LACONIA — When chef Kevin Halligan was preparing to open The Local Eatery, located in the railroad depot in downtown Laconia, many thought he was crazy to promise an ever-changing menu built primarily on local ingredients. Now, having celebrated a third year in business that is double what his initial business plan projected, he thinks the crazy thing is that no one else has appeared to emulate his success.
If the local farm-to-table restaurants were a mountain range, Local Eatery would be its Everest. With few exceptions, Halligan's food is made from food grown and processed in northern New England, and much of it within a few towns of the restaurant. At this time of year, diners should expect their meal to be 85 to 95 percent locally-sourced. "If we can get it from here, we're getting it from here," he said. "I try to stay true to my mantra, and obviously, it works."
As his doubters expected, it's not the easiest way to stock his pantry. In August and September, his days begin at 9 a.m. and end sometime after midnight. He spends the hours before dinner service prepping both for that night's orders as well as putting away food to serve over the winter months. On Thursday morning, for example, he was poaching and pressure canning pears so that he'll have local fruit to serve in January.
He also has to build and maintain a network of local farmers willing and able to sell to him as well as their CSA and farm stand clientele. It's difficult and frustrating at times, but then there are the local producers he's come to treasure working with, such as White Oak Pond Farm in Holderness, which found a way to grow artichokes exclusively for the Local Eatery.
Lastly, he has to throw out his menu every two weeks to reflect the changing availability of locally-harvested goods. "It's getting harder and harder. I've written 75 menus in three years," he said. During his first few months, he could conjure a new menu within a couple of hours. More recently, it takes a week of brainstorming with his staff. It's more work now, but he concedes that the end product is better for it.
Halligan said the best way to describe his cuisine is "American farm-to-table," which means, "I totally pay homage to the quality of the produce." Kitchen production is surprisingly simple and familiar. Vegetables are often just sprinkled with salt and pepper, drizzled with oil and roasted. Yet, he often hears people say that they're the best they've ever tasted. Recently, a woman asked him what his secret was to his carrots. He shrugged and suggested she visit her local farmers' market. "I think people taste the quality. People say, 'Oh my God, it's so good.'... it's the way carrots should be."
His 35-seat restaurant has seen sales increase by 30 percent each of the three years he's been in operation. Now, his only regret is that he has to turn people away, and he scratches his head when he sees a pale, flavorless tomato served when the real McCoy can be had at the nearest farm stand.
On Sept. 27, Halligan will partner with Smith Orchard in Gilford to serve "Breakfast in the Orchard." Tickets are $35 per person and available at either Quik Laundry in Laconia, the Local Eatery or Smith Orchard.
Charlie Burke of Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, who heads the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection, says that he's not surprised by Halligan's success at the Local Eatery.
''Before he ever opened we worked with him on the certification process. He's done a great job there and is a strong advocate for fresh and locally-sourced food,'' says Burke.
He said that the Farm to Restaurant Connection, an all-volunteer group which works with New Hampshire Made to promote Granite State products and links farm and food producers with restaurants to make it easier for them to use local products in their menus has come quite a way in the last several years with its certification program and educational efforts.
He says that statewide there are some places taking the lead, like Jeff Paige at the Cotton Restaurant in Manchester, Trish Taylor at the Grappone Center in Concord and a new Manchester restaurant, The Foundry which is owned by Dean Kamen.
Another Lakes Region restaurant which he says is at the forefront of the Farm to Table effort is Tavern 27 on Parade Road in Laconia, which marked its fifth anniversary on May 5 of this year.
Owners Ray Simanson and Leslie Judice run an American Tapas Restaurant and say they strive to use local farmers and purveyors for their ingredients, organic when possible and that no trans-fats, artificial flavorings, or preservatives are used in their kitchen.
Their menu features delectable tapas, also known as small plates, such as inside out poppers, chickpea fries, duck confit rolls, Scotch eggs, chicken skewers, spicy cuke rolls as well as seared scallops, lobster salad, chicken salad and steak, pork and fish dishes, many salads as well as tavern made sourdough pizzas and a full range of organic and gluten free items.
The restaurant is housed in a 1781 building with exposed beams which was originally known as The Post Tavern.
Ray grew up in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts where he can remember a local milkman making deliveries while Leslie grew up in southern Louisiana, where food was all locally grown.
At one time they operated a 22-room bed and breakfast in Boulder, Colo., which they sold and acquired the 20-acre Parade Road property, which had formerly been the Tavern on the Green, which had a nine-hole mini-golf course. They purchased the Parade Road property on July 2009 with the idea of renting it out to someone who would operate a restaurant. When that didn't look like it was going to happen they decided to open a restaurant themselves.
''Having a tapas bar was kind of a whimsical idea because there was nothing around here like that. We wanted to serve organic and clean food,'' says Leslie. The couple built up a relationship with local farmers and received some unexpected help from them just before they opened.
''We threw a dinner for them and I remember going outside where two of the guys were having a smoke and I heard one of them say to the other, 'I'll see you in the morning at 8:30.' We had run out of money to finish painting the building and they showed up with a power spray washer the next morning and took all of the old paint off. Then there were about 12 people who showed up with paint brushes who painted the whole building. It was like an old-fashioned barn raising,'' said Ray.
In 2011 the couple started The Mystic Meadows Garden Project, a half acre organic garden, growing a wide variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, corn, melons, squash, herbs using heirloom and rare seeds, all organic. They plan to open a greenhouse this winter and are looking for farming partners to make greater agricultural use of the property.
Andy and Martina Howe of Beans and Greens Farm of Gilford have been hosting a Farm to Table event featuring foods grown right on the farm for five years now. The dinners are held in a meadow at Timber Hill Farm on Gunstock Hill Road which provides a panoramic view of Lake Winnipesaukee. Guests take a tractor-drawn wagon ride to the meadow, where there is dancing to live music and s'mores by a bonfire to end the evening.
This year's event, held on July 24, featured food prepared by the The Common Man Inn of Plymouth's award-winning culinary team including farm fresh appetizers, Beans and Greens sweet breads, freshly picked salads, ratatouille, a Tofu entree, farm-raised chicken and Beans and Greens corn.
Beans and Greens also hosted a Thunder Moon Pig Roast and dance at its pavilion next to its farmstand in Gilford Meadows in early July which featured music by the Crunchy Western Boys and a barbecue dinner in late July featuring roast corn on the cob, barbecued chicken and sides which was also held at the Pavilion.
Moulton Farm in Meredith also holds Farm to Table events which provide true "field to fork" dining underneath the farm's tent while enjoying a view of the fields. The meals prepared by their talented farm chef Jonathan Diola who prepares dishes featuring foods grown and harvested earlier in the day.
Guests also have the option to join the pre-dinner tractor ride and tour through the fields.
Fall farm to table dinners are scheduled on Wednesday, Sept. 16, and Tuesday, Oct. 20.
Moulton Farm also hosts outdoor brunch buffet featuring seasonal fruit, baked goods, and egg and breakfast meat dishes prepared by the farm's kitchen and bakery staff.
"We're very fortunate to have a talented baker, Trish Lutkus, who trained at Johnson & Wales University," says Moulton. "Trish's baked goods are wonderful and eating them in a beautiful farm setting makes them even better."
The farm brunch buffet opens at 9 a.m. and closes at noon. Remaining dates this year are Sept. 13, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, Oct. 18 and Nov. 15.