The Collaborators: the Businessman, the Farmer & the Chef at Root of Agricola

By | November 01, 2013
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Chef Josh Thomsen is something of an oddity among Americans – he has been eating beets (and loving them) since he was 3 years old. In light of this, perhaps it's not surprising that beets have become a mainstay on the menu of Princeton's Agricola, where he has been executive chef since the restaurant opened in spring 2013. Thomsen's menu offers not only entrées in which the beets are immediately recognizable, such as slow-roasted beets with goat cheese and potato terrine, but also burgers served with beet ketchup.

Thomsen's relationship with the beets he serves runs deeper still. Because Agricola's owner, Jim Nawn, also owns a vegetable farm just down the road – Great Road Farm in Skillman – Thomsen has virtually unlimited access to the freshest vegetables. In a pinch, the time between a beet's harvest and the moment it hits his kitchen can be a matter of minutes.

On the other end of this relationship sits Steve Tomlinson, Great Road Farm's manager. Before the season, Tomlinson and Thomsen started a dialog about what the farm can grow and how the restaurant might use it. Thomsen even pored over seed catalogs, marking for Tomlinson varieties he was interested in, including candy-striped beets and multi-colored carrots.

In the restaurant business, the practice of "farm to table" is rarely so intimate – and intertwined – as it is for Agricola and Great Road Farm. If through the years both the restaurant and the farm prosper, it will largely be the result of careful planning, skillful cooking and some good design.

The Businessman

First, it should be noted that neither the restaurant nor the farm are limited by each other – Jim Nawn has been careful to allow both to develop relationships and enterprises beyond his own group. Tomlinson sells at farmers' markets and runs a small CSA out of the farm, while Thomsen is free to source meat and produce from wherever he pleases. Indeed, both Thomsen and Tomlinson stress the fact that Nawn has given each of them enormous latitude to plan and experiment in an atmosphere of collaboration described as "constantly evolving."

It was in 2010 that Nawn, a businessman, decided to sell his 37 successful Panera Bread franchises. He already owned the land that would become Great Road Farm, and he also knew he wanted to stay in the hospitality business, this time by opening a restaurant of his own. Then he discovered what seemed like the perfect space, the building that had housed Lahiere's in Princeton for nearly 90 years.

In order to prepare for a restaurant that, unlike Panera, would have no predetermined menu, Nawn enrolled in an eight-month culinary arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. At the end of those eight months, he knew he wanted his restaurant to feature "rustic American cuisine." Entrées would be straightforward and recognizable – and feature seasonal vegetables and other products straight from the farm. The restaurant would have a menu "which read as American" with a limited and manageable numbers of offerings, and which would be changed every three or four weeks. Taste would be preeminent, along with price point.

Then Nawn set out to create a team.

The Farmer

In hiring Tomlinson to run Great Road Farm, Nawn found a farmer who had already begun to experiment with supplying a local restaurant, and who was "enthralled with working with a chef and seeing the vegetables transformed into a delicious meal."

Tomlinson brought much more than enthusiasm to the farm. He had come to agriculture by a circuitous route, first studying furniture and product design at Pratt Institute and then, with a partner, operating a design company that produced furniture and other products. His other day jobs included working in woodshops, managing the warehouse of an eco-friendly building-supply company, and working for the artist Christo on his "The Gates" project in Central Park. Tomlinson began looking for a way to marry what he calls his "com passion for the environment" with his skills in systems design – and farming seemed like the perfect choice. As an intern, he worked under the tutelage of experienced small-scale farmers, most recently at North Slope Farm in East Amwell, and he also studied permaculture, a style of farming in which the farmer seeks to mimic processes and relationships found in nature.

The system that Tomlinson has installed at Great Road Farm is one he thinks of as "beyond organic."

"We say we are 'beyond organic' because of Elliot Coleman's paper of the same name," Tomlinson explains, referring to a 2002 article in the newsletter of Coleman's Four Seasons Farm. "Many organic farms spray organic pesticides," Tomlinson goes on. "We farm as naturally as we can, using compost as our fertilizer and not spraying our plants with any pesticide. I think it becomes a slippery slope when organic treatments are reflecting conventional practices."

Upon visiting Great Road Farm, one can't help but notice that the farm does feel uncommonly accessible. There's no black plastic here – much of the weeding is done by hand by Tomlinson and his team of two workers – and the farm equipment too is scaled to the farm's 3.5 acres under cultivation. A small Kubota tractor does much of the heavy lifting, while other parts of the farm are tended with a walk-behind rototiller. The rows are straight and the crops are plentiful, but no one part of the farm is so big that three workers can't handle any task and then move on to the next.

"Nature tinkers, it doesn't engineer," Nawn says of the size and scope of the farming operation he owns and Tomlinson has designed. "The pace of the farm has to be nature's pace, not the pace of human engineering."

The Chef

Next, Nawn's team needed an executive chef. Enter Josh Thomsen, whose aspiration to become a chef was first recorded in his sixthgrade yearbook. Thomsen is originally from Bergen County, but had not lived in the East for over a decade. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he had moved west, honing his skills with some of the country's most prominent chefs in California and Las Vegas, including Thomas Keller and Michael Mina. In 2010, while executive chef at The Claremont Hotel Club & Spa in Berkeley, he was named a Rising Star Chef by StarChefs.

Nawn and Thomsen both knew chef Sam Hazen of Veritas in New York City, and soon enough the connection, and then the job offer, were made. Thomsen arrived in Princeton in the summer of 2012, nearly a year before Agricola would open. He jumped right in – while designing his menu, he tasted as many as possible of the 200 vegetable varieties Tomlinson grows. Thomsen also immediately began pickling vegetables, producing pickled beets, beans, cauliflower, pearl onions, sweet peppers, carrots, radishes, celeriac and cucumbers. A year later, the results of his efforts can be seen adorning the restaurant's windows and shelves, its menus, and even some of its signature mixed drinks.

Knowing that Great Road Farm would not be able to supply all he needed for the restaurant, Thomsen began to assemble a network of local and regional food suppliers. Agricola's mushrooms now come from Princeton-based Shibumi Farms, dairy products from Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley and Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, and honey from Tassot Apiaries in Milford. Bread comes from Sullivan Street Bakery and Amy's Bread, both in New York City. Thomsen also sources from Zone 7, a distribution network of produce from New Jersey and Pennsylvania farmers.

But not everything is procured locally. "Farm-to-table is not always local," Thomsen says. "It's about quality and taste, not always geography." To that end, much of the restaurant's protein comes from slightly further reaches, including poultry from farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Angus beef from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, veal from a Colorado farm, and certified Berkshire pork from Eden Farms in Iowa.

Thomsen and Tomlinson still keep in close contact. When Tomlinson grew a bumper crop of Napa cabbage, the restaurant began making kimchi to accompany a pork dish. And likewise, when a specific vegetable proves particularly popular in one of Thomsen's dishes – Shishito peppers being one example – Tomlinson makes plans to grow more of them.

Though many of the dishes Thomsen has received acclaim for through the years are squarely red-blooded – braised beef short rib and his pork chop among them – it's clear that the vegetables he cooks with are now not only close at hand, but central to his mission.

"Vegetables are not second-class citizens," Thomsen declares. "There is a battle of supremacy between vegetables and the 'center of the plate' protein. Vegetables need to be as great or even better."

Precisely 4.8 miles down the road, Tomlinson, the vegetable farmer, must like what he hears.


11 Witherspoon St., Princeton

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