On the back of every menu at the Inns of Aurora, printed below a map of the Finger Lakes region, is a message from Executive Chef Patrick Higgins.
"Respect for ingredients, for farmers, and for our shared environment is the foundation for a good meal," it reads. "That's why ... we make everything from scratch whenever possible, and why we source from local purveyors and responsible harvesters."
That message was added to the menu in January 2016, along with a list of over a dozen local farms. Meryl Eriksen, the director of food and beverage, said it was all part of an effort to highlight the growing farm-to-table trend in the region — a trend that encourages restaurants to buy as much local produce, meat and dairy as possible.
Farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, specialty agricultural producers, bakeries, wineries ... Cayuga County has all of them, and in num…
For the past eight years, Eriksen said the Inns of Aurora has worked with nearly 20 local farms to create a unique menu featuring things like house-cured meats, wine grapes and artisanal cheeses, products that have become more and more popular with diners.
"Our guests look for farm-to-table ... and we really think the best food is coming from our region," she said, noting that more than 80 percent of their ingredients are local. "They really want to know where their food is coming from and where it's cared for so they can feel good about eating it."
But farm-to-table is about more than a healthy meal, Lou and Merby Lego said — it’s about flavor and freshness, too.
The owners of Elderberry Pond, the Legos said they’d always wanted to own a farm, and in 1983, the couple purchased 100 acres on Center Street Road in Sennett. Then, two years later, they opened a small store on the property, thinking it would be a nice way to sell their goods.
“As we started to do more salads and things to sell in the store, people would come in and say, ‘Is there a place we can sit down somewhere?’” Lou Lego recalled. “And it evolved into this restaurant, which was entirely new to us. ... It turned out to be a lot more than we ever anticipated.”
Since opening the Restaurant at Elderberry Pond in 2004, the Legos said they’ve experimented with hundreds of crops for their menu. But now, instead of cooking based on what they grow, the Legos grow based on what they cook.
For example, Lou Lego said their son, Christopher — the chef at Elderberry Pond — wanted to make a garlic bruschetta for the menu, but the garlic they grew wasn’t ideal for his recipe. So, in order to find the best one, the Legos planted 17 varieties of garlic for Christopher to try.
“We did the same thing with apples,” Lou Lego said. “We asked ourselves: What apple is best for pie? What apple is best for juice? What’s the best salad apple? And we did this trial that took us a year and a half and baked 60 or 70 pies with 100 varieties of apples and had people test them.”
And what they found, he said, was a remarkable difference in flavor.
“The feedback we get at the restaurant is, ‘It’s like food used to taste,’” Lou Lego said. “When people are leaving the restaurant, they say they’d forgotten what a potato tastes like — a sort of earthy taste and flavor that you won’t find in a grocery store.”
“Guests have a real appreciation for what a real tomato tastes like versus one that was grown somewhere else and shipped here and ripened on the truck on the way,” Merby Lego added. “There’s been a gradual degradation of taste in food that’s been trucked all over the country.”
That’s why the Legos said they’ve put together a presentation for farmers across the Northeast — to share dozens of their recipes with other farms and restaurants in order to promote the farm-to-table movement.
At a conference earlier this month, the couple presented around 45 recipes to members of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. Lou Lego said they hoped to offer a unique perspective on the trend as both farmers and restaurant owners.
“A farmer selling to a restaurant should really develop food around the recipes,” he said. “We have done several restaurant sessions to help train farmers what to grow for restaurants.”
However, despite the growing momentum of farm-to-table, both the Legos and Eriksen said there are challenges to serving 100 percent farm-fresh food.
At Elderberry Pond, Lou Lego said it all comes down to cost.
“The downside is that it costs a lot more to grow and cultivate food than you can buy it for (at a store),” he said. “They sell hams around Easter time for a dollar a pound. … We couldn’t even begin to grow our pigs, raise them all summer and smoke the ham for that price. So that really hurts the margin at the restaurant.”
But at the Inns of Aurora, Eriksen said, there is an issue of quantity, which is why they work with a broker who buys and sells food from dozens of local farms.
“It’s hard for the farmers around here to keep up with the demand,” she said, noting that it is especially challenging to get a consistent quantity of meat. "But we love the farm-to-table concept. It's important to us."
"People are worried about the food that they get so a lot of restaurants have gone to farms to get that," Lou Lego added. "I think it's changed for the better ... and it's a great market for local farms."