Soon, they hope to bring to market aged cheeses, yogurt and keffir, while Holton is able to re-expand his herd and remain happily in the dairy business.
Sixty miles away in New Salem, another bovine bunch is also benefitting from some chef collaboration. Krenz Ranch, built on family tradition imported from Oklahoma, has spent the past dozen years developing a small herd of Angus-Hereford cows bred for tender, well-marbled beef. The small ranch processes about two animals a month, selling to area chefs wanting North Carolina meat.
Speaking of chefs, the name Krenz might ring a bell. That's because when not fixing fences, part-owner Matthew Krenz fixes breakfast, lunch and dinner as Chef de Cuisine at The Asbury restaurant in Uptown. As one person embodying both sides of the collaboration, he's well placed to understand the needs on each end. The chef half knows what sells on a menu, but the rancher half knows there's more to a cow than steaks.
"I refuse to piecemeal an animal out for that reason because I want to honor the animal," he says, explaining why he sells strictly by the half-cow to restaurants like Heirloom and Kindred.
Krenz uses his network of fellow chefs to find those with both the interest and expertise to use plenty of non-steak cuts, through braising, charcuterie and in-house grinding. "If you're just a rancher," he says, "you're missing out on a pretty important part of the process, when you're sending it out to a table. And if you're just a chef, you're missing out on the whole life of that animal."
It's not just cows that could use a little help finding their way to market. The proprietors of Coldwater Creek Farm, primarily a grower of organic vegetables in Gold Hill, have collaborated for years with nearby Cackleberry Farm. They bring the dairy's eggs and cheese to farmers markets in exchange for space to raise pigs. Last year, Coldwater added grains to its plant crops and struck up another symbiotic relationship with Sara Hord of Millstone Bake House in Davidson.
The farmers and restaurant owners got to know each other at the Davidson Farmers Market, and when Coldwater needed an inspected commercial kitchen to grind wheat and corn, collaboration followed naturally. Today, in exchange for access to Hord's kitchen during the restaurant's off days, the farmers plant special crops for the Millstone menu.
"Right now she's doing a radicchio salad special because that's what she asked us to grow," says Coldwater co-owner Brad Hinckley. Now Coldwater offers its customers flour and grits hand-milled from locally grown wheat and corn, and the chef has her own boutique produce supplier.
Instead of seeing each other as competitors for our food dollar, these area businesses have teamed up to create a self-sustaining network of edibles that Charlotte should be proud of. Whether it's local grains, quality beef or aged cheeses, we're all going to eat better for it.