Accidental Agrarian

Chef Neal Foley of The Kitchen Garden Company

Chef Neal Foley of The Kitchen Garden Company

When I initially wrote FOOD JOBS, I wanted to show that using one’s innate skills to follow one’s culinary passion would lead to finding life’s riches. I insisted on including personal stories, (much to the despair of some), to demonstrate that even the most fabled culinary success is often meandering yet deeply rewarding.

The culinary community is one woven of many story threads that should be shared, from the Farm City so elegantly described by author Novella Carpenter to self-described accidental agrarian and gastropodist, Chef Neal Foley, and everything in between.

Is there such a food job as an accidental agrarian, you ask? You decide. Neal is a person of many culinary talents. He is a chef, a farmer, a teacher, a podcaster, a philosopher. His story begins with The Kitchen Garden Company.

The Kitchen Garden Company (KGC) began as a catering company but evolved into a private chef services and consulting business more than anything. Since forming the company six years ago, the hobby of growing vegetables and raising animals for ourselves merged into raising crops for use in the business and selling pigs, chicken, duck and rabbit.

Normally, throughout the growing season, we ‘successionally’ plant vegetables not only for home use but in response to demand for private dinners. So, if I know I will be feeding 10 people a month or more down the road, I will plant lettuces, radishes, etc. ready to use. Then I pull in whatever else is growing in the gardens–fresh herbs, edible flowers, perennials like sorrel, rhubarb, berries….whatever is in season and suits the menu.

In addition to cooking, we also raise pigs and sell them on the hoof–essentially raising them for someone else. The rules allow us to sell the animal living. The customer pays for slaughter and butchering and ends up with some exceptional meat–either a whole or half hog–for a very reasonable price. Along the way we raise a pig or two for ourselves, and use them to demonstrate on-farm slaughter and home butchery techniques as well as sausage making and bacon curing.

While we have always raised chickens for eggs, we’ll sell any extra to help pay for the feed. Our own eggs remain free, but we have occasionally raised chickens for meat. When grain prices skyrocketed I got into raising meat rabbits because they grow quicker on less food and are easier to process. I can only legally sell the rabbits I process as dog-food to customers. There seem to be a lot of happy dogs out there. But we eat quite a bit of rabbit ourselves. It is a lean, protein rich meat which is very cost-effective and simple to raise.

Culinary Training

From an early age my mother had taught my brothers and I how to cook, but it wasn’t until I was out on my own that things really took off. I began collecting cookbooks and inviting friends over to test my creations. As an impoverished college student I knew all about stretching the budget to entertain in style. I went to a rural university and lived off-campus away from town so I didn’t dine out much. Cooking was a matter of feeding myself and saving money as much as it can be at times now.

Over the years I’ve had many restaurant jobs from dishwasher, to waiter, to salad and cold-food prep cook at the Faculty Cafeteria in college. An injury to my back ended a career in construction which was just taking off, so I began to look for other things I enjoyed doing. With the settlement money I received, I went to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. (I had lived in Ireland for a short while years before, and I welcomed the opportunity to return.) Ballymaloe is a small, but world renowned culinary school versed in the basics. It is also centered on an organic farm. While there I also had the opportunity to work at several restaurants. I gained knowledge and improved my skills and speed.

When I returned home I had the confidence to begin The Kitchen Garden Company and cook in private homes. We had already been farming–raising chickens, pigs, cattle–for years. But my experience in Ireland had changed me. There, everything we cooked was fresh; I knew the producers and shopped at year-round farmers’ markets. I realized I should be doing the same, here with my own business. It has taken sometime to realize this vision and it hasn’t always been a welcomed thing, but times are changing, as they say.

Becoming An Accidental Agrarian & Teacher

Over the past four years my vision has really taken shape. Immediately after returning  from culinary school I began doing some teaching in kitchen stores and the like–simple stuff like how to make a quick, easy home cooked meal for company after work, or cooking for students. I also began offering in-home cooking school parties where I’d show up and teach a host and his or her guests how to make some dishes which they would eat afterward. It was immense fun.

2010 New Year's Duckfest at Kitchen Garden Company

Upcoming 2010 New Year's Duckfest at KGC- See: The Gastrocast for Details

I also began podcasting as another way to share my knowledge and experiences with food. It didn’t take long before my life began slipping into shows: the daily chores; raising animals; haying; the whole rhythm of having a “smallholding” on a small, ‘self-sufficientish’ farm. The more I included in my show, The Gastrocast, the more listeners responded.

Along the way I began to realize the state of the food system, if not in the U.S., then the world. I began sharing food-related news items which interested me and that I felt might be of relevance to listeners. Thus, the Gastrocast became “the cooking show about food, farming and the politics of what we eat.” This has had a continuing resonance with my audience and has spawned three blogs: one related to the show; one which is a gateway to the show,  my food and agriculture-related writings; and a third which is just agricultural in nature.

In all of this there has never been a plan, but rather, a loose jumble of ideas. Through the years,  I have managed to find my niche. That has helped me focus on where I need to take my cooking, my farming and my work in bringing all this to the public.

What The Future Holds

Because I currently live on a small island I have kept my business purposefully small. I rely on word of mouth advertising, plus what The Gastrocast can provide in audio, video and web presence. When I started out, I took almost any job that came my way. I gained experience; learned what worked and what didn’t. For a while I was a private chef in a mansion in the Madison Park neighborhood of Seattle. The money was great but the travel and time away from my family and farm eventually took its toll.

The lessons I learned there, my work in various restaurants and in Ireland continue to carry me forward as I focus on building an on-farm cooking and farming school. There are many shapes this venture might take, but the core philosophy behind the idea is to get people in touch with where food comes from, be they chefs, home cooks or students.

If we can all learn where ingredients begin, help produce them ourselves and learn how to treat them with respect, then we can spread this knowledge to others and gain back some of what’s been lost in the past 40 years of industrialized food. I really think that people who cook for themselves and their loved ones, who raise their own food–even if it’s a small head of lettuce, a couple of carrots or a bug-chewed, giant head of cabbage–achieve an incredible sense of accomplishment that follows them the rest of their lives. Working with our hands and with our senses is very important to who we can become as people. This is what I want to convey through my future work.

We are currently in the process of selecting a site which would provide an adequate farm landscape that enables us to continue to be self-sufficient and raise food for ourselves, The Kitchen Garden Company and others. We also want it to be a venue for events, workshops and dinners and classes. Once we find the spot, we can think about training culinary students and staff and building the new venture. The great thing about the podcast, the websites, and now Twitter, is that I can share my message from where ever I am, and attract a new audience as I go along.

Advice to Others

I guess I would stress getting out there and sharing your passion in an honest way. Meet with farmers, producers, cooks of all kinds and find out what’s motivating people and sharing your thoughts and feelings as you build a network around you. Once that network begins to grow and spread, you have something to build on. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or to contact people who have ideas you believe in or people that inspire you.

Neal’s story continues. You can visit him at http://kitchengardens.net or http://agrari.us and use the contact form, follow him on twitter– @podchef, or email him at podchef@gmail.com.

4 thoughts on “Accidental Agrarian

  1. Irena, you picked another winner. Thanks to Twitter, I have the pleasure to be working with Neal, a truly committed and full-service farmer/chef on Duckfest 2010. He may be an ‘accidental’ agrarian, but he is a dedicated one!

  2. Neal is an inspiration to all of us, Irena. He must be one of the hardest workers I know, even if he does occasionally lose all his teaspoons. I still have Gastrocast #3 Out-takes on my iPod for days when I need a laugh.

    Pat
    Melbourne

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