If you enjoy gardening, you appreciate what it means to reap your own harvest and prepare it for the dinner table. However, creating a daily restaurant menu from fresh ingredients is a more challenging concept. At the Hancock Inn in Hancock, New Hampshire, proprietors Marcia and Jarvis Coffin are offering a farm-to-table menu for the third consecutive summer this year; the result of relationships forged with farms in the region.
The Coffins, self-proclaimed foodies who love to cook and entertain, left their careers in media and advertising in Boston to purchase the Hancock Inn five years ago. “One of the components of the sale that was attractive to us was the existence of the restaurant,” says Jarvis. “That, and the fact that the Inn had been here for over 200 years.”
Upon purchasing the Inn, the couple immediately sought to find a way to support the agricultural community – and local economy – by introducing a farm-to-table menu.
But the timing wasn’t right. “The supply chain wasn’t there,” says Jarvis. “It wasn’t reliable.”
Then, Jan Buonanno, who operates Hand Drawn Farm, worked with the Coffins to design and plant a garden in the Inn’s back-field.
“That’s where it turned around for us,” says Jarvis. Buonanno, a graduate of Cornell University’s agriculture program, designed and planted the Inn’s raised bed garden and continues to oversee its operations. Buonanno works with the Inn’s executive chef, Rob Grant, to determine what will be planted each year. “Chef Grant is looking for plants that will make the biggest impact on the menu, whether fresh herbs, edible flowers, or heirloom tomatoes,” says Buonanno.
This season, Buonanno will be adding raspberries, asparagus, and cuca melons (grape-sized cucumbers) to the Inn’s garden. While the garden supplies many of the restaurant’s ingredients for its dishes, produce from other farmers is needed to augment the menu. Over the past two years, Buonanno and Chef Grant have established connections with over 20 suppliers who provide the restaurant with everything from beef and lamb, produce and cheese, to chocolate and coffee.
Grant, who began working at the Inn as a sous chef 14 years ago, has made his own transition from writing a menu ahead of season to creating one day-to-day. Just as the harvest is constantly changing and evolving, so are his menus.
For instance, offering an individual cut of meat each evening, such as filet mignon, is not a sustainable goal for farm-to-table restaurateurs. Grant’s menu presents meat from local farms without specific cut descriptions, enabling him to creatively use the whole animal. He’ll process a lamb and half pig and make sauces from the bones, pork rind snacks from the skin, and sausages and burgers from the ground meat.
Seasonal produce availability also demands fluidity. Strawberry season, for example, spans only three weeks, prompting Grant’s creativity to flourish. “I let the ingredients tell me what to do,” he says.
Some of the Hancock Inn’s longtime diners ask after dishes from the previous menu, but most embrace the experience of a fresh, highly nutritious meal with enthusiasm. In fact, diners from across the region seek out the Inn for its seasonal menus. For Jarvis and Marcia Coffin, this is confirmation that they’re on the right track. “We want the restaurant to reflect the rich food culture of this region throughout the seasons,” Marcia shares. “We’re delighted that people share our vision.”